Remembering Leonard Cohen: Death of a Legend

Paul Nolan recounts the extraordinary saga of drink, drugs, sex, depression, colourful characters, outrageous adventures & unforgettable music that is Leonard's legacy.

In the words of the legendary baseball player Yogi Berra, it’s like déjà vu all over again. For the third – and, one sincerely hopes, last – time in 2016, I have found myself writing a career overview of one of the greatest ever artists in popular music, having recently commenced the process of listening to each of his albums in order.

This time, the jokes weren’t slow in coming amongst friends and colleagues. Could I cue up a playlist of Donald Trump’s speeches perhaps? In the case of Leonard Cohen, despite the inevitable sadness that comes with his death, there is at least the consolation that – unlike David Bowie and Prince – he lived into his eighties and there is no question but that he had an extraordinarily full life.

I belonged to a younger generation of fans who discovered Cohen’s work later in his career. In the days after his death, I wondered how I had first become exposed to his unique brand of genius. I traced it back to an unlikely source: the groundbreaking soundtrack assembled by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor for Natural Born Killers, the hugely controversial 1994 film directed by Oliver Stone, from a script by Quentin Tarantino.

I bought the record in 2004, and it remains one of the best soundtrack albums I’ve ever heard. In an utterly inspired move, Reznor opened the LP with the melancholy strains of ‘Waiting For The Miracle’, a song from Cohen’s 1992 masterpiece, The Future. A song of total spiritual desolation, ‘Waiting For The Miracle’ is that rarest of beasts: a composition where the lyrical content is comprised exclusively of killer lines.

By any measure, the words are incredible: “The maestro says it’s Mozart, but it sounds like bubblegum/ When you’re waiting for the miracle to come”; and this: “Waiting for the miracle, there’s nothing left to do/ I haven’t been this happy since the end of World War 2.” Built around a hypnotic synth rhythm, ‘Waiting For The Miracle’ played like Scott Walker produced by Reznor himself, with lyrics by Samuel Beckett. I was instantly hooked.

Amazingly, I was to discover that Leonard Cohen’s canon was full of songs like this: brilliantly crafted pieces that, through their extraordinary formal rigour, shone new light on subjects like love, sex, politics, war, spirituality and the human condition. And, just occasionally, embraced outright absurdity, because – contrary to popular conception – Leonard sometimes liked nothing better than a good, deep laugh.

There was further evidence of his gifts on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack itself, thanks to the inclusion of the The Future’s title song as the penultimate track. Inspired by the Los Angeles riots of 1992, ‘The Future’ imagined a dystopian scenario where society was oppressed by a nightmarish dictatorial regime. Its lyrics chime eerily with the political climate we inhabit in 2016: “Give me absolute control over every living soul/ And lie beside me baby, that’s an order.”

In time, I would come to regard Cohen as the greatest ever lyricist, an artist whose psychological insight and flair for memorable phrases is more usually found in literature than rock. But before all that, there was a Montreal kid with a love of the great poets…

A Sharply Dressed Young Man

The Leonard Cohen story is anomalous in the annals of rock because, in a medium which fetishes youth, the singer would not commence his musical career until his mid-thirties. Born into a middle-class family in Montreal in 1934, the adolescent Leonard had a love of literature, and particularly writers like WB Yeats, Walt Whitman and Henry Miller. Above all, he venerated the Spanish poet Lorca, whose work he happened upon in a book store aged 15, and after whom he would eventually name his daughter.

After studying at McGill University in Montreal and Columbia in New York, Cohen published several books of poetry as well as two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), the latter causing a minor scandal in the Canadian press due to its explicit sex scenes.

Though Leonard’s apprentice literary efforts received mixed reviews, he did possess a certain charisma that would bloom fully during his musical career. Black and white footage of him shot in Canada during his early years as a writer show a sharply dressed young man, a cigarette permanently drooping from his lip, who – whether getting his hair cut in the local barbers or chatting with his mother in the family living room – carries himself with a notably droll sense of humour. Indeed, in looks and demeanour, he is reminiscent of no one so much as the cult comedian Lenny Bruce.

The poems and novels were barely paying the bills, and – fancying himself as a songwriter – in the mid-’60s Cohen decided to relocate from Canada to Nashville, where he planned to pursue his love of country music. He made it as far as New York.

