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."
1956 to 1958
Seeking religious ecstasy, he starts taking drugs, mainly hashish, acid and amphetamines. He later tells Zig Zag magazine, "I have used almost everything that I could ever get my hands on. I have taken them in every possible way. I think that drugs without a sacrament, without a ritual, without a really great understanding of their power are dangerous." Cohen is also prone to depression, as was his mother, and becomes increasingly withdrawn. He reads on an album called Six Montreal Poets, released in the U.S. by Folkway Records. He enrols in grad school at Columbia University in New York City, where he writes a term paper on his own collection of poetry; he is extremely critical. He meets beat poets in Greenwich Village such as Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but they find him too bourgeois. Feeling homesick, Cohen moves back to Montreal and starts working in his family's business, a decision mocked by Layton. He writes an unpublished novel, The Ballet of Lepers. In 1958, he starts reciting poetry in front of jazz ensembles, often at Dunn's Progressive Jazz Parlour, above Dunn's Steak House on Ste. Catherine Street.
Canadian publisher Jack McClelland signs Cohen based entirely on his confidence and style; McClelland had not yet read his poems. Cohen wants the book's cover design to appeal to "inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists, French-Canadian intellectuals, unpublished writers, curious musicians, etc." Cohen gets a $2,000 Canada Council grant to write a novel. He finally quits the family business, upsetting his mother, and briefly works for the CBC before getting a passport and setting sail to see the world. He arrives in London in December. Friends of friends put him up on the condition that he clean his room and write three pages a day. He buys two key items: a typewriter that lasts him the next 26 years and a blue raincoat that becomes famous.
Cohen is entranced by the Greek island of Hydra, where there are no cars, plenty of donkeys, very little running water and not much electricity. He buys a house there for $1,500. The island is populated largely by an international array of writers and artists, many of them adulterous and drunk. He falls in love with Swedish model Marianne Ihlen, who moves into his home with her young son; they stay together for over six years. Cohen finds all of this to be an ideal creative environment. It's also very cheap; he survives on $1,000 a year. He returns to Montreal in November to apply for another Canada Council grant. To do so, he rents a limousine, gets high on the drive to Ottawa, and sings for the secretaries at the Canada Council office while chasing them in a wheelchair. The first draft of Cohen's first novel, The Favourite Game, is rejected by Jack McClelland; his editors found it "too tedious, not to say disgusting." Cohen himself describes it as "miserable," and "an important mess." It would not be published until 1963.
Telling his friends he is "wild for all kinds of violence," Cohen heads to Cuba just before the Bay of Pigs invasion, and spends most of his time drinking in Havana's underworld. One night a Canadian official rouses him at his hotel and demand that he come to the embassy; Cohen is disappointed that he's been summoned only because his mother is worried about him and pulled some strings to find out if he was still alive. He is later arrested by Cuban soldiers who suspect him of being American; after 90 minutes of interrogation, the non-Spanish-speaking Cohen convinces them of his good intentions and they all drink rum and sing songs together. Cohen writes to Jack McClelland to say that if he is killed in an air raid, it will be great publicity. When he tries to leave Cuba, he's mistaken for a Cuban trying to escape and is detained; during a distraction at the airport, he manages to sneak on to the plane. The poetry collection The Spice-Box of Earth is published, sells out its first printing in three months, and is nominated for a Governor General's Award.
1962 to 1964
Living on Hydra gets difficult as his mother and various friends come to visit and distract him while he struggles to sculpt The Favourite Game into shape for publication. He tells Irving Layton, "I've torn apart orchestras to arrive at my straight, melodic line." In early '64, Cohen tours Western Canada, performing with the Lenny Breau Trio in Winnipeg, and upsetting members of the audience in Vancouver for using salty language and, while on stage, inviting women back to his hotel room. The NFB makes a film called Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. His next novel, Beautiful Losers, is written on Hydra between 1964 and 1965 while hopped up on amphetamines and Ray Charles records; "more of a sunstroke than a book," he jokes.
