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HERBERT HUNCKE AT THE CHELSEA HOTEL 1994
Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was born on September 21, 1934. An early writer and guitarist, Cohen began to compose and release folk-rock and pop songs by the mid-1960s. One of his most famous compositions is “Hallelujah,” a song released on 1984’s Various Positions. Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, and he received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2010.
Leonard Norman Cohen was born on September 21, 1934 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. As a teenager, Cohen learned to play guitar, and around the same time, he began writing poetry and novels. Not long after graduating from McGill University, in 1955, Cohen decided to move to New York City.
By the mid-1960s, Cohen had become intrigued by the Greenwich Village folk scene and, with his background in music and writing, music composition was a natural step. He soon began to compose and release folk-rock and pop songs, and in 1967, made his musical debut at the Newport Folk Festival. The event spurred Cohen’s fame, and he continued to perform publicly, at concerts in New York City, as well as on the television program Camera Three, a cultural affairs program that aired weekly on CBS at the time.
Also in the mid-1960s, Cohen began receiving praise for songs made popular by other singers. In 1966, folk singer Judy Collins released her album In My Life, which included two singles that were written by Cohen: “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” In 1967, Noel Harrison released his own, pop rendition of Cohen’s “Suzanne.” By the end of that year, Cohen had released his first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, which included his version of the song “Suzanne.” The album also included the popular songs “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and “Master Song,” among others.
Two years later, Cohen released Songs from a Room (1969), featuring the now-famous single “Bird on a Wire.” That album was followed by 1971’sSongs of Love and Hate, which included the singles “Avalanche” and “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Cohen produced three other albums before the end of the decade.
After co-writing the soundtrack to the musical film Night Magic, with fellow songwriter Lewis Furey, Cohen released 1984’s Various Positions. The album included one of Cohen’s most popular songs to date: “Hallelujah.” The song has been covered countless times, including by John Cale and Jeff Buckley, whose renditions—both considered to be smoother, vocally, than Cohen’s—received wide acclaim.
From the late 1980s to 2012, Cohen released a handful of albums, includingI’m Your Man (1988), The Future (1992), Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004). In 2010, Sony Music released Songs from the Road, an album of songs that were performed live by Cohen in 2008 and 2009.
In January 2012, at the age of 77, Cohen released Old Ideas. In his late 70s, Cohen continues to write music and tour, most recently with a 2012 concert series.
Leonard Cohen—whose musical style has been deemed straightforward, prophetic and, at times, seemingly expressionless—has been compared to folk-rock musician Bob Dylan. Though some listeners have strayed away from Cohen’s baritone voice and deadpan delivery, he has enjoyed wide critical and commercial acclaim. Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. He received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2010.
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Who else could this be but Leonard Cohen, at a recent concert in Kentucky, confiding with a large audience his plan to resume smoking on his 80th birthday. I first heard him talk about it – before it became honed and polished into one of his droll, Rat Pack-rabbi lines – a year and a half ago in the kitchen of his Los Angeles home – a remarkably modest duplex in an unremarkable neighbourhood that he shares with his daughter Lorca and her daughter (by the musician Rufus Wainwright) Viva. Cohen, dressed off stage as on in a dark suit and fedora, was rustling up a couple of lattes on an espresso machine, which he served, in the most elegant manner, in two of those cheap, promotional coffee mugs that companies give out – in this case promoting Cohen’s 1993 album The Future.
He had just finished work on a new album – Old Ideas, which was released in January 2012. And I was close to completing his biography – I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, published last November. I had assumed, as many did, that my book would have ended in Las Vegas, with the last triumphant concert of Cohen’s 2008-10 tour. But Cohen had moved the goalposts, and I was there to interview him for the final chapter. He was on a roll – midway through writing and recording another album in the studio above his garage. Nearly three years solid of three-hour plus concerts had clearly had an effect.
Cohen’s own theory – the same theory he had to explain how he was finally cured of a lifetime’s depression – was that it all came down to age. He was in the latter half of his seventies and on the “homeward stretch” and, when it came to his work, his writing, he had no time to waste. This was plausible enough, except that Cohen was saying the same thing about mortality and knuckling down in his late fifties – not long before deciding to quit the music business and LA and live in a hut on Mount Baldy as a servant to his old Rinzai Buddhist teacher Roshi Joshu Sasaki. In truth, Cohen the septuagenarian seemed in much better shape than he was then. Certainly in better shape emotionally. And one major cause was this tour that he had begun, with the deepest reluctance, having been forced back on the boards after finding himself broke, his savings having been famously, and ironically, misappropriated while he was living as an ordained Zen monk.
