- 21 Sep 17
It's the first birthday we're celebrating without the acclaimed songwriter, who would have turned 83 today.
Happy Birthday, Leonard Cohen. Born on September 21, 1934, the genius singer-songwriter would have turned 83 today. Forever remembered as one of the greatest songwriters in history, Cohen's musical influence has impacted the vast majority of musicians today. To celebrate his work, we've pulled together a few performances of Cohen classics from other greats, including Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, Glen Hansard, and Leonard's own son, Adam Cohen.
Johnny Cash: Bird on a Wire
Glen Hansard, Famous Blue Raincoat
Nina Simone, Suzanne
Gregory Alan Isakov and Brandi Carlile, One of Us Cannot Be Wrong
Jeff Buckley, Hallelujah
Adam Cohen, So Long, Marianne
Following Cohen's death last year, Hot Press spoke to a variety of Cohen collaborators and friends about his life. Read some of the interviews below.
LEONARD COHEN TRIBUTE: The Webb Sisters on "our friend and teacher"
Having crossed the Atlantic in their teens, a succession of happy accidents resulted in Hattie & Charley joining Leonard's band.
“He said, ‘My two cents worth: More harmonies, more harmonies, more harmonies! They lift from extremely satisfying to sublime. The album will be cherished by the lovers of beauty, but I want it to seduce millions. That part was clearly mapped out by The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. Forgive my impertinence, love, Leonard’.”
Hattie Webb is reading me the reply Leonard Cohen sent her just three weeks ago after she’d We Transferred some of the songs from her upcoming solo album over to LA for her “friend and teacher” to hear.
“Even his emails are poems!” she smiles to the nodding agreement of her elder sibling, Charley.
Natives of Sevenoaks in Kent where yours truly also happened to grow up, The Webb Sisters were chosen to join Leonard Cohen’s live band in 2008, when he embarked on his first tour in well over a decade. Clocking up 247 shows in two years, they were privy to seeing the legendary Montreal-er at work, rest and play.
“His politeness and grace with people is other worldly now,” Charley takes-over. “I think we miss that in today’s society, although you wouldn’t want to turn the clock back wholesale to when he was growing up, because so many people in the 1930s/’40s/’50s were subjugated. Leonard encapsulates the best of both eras. He defended humanity. If there was somebody who appeared to be suffering an injustice he would delicately readjust the balance with a gentlemanly firm hand, and people would listen. That’s why we had, at times, groups of 60 people on the road who felt it was the best working environment of their careers.
“Leonard felt that everybody’s cog in the machine was as valuable as his. So, with that grace, he’d go about the day making everybody feel important, but in the most gentle, discreet way. I adored his humour and unexpected jokes and his love of chocolate and chicken soup, and how when you went to his modest, but extremely beautiful apartment, he’d carefully prepare a smoothie or a few vitamins or a hot drink and make sure you were warm and looked after.”
It speaks volumes about the Webb Sisters’ own grace that they’re able to speak so eloquently and lovingly about Leonard less than a week after his death. Asked how they swapped life in a humdrum London commuter town for the glitz ‘n’ glamour of LA, Hattie explains, “Our first time in the States was as teenagers when we went to Nashville to record with this producer, Johnny Pierce, who’d been recommended to us by a friend. We had some extraordinary adventures road tripping round the southern states with Johnny before we got a deal with Universal in LA.
“We wanted to collaborate with different people, so they put us in touch with Sharon Robinson and we wrote three songs together for a children’s record that ended up not coming out. On the plus side, we got to sing harmony on the songs with her and felt a very natural connection. A year later, she messaged us saying, ‘Leonard’s looking for people to join the band. I recommended you, can you pop down to the rehearsal room?’
“The first time we went Leonard wasn’t there, so we played three songs on our own and did two with the band,” Charley recalls. “We went back two days later and sang to Leonard who sat on the sofa with his eyes closed as we played. Then he got us to do ‘Dance Me To The End’, ‘Anthem’ and ‘Closing Time’. Sharon, who’d lost her voice, said, ‘You sing this part’, and ‘You sing that part’ and it went really well. I think he was a little resistant at first to having three musicians who were also going to sing in a ten-piece band, but we won him over. Or Sharon did; Leonard really respected her opinion.”
“The week before going to that rehearsal I was walking along Venice Beach with my boyfriend, heard a busker singing ‘Hallelujah’ and had a massive conversation about Leonard and Jeff Buckley,” Hattie adds. “A few days later we took the wrong bus and got off at Wilcox and Sunset, which is an area I’d never been to before. Where did the rehearsal end up taking place? In a building on that exact same crossroads! Two really weird coincidences.”