Cohen tells McClelland that if Beautiful Losers "gets by censors it could make money" and that he'd "written the Bhagavad Gita of 1965." On the jacket flap, written by Cohen himself, he says the novel is "a love story, a Black Mass, a satire, a prayer, a tasteless affront, an hallucination, a bore, an irrelevant display of diseased virtuosity… in short, a disagreeable religious epic of incomparable beauty." The University of Toronto buys the manuscript for $6,000 for its archives. The Toronto Star's Robert Fulford famously calls it "the most revolting book ever written in Canada… an important failure. At the same time it is probably the most interesting Canadian book of the year." One day at Toronto's King Edward Hotel, Cohen plays harmonica and sings for a friend while a couple in the adjacent room make love noisily. He tells his friend, "I think I'm going to record myself singing my poems." "Please don't," she replies.
Both of Cohen's novels have sold a total of 5,200 copies in North America; Cohen foresees a literary life as not entirely financially feasible. On February 20, he goes to see Bob Dylan and the Hawks at Place Des Arts in Montreal. At intermission, Cohen tells Layton that he's seen his own future. Layton laughs. Cohen moves to New York, checking into the Chelsea Hotel. While he there, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Allen Ginsberg and Janis Joplin (the subject of his song "Chelsea Hotel #2") are all temporary neighbours. He is introduced to fellow Canadian Mary Martin, who works with Albert Grossman, manager of Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, and the Band. Martin gives Cohen's song "Suzanne" to her first solo management client, Toronto's Stormy Clovers, fronted by Susan Jains, making them the first performers to ever cover Cohen.
Cohen invites Marianne Ihlen and her son to move to New York to be with him; the relationship soon falls apart. Cohen falls madly for the model and singer Nico. He later tells Mojo, "I was lighting candles and praying and performing incantations and wearing amulets ― anything to get her to fall in love with me, but she never did." Instead, she introduces him to her Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed, who is a fan of Cohen's work. "In those days I guess he wasn't getting very many compliments of his work and I certainly wasn't," Cohen would relate in 1974. "So we told each other how good we were." Drugs are everywhere. "It was dangerous to accept a potato chip at a cocktail party then," he later tells a British newspaper. "I speak literally. It could be sprinkled with acid. I went to somebody's room who was having a cocktail party, had a few chips, and four days later was still trying to find my room." Judy Collins expresses interest in Cohen's songs; she records "Suzanne" on her hit album In My Life. On CBC-TV, Cohen tells interviewer Adrienne Clarkson he'd like to write a musical comedy, design a building or govern a country, and that, "I'm not interested in posterity, which is a kind of paltry form of eternity; I'm not interested in an insurance plan for my work."
Cohen plays the Newport Folk Festival, where he's in a songwriters' workshop alongside Judy Collins, Janis Ian and Joni Mitchell. He and Mitchell start dating, and he lives with her for a month in Laurel Canyon. Collins records three more Cohen songs on her next album, Wildflowers, a top 5 hit. Mary Martin invites Columbia Records A&R exec John Hammond ― the man who signed Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin ― to hear Cohen sing for him at the Chelsea Hotel. Hammond is smitten and signs Cohen immediately, to the consternation of his bosses. The debut album, released on Boxing Day, includes "Suzanne," which will become Cohen's best-known song for the next 30 years. Unfortunately, Jeff Chase, an arranger who assisted with an early demo, convinces Cohen that it is necessary to "temporarily" relinquish publishing rights to the song in Chase's name. During the '70s, Cohen tells audiences that "it would be wrong to write this song and get rich from it, too." In 1984, Chase tries to make peace and meets with Cohen to make an offer. Asked what he wants, Cohen thinks for a minute and says, "One dollar, motherfucker!" Chase runs out of the room; they later settle in 1987, and the rights return to Cohen.
