He's the little Jew that wrote the Bible, who believes love is the only engine of survival. He is still the thinking woman's sex symbol, and has been for the last 40 years. He is the young wunderkind poet who set Canadian literature aflame. He is the 32-year-old who suddenly decided to become a professional musician. He is the bard addicted to wine, women and song, the eternal searcher who ― after stints in Greece, New York City, Israel, Cuba and his hometown of Montreal ― eventually found solace in a Zen Buddhist retreat atop a California mountain. And he's the only septuagenarian pop star who can pull off a 200-date tour with dignity and grace. One of Cohen's early peers, Montreal poet F.R. Scott, penned a line that Cohen would later set to music: "From bitter searching of the heart, we rise to play a greater part." From his first poetry collection, released 55 years ago, to his long-awaited new album, out now, the man who is older than Elvis Presley is still one of the most vital voices of his ― nay, any ― generation.
1934 to 1946
Leonard Norman Cohen is born in Montreal on Sept. 21, 1934 to Nat and Masha Cohen. Masha is a melodramatic bohemian who sings Russian and Yiddish folk songs in the house. Nat is a dapper and serious man; he always wears a suit and expects Leonard to wear one to dinner. Cohen's great-uncle Hirsch was the Chief Rabbi of Canada; his great-grandfather ran a dredging company that worked on tributaries of the St. Lawrence. Grandfather Lyon Cohen started the first Jewish newspaper in Canada, The Jewish Times, and started a wholesale clothing manufacturer, specializing in suits, that Cohen's father and uncle ran after Lyon's death. He was prominent in Montreal's Jewish community; Samuel Bronfman was a pallbearer at his funeral. Cohen's maternal grandfather was a rabbinical scholar who would later live with the family for two extended stays during the '50s; young Cohen enjoys reading the Book of Isaiah with him. Biographer Ira Nadel says the work's "combination of poetry and prose, punishment and redemption, remained a lasting influence on Cohen's work… Isaiah also sets out an edict Cohen has followed: dispense with illusions, reject oppression, eliminate deceit." Nat Cohen dies when Leonard is nine.
1947 to 1950
At Westmount High School, he is president of the student council and involved in athletics, drama, and the student newspaper. In his yearbook, he lists his ambition as: "world-famous orator." He buys a guitar and takes lessons from a Spaniard he meets in his local park; the teacher commits suicide after the third session. The Spanish poet Lorca becomes a transformative influence, inspiring Cohen to write poetry. After a girlfriend's father hypnotizes him, Leonard is fascinated with the practice. He manages to hypnotize the family maid and convinces her to undress; his mother's unexpected arrival home cuts the session short. He gets lucky with a 19-year-old neighbour about to be married; because of him, she breaks off the engagement, though he refuses to commit to her. As a summer camp counsellor, he learns the canon of political folk music from The People's Song Book, a popular anthology of protest music from around the world.
Cohen enrols at McGill. He is president of the debating society, but graduates with an average of only 56.4 percent. In his second year he and two friends form the Buckskin Boys, a country trio who play square dances and church basements. In 1954, he is arrested while watching a football riot and charged with resisting arrest and disturbing the peace; he receives a suspended sentence. Cohen takes a poetry course at McGill with Louis Dudek, who encourages him and introduces him to other poets, including Irving Layton, who becomes a great friend despite a 22-year age gap. Cohen is also taken with CanLit legend Hugh MacLennan, who teaches at McGill. Of MacLennan, Cohen later tells Nadel that "the more restrained he was, the more emotional was the atmosphere in the classroom" ― an observation Cohen obviously takes to heart for his own later performances. In 1955, Dudek publishes Cohen's first poetry book, Let Us Compare Mythologies; in 1992, Dudek will present Cohen with an honorary doctorate from McGill. His main ambition, however, was more primal: "Mostly what I was trying to do was get a date," he tells Nadel. "That was the most urgent element in my life." One unnamed female friend tells Nadel, "Leonard really loved women, although 'love' is not the right word. He felt that women had a power and a beauty that most did not even know they possessed. To be with Leonard was to begin to know your own power as a woman." Barbara Amiel will later write that Cohen "will offer [a woman] everything, except of course fidelity… In his own terms, he is not unfaithful to anyone because he cares for them all."
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