There, he encountered the Greenwich Village coffeehouse folk scene at its apex, with Bob Dylan the spiritual figurehead. Performing music and poetry at various venues, Cohen struggled to make headway until he played some of his material for the folk singer Judy Collins, who would soon record one of those songs – a dreamy acoustic number called ‘Suzanne’ – and turn it into a hit. This set in motion a train of events that ended with Columbia Records’ John Hammond signing Cohen to the label. Finally, he was ready to record his debut album.

Released between Christmas and the New Year at the end of 1967, Songs From Leonard Cohen was – like David Bowie’s Space Oddity, which arrived 18 months later – heavily in thrall to Dylan. Unlike Bowie’s patchy effort, however, Songs... was a conspicuously great album.

Indeed, the very first track, the aforementioned ‘Suzanne’, is a classic which – in addition to Collins’ version – has been covered by countless other artists, including Nick Cave, Peter Gabriel, Francoise Hardy, Nina Simone and The Flying Lizards. Although Cohen regularly fought with producer John Simon over the arrangements, the latter’s decision to augment the sparse folk rhythms with, variously, flute, mandolin, strings and sundry Middle Eastern instruments was a masterstroke.

Other highlights on an exceptionally strong debut included the atmospheric chamber-piece ‘Master Song’, the haunting ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ and the rousing ‘So Long, Marianne’. The latter was written about Cohen’s Norwegian lover Marianne Ihlen, whom he met on the Greek island of Hydra, a place to which he maintained an attachment throughout his life.

Though Songs From Leonard Cohen hit the top 20 in the UK, it languished in the lower reaches of the Billboard charts in the US, where mainstream success would prove elusive for Cohen until much later. The album was quickly plundered by film directors in need of appropriate musical accompaniment for their visions of existential angst. Robert Altman made the inspired decision to include several of the tracks in his classic arthouse western McCabe & Mrs Miller, a move swiftly replicated by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Beware Of A Holy Whore) and Werner Herzog (Fata Morgana). In somewhat less niche cinematic territory, meanwhile, ‘So Long, Marianne’ would eventually end up in the 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon.

Amphetamine Fuelled Writing Sessions

Cohen was determined that the skeletal arrangements he envisioned for his songs would be realised on the follow-up, an ambition which prompted him to finally move to Nashville. There, he commenced recording with Bob Johnston, a producer noted for the stripped down sound he gave artists like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Paul Simon.

The stark mood of Songs From A Room was certainly telegraphed by the cover, a simple black and white shot of Cohen. Several of the tracks had been composed during amphetamine-fuelled writing sessions in Cohen and Ihlen’s house in Hydra. These included the first track, ‘Bird On The Wire’, one of Cohen’s most celebrated songs, with the immortal opening lines, “Like a bird on the wire/ Like a drunk in a midnight choir/ I have tried in my way to be free.”

Another highlight was ‘Song Of Isaac’, on which Cohen’s trademark fingerpicked guitar was accompanied by eerie strings. The song’s powerful anti-war sentiment was made explicit in lines like, “You who build these altars to sacrifice these children/ You must not do it anymore.”

Released in April 1969, Songs From A Room was critically acclaimed and enjoyed considerable success in the UK, where it narrowly missed out on topping the charts. Cohen undertook his first tour in 1970, hitting the road in Canada and the US and appearing at the UK’s Isle of Wight festival, where he single-handedly stopped a riot after appealing to the agitated crowd for calm.

It set him up nicely for his third album, 1971’s Songs Of Love And Hate, which contained several more classic tracks and catapulted him to the front rank of contemporary singer-songwriters. Reuniting with Bob Johnston in Nashville, Cohen began laying down tracks that were rife with existential gloom, sealing his reputation as the archetypal bedsit poet (the New York Times wrote that on the alienation scale, he ranked “somewhere between Schopenhauer and Bob Dylan.”).

The album marked the first appearance of Cohen’s famous baritone, with the ominous atmosphere being further emphasised by the foreboding strings and stark imagery of the opening track, ‘Avalanche’: “I stepped into an avalanche/ It covered up my soul.”

The album’s centrepiece was the unforgettable ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, which took the form of a letter written by a man who’d lost his wife to another lover. Once again, Cohen’s literary flair surfaced in a lyric that was novelistic in detail: “New York is cold but I like where I’m living/ There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening”.