A Maclean's review of the debut album opens with simply, "Pity." Cohen gives an interview to The New York Times where he says, "When I see a woman transformed by the orgasm we've had together, then I know we've met. Anything else is fiction." He flirts briefly with Scientology, lasting merely a month. "I did look into that and other things," he'll tell the Jewish Book News in 1994, "from the Communist Party to the Republican Party, from Scientology to delusions of myself as the High Priest rebuilding the Temple." He meets 19-year-old Suzanne Elrod in a hotel lobby and they immediately start a relationship. They move into a tiny cabin on 1,200 acres of forest in rural Tennessee outside Nashville, where Cohen becomes a gun enthusiast and records Songs from a Room with producer Bob Johnston (Blonde on Blonde, Live at Folsom Prison).
Cohen scores a #2 British hit with "The Old Revolution." He serves as best man for his friend Steve Sanfield, whom he met on Hydra, at a wedding officiated by Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who will later become Cohen's Zen master. Selected Poems 1956-1968 wins the Governor General's Award for Poetry, which Cohen turns down, the only English Canadian to ever do so: "Much in me strives for this honour, but the poems themselves forbid it absolutely." Nonetheless, he shows up to Jack McClelland's party for the winners, where Mordecai Richler pulls him into a bathroom and demands to know Cohen's reason for refusal. "I don't know," Cohen mutters. "Any other answer and I would have punched you in the nose," Richler replies.
Cohen embarks on his first tour, of Europe only (he will not tour North America until 1974-75). His band calls him Captain Mandrax, after the downer he's taking; tempos grind to a virtual halt. He greets German audiences with a "sieg heil," brings the Copenhagen audience back to his hotel, and plays before 10,000 people at the Royal Albert Hall in London. At Aix-en-Provence, France, Cohen and his band of mostly Texan musicians avoid a traffic jam leading into a festival venue by corralling horses and riding them all the way on stage. At the Isle of Wight, a Quaalude-addled Cohen has to follow up a literally inflammatory performance by Jimi Hendrix at 3 a.m. The tour has a galvanizing effect on him. "I decided I couldn't live as a coward," he tells one magazine. "I had to sing or I was nothing. I knew all about solitude and nothing about unity." Nonetheless, after returning home to Nashville, he begins to question his art and his relationship with Suzanne, takes a lot of drugs and sinks into a deep depression ― all of which is evident on his next album, 1971's Songs of Love and Hate.
Another European tour, during which Suzanne is at home pregnant with Cohen's son, Adam, is filmed for the 1974 documentary Bird on a Wire. His band features Jennifer Warnes as one of two backing vocalists. At a show in Copenhagen, Cohen grapples with terrible P.A. feedback and stops the show. The film captures Cohen complaining to his road manager ― "I'm not an unreasonable person, but, man, this is the 16th show without any sound" ― and personally refunding disgruntled patrons. In Jerusalem, he stops mid-show, citing exhaustion, and leaves the stage, returning only after he hears the audience singing the Hebrew song "We Bring You Peace." He decides to take a shave and drop acid with his band before returning for an emotionally wrenching encore, during which he weeps and has Biblical visions. He publishes The Energy of Slaves, considered his darkest collection, including lines like, "I have no talent left / I can't write a poem anymore." Back in Montreal, he buys a house off St. Dominique Street in the Plateau. Immediately after the birth of Adam, Cohen goes to California to seek out Roshi and spends time at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center. "Roshi is Japanese, and the head monk was German; I thought it was the revenge of World War Two, making Americans walk through the snow." Cohen can't handle the harsh living conditions and runs away to Mexico, where Suzanne and Adam join him.
The liner notes to Live Songs consist of a letter written to Cohen by Daphne Richardson, a London poet who was frequently hospitalized for mental illness and corresponded with Cohen; he commissioned her to illustrate The Energy of Slaves, but she commits suicide three days before his agent calls her. He is mentioned in her suicide note. Rumours spread of Cohen's retirement from music; he denies them, but adds, "What is there to quit?" In October, he travels to Israel just before the Yom Kippur War, "to recover from the vanities of the singing profession." He has a series of sexual affairs there before signing on to entertain the troops, coming under fire in Egypt and performing by flashlight.
