Born in Canada, Leonard Cohen was already a published novelist and prize-winning poet before he started singing and songwriting, but Columbia’s A&R department probably didn’t expect him to become very popular when they signed him.
He was in his mid-thirties (which in the hippie ’60s was dangerously approaching old age) and the author of a book of poetry (1956) and two novels – The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966) – when his first album of angst, ancient wisdom and sexual longing appeared.
Sombre, sophisticated and compelling, his debut album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968), was unlike anything else at the time. Its lyrics, rich in complex imagery, were sung in a deep, intimate, hypnotic voice that had the authority of someone used to being listened to.
The album sold more than 100,000 copies and placed the unlikely star firmly on the map.
For his follow-up LP, Songs From A Room (1969), Cohen retreated further into the world of melancholia that characterised his work. Whereas his debut album had contained highlight tracks such as Suzanne (originally a 1966 hit for folkie Judy Collins) and So Long Marianne, his second album was more low key.
Instead, Cohen crafted a collection of narrative efforts that enhanced his claims to be a troubadour to rival Bob Dylan.
Throughout the ten tracks he ruminated on the nature of friendship and more intimate relationships – The Partisan, a song written during World War II, dissected the patriot’s connection with his country, while The Butcher examined the relationship between father and son.
There was also a fair degree of ennui of a romantic nature. “Tonight will be fine” he crooned on the chorus of the closing track, though he added the rejoinder “for a while”. Nancy, a former muse, came off no better in Seems So Long Ago, Nancy, wherein her alleged promiscuity was bandied about.
Songs Of Love And Hate (1971) was a sparse and haunting collection of open wounds, lingering contempt and feverish love that ranks among his most emotionally intense offerings. The line between love and hate has rarely sounded thinner.
Death Of A Ladies’ Man (1977) was cut with producer Phil Spector and was a radical departure from the austere nature of Cohen’s usual work. The pair enjoyed a cordial relationship away from the studio but, eventually, Spector did the final mixes without consulting Cohen.
Over the years, Cohen disassociated himself from the work, and even its strong songs failed to figure in his performances or on compilations.
As a complete contrast, Various Positions (1984) included the song Hallelujah, which was to become Cohen’s signature song, with 300-plus covers, including huge hit versions.
Similarly, Everybody Knows emerged from I’m YourMan (1988) and was later included in the film Pump Up The Volume, helping to bring his work to the attention of a new, younger audience.
Through the 70s and 80s, Cohen did several world tours, always with carefully chosen musicians and instrumentation.
In the 90s he retreated for five years to the Mount Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles, where he took a name translated as ‘Silence’ and adhered to both Buddhism and Judaism.
When he returned to the road in 1998 after a 15-year absence, he had little to show for it. After years of mishandling by his former manager, Kelley Lynch, Cohen had almost nothing in the bank for retirement.
Cohen took her to court, but following a 2004 ruling that she repay $9.5 million in losses accrued, Lynch ignored the order. In 2008, financial desperation forced Cohen to begin touring again for the first time in nearly two decades.
Throughout his career, Cohen issued a total of 14 albums, with the final one, You Want It Darker, released three weeks before his death.
Leonard Cohen passed away on 7 November 2016 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 82.