Rounding out a classic album was the epic ‘Joan Of Arc’, which boasted exquisite harmonies and even a singalong friendly “La-la-la” section. Subsequently described by one reviewer as “one of the scariest albums of the last forty years,” Songs Of Love And Hate nonetheless enjoyed considerable success, particularly in Europe, where it sealed Cohen’s reputation as one of the pre-eminent solo artists of his generation. Nonetheless, some dark times were on the way…

Fans Demanding Their Money Back

 Prone to depression throughout his life, Cohen later remarked that at the beginning of 1972, “everything was falling apart.” His relationship with Ihlen had ended and he was nagged by insecurity about his true worth as an artist. Certainly, the singer was a man living on his nerves as his European tour commenced that March at the National Stadium in Dublin.

His fragile state of mind is captured in Tony Palmer’s extraordinary film Bird On A Wire, a documentary of the tour that was thought lost for many years, until it eventually resurfaced and became a fan favourite in the online era. Following a format familiar from many rock films – including Blur’s Starshaped, Radiohead’s Meeting People Is Easy, and Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor documentary on David Bowie – Bird On A Wire finds its protagonist mid-career, unsure of his place in music, lurching from one crisis to another.

All four films share the same internal rhythms, almost as if the sets from one movie have been moved to another: there’s the endless carousel of airports and hotels; the cagey backstage interviews; and the omnipresent drink and drugs. The over-arching idea for Cohen’s tour was that it would culminate in several triumphant gigs in Israel, his spiritual homeland. As the tour makes its way across the continent, it’s never far from disaster.

In particular, the malfunctioning sound system means Cohen and his band are barely audible at some of the gigs, leading to blazing rows between the musicians and the crew. After one gig in Frankfurt, the singer is even accosted by an irate group of fans demanding their money back. Worse is to come in Israel, where one of the gigs comes to an abrupt conclusion when the security guards start brawling with the fans.

The whole fraught venture comes to a remarkable climax in Jerusalem. Having ended the main part of the set, a frustrated Cohen announces backstage that he isn’t enjoying the performance, and doesn’t want to dupe the fans by returning to the stage – much to the consternation of his crew and management. Trying to summon the courage to return, he promptly shaves, then drops some acid.

After emotional renditions of a Jewish hymn and ‘So Long, Marianne’, Cohen and the group call it a night. The crowd are calling for more, but all the singer can manage is one last visit to the stage to say thanks and goodbye. In the quiet of the backstage area, he and the band are clearly shattered.

The camera lingers on his face a long time, as he contemplatively smokes a cigarette with tears in his eyes. Eventually, he stirs.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, sitting up in his chair. “It’s like a morgue in here.”

A Retreat From Heady Excess

Cohen would manage one last vintage album before the uncertainty that was taking hold of his personal life manifested itself in his artistic output. Recorded in New York with rising jazz producer John Lissauer, 1974’s New Skin For The Old Ceremony contained several more classic cuts, including the haunting ‘Who By Fire’ (the hymn-like quality of which owed to the fact that it was based on the melody for a Hebrew prayer), ‘Lover Lover Lover’ (written “for both sides” in the Yom Kippur war, after Cohen spent some time performing for Israeli soldiers in the Sinai desert), and the wryly humorous ‘Field Commander Cohen’, in which the singer imagined himself as an Israeli spy, assassinating enemy figures by spiking their drinks with acid during diplomatic soirees.

‘Is This What You Wanted?’ featured some of Cohen’s funniest lyrics, not least, “You were Marlon Brando, I was Steve McQueen/ You were KY Jelly, I was Vaseline.” And, of course, there was ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, a reflection on the titular NYC establishment that Cohen later regretted stating was about Janis Joplin, largely due to the couplet, “Giving me head on the unmade bed/ While the limousines wait in the street.”

Eventually going silver in the UK, New Skin… preceeded the most controversial album of Cohen’s career, 1977’s Death Of A Ladies Man. Whilst the quality of its musical content may have been disputed, the premise of its title certainly wasn’t. Particularly in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the singer, by all accounts, was bedding down on an industrial scale. In Bird On A Wire, there are numerous awkward on-camera encounters with attractive women, whose offers to “go somewhere else” are unequivocal.

Eventually, Cohen would settle down with the Los Angeles artist Suzanne Elrod, with whom he had two children, Adam and Lorca. Elrod is one of the two women flanking the decidedly suave looking Cohen on the cover of Death Of A Ladies Man, which was recorded in LA by Phil Spector, renowned for the pioneering “Wall Of Sound” production technique he deployed on various ’60s pop hits.