“Also,” chips in Charley, “just beforehand we received a ‘thank you’ from Judy Collins, because six months previously we’d recorded ‘Fortunes Of Soldiers’ for the Born To The Breed tribute album. She sent us some cards, one of which was the cover of the Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen: Democracy record she’d done, so it was an unusual combination of accidents flagging up what was soon to come.”
THE GREATER SEX
There were nerves aplenty when the tour that later swung by Kilmainham kicked off on May 11, 2008 in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
“It was quite nerve-wracking,” Hattie confirms. “When Leonard went out there his hands were shaking.”
“We were all standing in a line to go on stage in this tiny theatre in Canada, which was rammed to the rafters with clearly diehard Leonard fans,” Charley elaborates “Sharon, Hattie and me walked on with him and, yeah, his hands behind his back were shaking. He talked briefly about it being, ‘A few year’s friends’ and the place just exploded. I was completely taken aback because I’d never experienced that sort of physical reaction before. I had to compose myself to sing ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’. Walking on stage and having thousands of people immediately convulse with emotion – that feeling didn’t go away, I just learned to manage it.”
Suzanne Vega makes the point that no matter how many crazy turns the world takes, Leonard Cohen songs remain relevant in a way that he perhaps mightn’t have envisaged starting out in the 1960s.
“Even if it wasn’t new material, it would have a freshness,” Charley nods again. “There were many songs he would rework and then re-evaluate. He wrote 50 verses for ‘Hallelujah’ and then distilled them to what they are now. Leonard was always scratching away in a notebook with that impeccable handwriting of his. If you asked him what he was working on, he’d give only a little detail away. It seemed to be a private process, and I respected that. Sometimes he’d reveal that the new song he’d brought to rehearsal was derived from an old idea. Often, they’d change shape as we worked on them. You could still hear the essence, but it was a totally different presentation of the song. It was very exhilarating to be part of that evolutionary process.”
Everyone I’ve spoken to about Leonard has remarked on the fact that he was very comfortable in the company of women.
“You can hear that in his songs,” Hattie resumes. “There’s a space every couple of moments where he feels there was a female perspective to be offered. In real life he looks for the female perspective. I also saw him at ease with men, so I don’t feel it was particularly a feminine connection.”
“We were talking about politics and business and how there’s an imbalance within positions of power, and Leonard said something along the lines of, ‘Women are the greater sex’,” Charley notes. “I don’t know if he was just flattering me, but he did seem to think that.”
The Webb Sisters remember their two rainy nights in Lissadell House, in Sligo, with the same affection as Sharon Robinson, and Leonard himself whose Cheshire Cat smile when he came back on for the encore is indelibly stamped on my mind.
“Having that connection to Yeats and the audience, of course, meant the world to him,” Hattie says. “Afterwards, there was a gathering in the house, which was gorgeous. It was also the day the agent, Rob Hallett, elbowed me in the head and told me off for walking into his arm! I was lucky that I didn’t have to go on with a black eye.”
“I think we ought to stress that it was entirely accidental!” Charley chuckles.
Like the rest of us, the Webbs got to listen to You Want It Darker for the first time on the morning of its October 21 release.
“Yeah, I heard it as a fan and was very interested in Len’s voice being presented in a slightly different fashion,” Charley concludes. “A lot of people are talking about it being ‘a last will and testament’, but there was always spiritual commentary in his songs. Perhaps on longer listening, I’ll reflect on it in a different way. We’re feeling very sad, but at the same time happy that we got to know and spend time with such a wonderful man.”
LEONARD COHEN TRIBUTE: Judy Collins recalls her lifelong friendship with the singer
Judy recorded 'Suzanne', and turned it into a massive '60s hit when Leonard was still an unknown writer.
“I had a very close pal who was friends with one of Leonard’s pals from Montreal. So when we’d go out to dinner in New York, she’d talk to me about this very gifted guy. One day she called and said, ‘Leonard has started writing some songs, and wants to come to New York and sing them to you’.
“Leonard came to see me around April of 1966. The first thing he said was, ‘I can’t play the guitar or sing, and I don’t know if this is a song!’ Then he sang me three songs – ‘The Stranger Song’, ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’ and ‘Suzanne’. I was stunned.
“It was a very opportune time for Leonard to come to me – I was about to do my sixth album and my career had really taken off. To be honest, I think Leonard had really thought about this. He knew I would listen to his songs and consider them, because at this point I had built a reputation as someone who covered other people’s material. There were other artists who were recording, but they weren’t doing other people’s songs, and certainly not material by unknown writers. The Village was rampant with singer-songwriters, but they all wanted to do their own stuff.