Cohen hadn’t toured in 15 years – which was fine with him; he’d had never much liked touring. A creature of habits and a shy man, he also worried for his songs, afraid their purity would be soiled by being dragged before a paying crowd every night. He was also concerned that if he did tour, there might not be an audience – crazy though that sounds now after Cohen notched up one of the biggest-grossing tours of the new millennium. His return was greeted with a tidal wave of love that he’s been riding ever since, circling the world several times over, playing to the biggest audiences of his career.
Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell (Photo: copywright of David Gahr 2012)
Not only did he restore his missing funds, he’s added to them, considerably. He has no need to get on a plane and play another concert ever again, and no-one could have blamed him if he’d taken a final bow and slipped back into a life of stillness and (give or take the occasional female companion) solitude. Instead, Cohen decided – much as Dylan did – to play out his life on a never-ending tour.
When I asked him why, he sat at the little wooden kitchen table and thought about it, as if the question hadn’t occurred to him before. Quite possibly it hadn’t; he had previously told me that he didn’t examine his motivations much. “Before the pesky little problem of losing everything I had,” he said finally, “I had the feeling that I was treading water – kind of between jobs; a bit at loose ends. When the money problem arose, what bothered me most was that I was spending all my time with lawyers, accountants, forensic accountants… I thought, if God wants to bore me to death I guess I have to accept it.” It was a full-time job and “an enormous distraction”, spending day after day going through old emails and mountains of paperwork. Now and again he would, as he put it, remember he had had been a singer once. This long succession of concerts re-established Cohen as a singer and as “a worker in the world”.
Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah on MUZU.TV.
Although he had gone on the road because he didn’t have the money to retire, he found that he had “no sense of or appetite for retirement”. And though he’d spent a good deal of his life craving solitude, he had grown to love and miss the band and the crew, this community of fellow travellers. When the tour ended, they had all stayed in touch; and with very few exceptions, they eagerly signed up again when Cohen decided that the new album was a fine excuse for another tour.
“I like the life on the road, because it’s so regulated and deliberate,” Leonard said. “Everything funnels down to the concert. You know exactly what to do during the day and you don’t have to improvise” – as you would if you were at home, composing or recording. He thrived on the strict regime of tour; he had always been drawn to an almost military discipline. Even as a young boy he had asked his parents to send him to military academy (his mother said no), and he’d named his first touring band – the one he played with at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival – The Army. Not without pride does he describe Rinzai monks as “the marines of the spiritual world”.
The road reminded him of the monastic life sometimes. “Once you get the hang of it,” he said, “you go into ninth gear and kind of float through it all.” You can tell he’s floating now by the way he skips on stage and jokes and flirts with the fans. As for the falling to his knees and the bowing – to the musicians who do him the honour of delivering his words, and to the audience who do him the honour of accepting them – they seem to satisfy an equally deep need in him of service and ritual. More than one reviewer likened Cohen’s concerts to religious gatherings, with a few going so far as to compare them to papal visits.
One thing conspicuous by its absence since 2008 has been the sacramental wine. Nowadays, Cohen rarely drinks. After a show, he goes back to his hotel room alone; he still has that need for solitude and quiet. As for drugs, the strongest substance I could find backstage on his US tour was a suitcase full of PG Tips – and his touring partners the Webb Sisters may have been to blame for that. But it’s nice to imagine Cohen backstage at the 02 Arena, sitting cross-legged under a pyramid tea bag, meditating on how that pack of cigarettes is only one year and three months away.
Leonard Cohen returns to the 02 Arena on June 21st. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons is out now in paperback (Vintage), £9.99
I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons
|Trump Hair History
“… he died of the Vietnam War
from drug and alcohol abuse.” — it’s what I tell
whoever still asks about my brother
I remember Joaquín
he used to fill my head with stories
about days he’d spent on furlough
in the summer of ’67
in San Francisco
while recuperating from two broken legs
at Treasure Island Naval Base hospital
he described in foggy detail the Haight-Ashbury
how he’d watched Eric Burton
who was a regular then
tripping on acid
daring himself to not walk off
the edge of the stage
he also introduced me to his Missouri Meerschaum
a yellow corn-cob
with a tortoise-shell colored plastic mouthpiece
and the small bag of Vietnamese
he had smuggled
from his tour of duty in ‘Nam
a stream of moving pictures
I closed my eyes
and in an instant
… painting the pages
Ana is a Poet who, some years ago, went travelling through Nashville, Tennessee collecting and patching memorabilia to this guitar. The arm sticking out from the bottom of the photo is Mr. Howdy Doody’s Puppet!
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