Eventually convicted for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson, even by this stage in his career, Spector had earned a reputation for erratic behaviour. He was particularly unhinged during the making of John Lennon’s 1975 album Rock ‘n’ Roll, during which he routinely binged on drugs and shot off guns in the studio. The producer’s wild outbursts continued whilst working with Cohen.

At one point, with a gun in one hand, he put his free arm around the singer and declared, “I love you, Leonard.” To which Cohen replied, “I hope so, Phil.” Musically, Spector gave Cohen’s compositions a slightly gaudy pop sheen, which was actually quite enjoyable, even if anathema to the artist’s hardcore folk audience.

Certainly, some fans would conclude that the disco-tinged romp ‘Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On’ – on which Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg were coerced by Spector into being improbable backing vocalists – was rock played strictly for laughs. Some reviewers, meanwhile, felt Death Of A Ladies’ Man was an outright debacle. Rolling Stone called the album, “Leonard Cohen’s Doo-Wop Nightmare”, while The Toronto Star headline was even more pointed: “Leonard Cohen Is For Musical Sadists”.

Though again recorded in Los Angeles, Cohen’s 1979 follow-up album, Recent Songs, was in every respect different. Co-produced by Cohen himself and folk guru Henry Lewy, it was in many ways his Low; a retreat from heady excess into introspective solitude.

The brooding atmospheres and stark imagery were back with a vengeance on tracks such as ‘The Guests’, ‘Came So Far For Beauty’ and ‘Ballad Of The Absent Mare’. Musically, Recent Songs expertly blended stripped-down folk rhythms with jazz and Oriental influences, and – though it enjoyed little commercial success – ultimately the album would restore Cohen to the critical good books.

A Buddhist Enclave In California

Leonard Cohen spent the early ’80s working on small side-projects and visiting his children in the south of France, before reuniting with John Lissauer – last seen on an abandoned mid-’70s record called Songs For Rebecca – in New York in mid-1984 to commence work on Various Positions.

Embracing electronics and synthesisers for the first time, the arrangements – structured around the basic Casio keyboard rhythms from Cohen’s demos – were almost comically minimalist, though none the worse for it. Although there were exquisitely beautiful tracks in the likes of ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’ and ‘If It Be Your Will’, the centrepiece was undoubtedly ‘Hallelujah’, which would become Cohen’s most famous song and one of the most covered tracks of all time.

Although arguably now over-exposed thanks to its endless use in TV talent shows and film soundtracks, the original ‘Hallelujah’ had a notably sparse electro arrangement, albeit with a massive chorus. Lyrically, it was a towering achievement, the culmination of five years’ work. Two of Cohen’s greatest themes had always been the euphoric feeling of love in full bloom, and the total devastation when it all went wrong.

On ‘Hallelujah’, he combined the two to create a masterpiece for the ages. John Cale’s early ’90s version formed the basis for Jeff Buckley’s eventual reworking, now probably one of the most famous covers in all of rock. The song’s use in the 2001 animated blockbuster Shrek, lead to its current ubiquity.

Cohen followed Various Positions with 1988’s I’m Your Man, trailed by the single ‘First We Take Manhattan’. By now utilising full-on electronic production, the singer had survived the transition to a new musical era far better than many of his folk contemporaries. Ostensibly about the life of the touring musician, ‘First We Take Manhattan’ worked equally well as a revolutionary manifesto and was another lyrical tour de force.

Equally brilliant was the album’s concluding track, ‘Tower Of Song’, Cohen’s meditation on the songwriter’s lot. Hailed by many critics as the work of a master songwriter back at the top of his game, I’m Your Man found Cohen hitting the road once more, and striking a noticeably more content tone as he undertook more interviews than at any previous point in his career.

By the early ’90s, the Montreal maverick was very much the choice of a new generation, a point emphasised by the 1991 tribute album I’m Your Fan, which boasted contributions from alt.rock royalty such as REM, The Pixies and Nick Cave. In 1992 Cohen released another classic in The Future, which as well as the title-track and ‘Waiting For The Miracle’, contained further gems in ‘Anthem’ and ‘Democracy’. By now, the singer was intermingling the personal and the political in his songs in a manner beyond the reach of virtually every other lyricist.