“I included ‘Suzanne’ on my next album, In My Life, which came out at the end of ‘66 and did very well. ‘Suzanne’ got a lot of attention – a lot of people played it. That turned Leonard into a known quantity; people knew that he wrote the song.
“In 1967, when the album had gone gold, I was invited to play this anti-nuke fundraiser in New York. There was a lot of interest in Leonard by then, but he still hadn’t performed in public, so I asked him to come and sing ‘Suzanne’. He was very reluctant but eventually I persuaded him, and people were excited. So he went out and did ‘Suzanne’. About halfway through he was struck with stage-fright and walked off. I convinced him to go back: we went out and finished the song together.
“People went crazy, they loved it. After that, he understood that he had something people wanted. Soon after, John Hammond signed him to Columbia. There was another very important element of the Leonard Cohen story for me. He called me up one day, and during the conversation, he asked, ‘Judy, why don’t you write your own songs?’ That really got me thinking and soon after I wrote ‘Since You Asked’, which was the start of me writing my own material.
“As he became more famous over the years, we would stay in touch, and we’d meet up whenever he was in New York. Leonard was very deep and very committed to his friends. He was also very grateful, and I say that with a particular intention. In my work, Leonard supported me emotionally, artistically and financially. That’s extremely rare – people don’t do that. They don’t really help you when you do them a favour. For the most part, they don’t even say ‘thank you’. And I won’t get specific, but let me tell you that it’s the truth.
“Leonard, on the other hand, has shared both his artistry and his abundance with me in the moments that it counted. His sisters and his brother always used to come to see me and they’d say, ‘We know what you did for Leonard. People don’t get it - but we know’.”
LEONARD COHEN TRIBUTE: Sharon Robinson was his trusted lieutenant for over 30 years
"There was a special rapport between him and Ireland," the co-writer of 2001's classic Ten New Songs tells Stuart Clark.
“As soon as I met Leonard at that Field Commander Cohen audition, we seemed to hit it off. There was a really nice chemistry. He was extremely gracious and hospitable and warm. He seemed to like me right off the bat, so it was very comfortable.
“He hadn’t made an album for six years before Ten New Songs and was looking for a way to express these lyrics he’d written that would feel like a whole body of work – that’s how we ended up doing the whole project together. He was interested in soul and blues and R&B, all of that. We often referred back to the blues greats and to the Muscle Shoals stuff.
“Working with Leonard was a dream. In terms of the man/woman thing, he always respected you fully as an equal. Discussing all sorts of things that were on his mind was part of the friendship, part of the interaction. Leonard had an immeasurable wisdom and intellect, and was able to access it and put it into his work. He spent a lot of time on these words. Working and then re-working them brought another level of depth that probably even he couldn’t predict. That’s why his songs are so timely – and so timeless. He worked on it so much.
“Leonard would send me a lyric, and I’d go to my piano and try to understand where the verse was and what the chords should be, and just shape it into less of a poem and more of a song lyric, if you will, without changing any of the words.
“Sometimes I would change the order, or I’d decide, ‘Okay, this stanza should be the chorus’. And I would build a melody and chord changes based on my interpretation of the lyrics. I’d present a couple of ideas to Leonard and then we worked through the rest of it together.
“I heard the whole of You Want It Darker for the first time in August at Leonard’s house. I was visiting him before my tour of Europe. He played it for me and I was, of course, blown away. It’s really beautiful. It was extremely important for both of them that (his son) Adam produced the record. To finally connect around Leonard’s work – and it was something that had been in the making for many years – left both of them very fulfilled.
“The feeling that it was a ‘goodbye’ was rather unavoidable. It would have been difficult to imagine him doing another record, although he was talking about other work he was starting on. ‘Retirement’ was not a word that featured in Leonard’s dictionary!
“There was definitely a special rapport between him and Ireland. Leonard and myself often spoke about the beautiful events that took place there: the dancing in the rain at Lissadell and being close to where his hero, W.B. Yeats, is buried. That was definitely one of his favourite concerts. He was aware of how much his music was loved, and he appreciated it.
“When I was shooting those pictures, I didn’t know I was shooting for a book. I was trying to document this incredible tour for my own sake, but then the photos were seen by a publisher and we decided to put them all together. As time goes by, it becomes more and more poignant.”
Sharon Robinson’s 2014 On Tour With Leonard Cohen photo-book is in shops now, and is a Christmas must-have.