PHOTO: K & K Ulf Kruger OHG | Getty Images
Leonard Cohen, who established his music career in the Sixties with the songs “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire,” has died at age 82.
His death, which occurred on November 7, was announced on November 10. Few details were given, but cancer was a contributing cause.
Just three weeks earlier, on October 21, Cohen released what would be his final album, You Want It Darker.
His son Adam stated, “My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humour.”
Born in Canada in 1934, Cohen emerged as a folk artist in the late Sixties, singing his own stark, lovelorn and clear-eyed pessimistic songs in a hypnotic tenor. Though his records sold in small numbers, his introspective ballads with their poetic lyrics—indeed, Cohen was an established poet and novelist before launching his music career—helped make him a favorite of many better known artists, including Judy Collins and James Taylor.
While performing in New York City’s folk scene, Cohen was signed to Columbia Records by John H. Hammond, the noted producer who also furthered the careers of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others. Cohen’s 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, received mixed reviews but found favor among many folk artists of the day, including Collins, who covered its open track, “Suzanne,” a song that went on to become one of Cohen’s best-known works.
His follow-up, Songs from a Room, included one of Cohen’s most covered tunes, “Bird on a Wire,” which was recorded by Joe Cocker, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Joe Bonamassa, to name but a few. His third release, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, was his best-selling album everywhere but in the U.S. Among its songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc” have been regularly covered over the years, while Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds recorded the album’s opener, “Avalanche,” for their 1984 release, From Her to Eternity.
Cohen changed up his sound several times in his career, adding orchestral instruments with 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony and going for a heavier layered sound with 1977’s Death of a Ladies Man. On 1984’s Various Positions, his seventh album, he began using synthesizers, which would play a strong role in his future work. Released everywhere but in the U.S., where Columbia thought it would not sell well, Various Positions made the Top 10 in several countries and served up a song that would become one of Cohen’s best known, “Hallelujah.” The track’s most notable early cover was by former Velvet Underground member John Cale, but its most famous version was by Jeff Buckley, who recorded it for his 1994 album, Grace.
Cohen on tour in 2013 in Melbourne, Australia. (Graham Denholm | Getty Images)
In 1987, Cohen’s career got a boost in the U.S. with the tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat, cut by his former backup singer Jennifer Warnes (known best for hits like “Right Time of the Night,” “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman, and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing). The album’s more contemporary arrangements of Cohen’s older material helped introduce his work to a new generation. He was also given exposure in the 1990 film Pump Up the Volume with his songs “Everybody Knows,” from 1987’s I’m Your Man, and “If It Be Your Will.”
But it was The Future that firmly re-established Cohen’s career for a new era. Inspired by political and social upheaval around the world, The Future painted a dark picture of humanity, with lurid images and a lush big-budget soundtrack. Three of its songs—“The Future,” “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Anthem”—were featured in Oliver Stone’s violent 1994 film, Natural Born Killers, and other songs from the album showed up in the films Wonder Boys and The Life of David Gale. By now, Cohen’s voice had descended into a gruff baritone that only served to deepen the menace of his lyrics.
In the mid Nineties, Cohen spent five years studying in seclusion at the Mr. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles. He returned to music in 2001 with Ten New Songs, a major hit for him in Canada and Europe. It was followed in 2004 with Dear Heather, a collaboration with jazz chanteuse Anjani Thomas. Old Ideas, released in 2012, became the highest charting album of his career.
Though Cohen’s death was sudden, he had himself suggested it was near this past July, following the death of Marianne Ihlen, his former lover and the inspiration for his classic 1967 track “So Long Marianne.” Notified by a friend that she had days to live, Cohen wrote her a letter, in which he said, “Well, Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”