His hip quotient increased further thanks to Natural Born Killers and Kurt Cobain’s famous allusion to “a Leonard Cohen after-world” in ‘Pennyroyal Tea’. And then came the big silence.

Again suffering from depression, he retreated to a Buddhist enclave in California, where he studied under the tutelage of his spiritual guru, the mysterious Roshi who would eventually die in 2014, aged 107, with some ex-students having made allegations of inappropriate sexual advances. Having become overwhelmed with the depression, Cohen again relocated, this time to Mumbai, where finally – for reasons he described as “impenetrable” – the condition finally improved.


Warmth, Humour and Vitality

The final act of Cohen’s career, of course, was a triumph. First, in 2001, there was the straightforwardly titled Ten New Songs. Co-written and produced by long-term collaborator Sharon Robinson, it contained classic tracks such as ‘My Secret Life’, ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ and ‘Alexandra Leaving’. Then a few years later came the news that, due to financial damage inflicted by a former manager who’d syphoned off $5 million of his money, Cohen was preparing to hit the road again.

First we got another new album, 2004’s Dear Heather, a more experimental collection featuring a large input from jazz chanteuse (and Cohen’s romantic partner) Anjani Thomas. Then there was Lian Lunson’s excellent 2006 documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, which incorporated footage from Came So Far For Beauty, a series of tribute concerts featuring artists such as Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, Martha Wainwright, Lou Reed, Gavin Friday, Beth Orton and the Handsome Family. For good measure, the film concluded with a memorable performance of ‘Tower Of Song’ by Cohen and U2.

Beginning in 2008, there were a series of rapturously received international tours, during which the media became a giant orchestra playing just one tune: Leonard Cohen. Starting with some magical performances in Dublin’s Royal Hospital Kilmainham, promoted by John Reynolds’ POD Concerts, the singer’s Irish dates during this period were some of the most remarkable shows staged here in recent years.

I travelled to London that autumn to see Cohen perform at the O2, a gig which undoubtedly ranks amongst the best I’ve ever seen. Aside from the brilliant performance of an immaculate catalogue, the sheer warmth, humour and vitality of the singer made for a truly unforgettable night. My only regret was missing out on Drifting And Tilting, the avant garde show created by Cohen’s spiritual soul brother, Scott Walker, which was playing across town at the Barbican the same evening.

The following year, Cohen was back for another series of concerts in Dublin’s O2, as well as a performance in the Belfast Odyssey. In 2010, there was another remarkable series of gigs at Sligo’s Lissadell House. During his trip, the singer visited WB Yeats’ grave and regularly invoked the poet during the shows, as recalled by John Reynolds on page 35

Having released the acclaimed Old Ideas in 2012 (finally securing him a place in the US top ten), Cohen performed his final Irish shows at the O2 Arena the following year, the recordings of which eventually resulted in the album Live In Dublin.


A Mesmerising Contemplation of Mortality

In the summer of 2015, those of us who loved the first series of the American crime show True Detective sat down with high hopes for season two. In an inspired move, the show’s music supervisor, the legendary producer T-Bone Burnett, had chosen ‘Nevermind’ – a song from the previous year’s Cohen album Popular Problems – to soundtrack the opening credits.

The song’s ominous electro groove perfectly captured the mood of the series, and it was re-edited on a weekly basis, so that the lyrics might better fit the story of each episode. Unfortunately, it proved to be that rare instance of the opening credits being by far the best aspect of the show.

Nonetheless, when I finally got around to listening to ‘Nevermind’ in its entirety, it was a revelation. Apparently the reflections of a war criminal now living in anonymity in a different country, the song intertwines the personal and the political in a manner that Cohen had very much made his own. The track remains hypnotic and utterly compelling until its truly chilling final lines: “I was not caught, though many tried/ I live among you, well disguised.”

Burnett himself described it as “a true 21st century song” and, personally, I would unhesitatingly put it on any list of the best tracks I have heard since the year 2000.

The astonishing vitality of Cohen’s work right up until the very end of his life was evidenced in his recent final album. A mesmerising contemplation of mortality played out against a musical backdrop that sounds totally contemporary, I immediately felt it was an album of the year contender, and reason perhaps for the Nobel Committee to think they’d given that Literature prize to the wrong man.

The singer suggested in the title that we want it darker, and it’s true that in art, we often do. But the fact is that people like Cohen – and Prince and Bowie – provide an awful lot of the light throughout the journey.

RIP Maestro.


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