1974 to 1976
Despite Cohen's deteriorating relationship with Elrod, they have another child together, daughter Lorca. Shortly after, he is having numerous affairs, is increasingly depressed and is writing scathing prose. Cohen invites Roshi, with whom he is increasingly fascinated, to recording sessions for 1974's New Skin For the Old Ceremony; Roshi tells Cohen, "You should sing sadder." The album flops in North America and Britain, but sells 250,000 copies in Europe. When asked why, Cohen tells a journalist, "Maybe it's because they can't understand my lyrics." However, his first North American tour, in 1974, features many sold-out shows, including a three-night stand at the Troubadour in L.A., a gig at Toronto's Massey Hall, and a psychiatric hospital in London, Ontario. The Best of Leonard Cohen, handpicked by Cohen, comes out in 1975. He tours Europe in 1976; Laura Branigan ("Gloria") is a backing vocalist. Cohen closes 1976 by spending New Year's Eve with Suzanne, Roshi, and Joni Mitchell ― who cautions him against his plan to record with Phil Spector.
Cohen meets Spector backstage at the Troubadour in L.A. Spector invites Cohen to his place and then locks them inside, where he keeps the temperature just above freezing. "As long as we are locked up," Cohen tells him, "we might as well write songs together." For the next month they write the songs that will become Death of a Ladies Man. When recording begins, Spector becomes very threatening and at one point points a gun at Cohen's throat and says, "I love you, Leonard." Cohen replied, "I hope you love me, Phil." Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg drop by to warble backing vocals on "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On." Most of Cohen's vocals are first takes, after which Spector disappears with the tapes and mixes the album without Cohen's permission. Everyone ― the public, the critics and Cohen himself ― hates the album. Its release coincides with a time where, Cohen later told Toronto Life, "every single relationship I had broke down."
1978 to 1980
A new collection of poetry, Death of a Lady's Man ― an ever-so-slightly different title than the album released the previous year ― is released two years after advance galleys originally circulated for the book, much to the chagrin of publisher McClelland, because Cohen had entirely revamped the collection and wrote 100 new pages. In the spring of 1978, his long-ailing mother dies. Suzanne leaves him, moving to France with their children. Cohen confesses to Maclean's, "God, whenever I see her ass, I forget every pain that's gone between us." Recent Songs is released in 1979 to more acclaim than he'd received in years. A tour follows, with Warnes and future collaborator Sharon Robinson on backing vocals; a live document, Field Commander Cohen, is released in 2001. In a dry monotone, he tells CBC television interviewer Patrick Watson that it is "too late for suicide."
1984 to 1985
A new book of poetry, The Book of Mercy, and a new album, Various Positions, display a new tone in Cohen's writing, a cumulative effect of his immersion in Zen Buddhism and continuing to balance it with his Judaism. He claims he worked harder on these songs than any other, with the help of a synthesizer that made the process easier for him. Various Positions is a top 10 album in Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal, but Columbia refuses to release it in the States. Notoriously cantankerous record executive Walter Yetnikoff told him, "Look, Leonard; we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good." It comes out on a tiny U.S. indie, with only a few thousand copies pressed. The album includes "Hallelujah," a song that 25 years later eclipses "Suzanne" as his fans' most beloved and most covered Cohen song.
With production help from Cohen, Jennifer Warnes records an album of his songs ― including the previously unrecorded "First We Take Manhattan" ― which Cohen wants her to call Jenny Sings Lenny. She goes with Famous Blue Raincoat instead. It sells 1.5 million copies and resuscitates interest in his work in North America. Chatelaine names him one of the ten sexiest men in Canada.
I'm Your Man signals a full-blown renaissance, both creatively and commercially. It follows another intense depression that found Cohen endlessly rewriting lyrics, many of which are funnier than he's ever allowed himself to be. He tells Musician magazine, "As you get older, you get less willing to buy the latest version of reality." The self-deprecating "Tower of Song," about songwriting itself, sums up his frustration. After working on it for years, he finishes the lyrics one night in Montreal, calls up an engineer and records it in one take on his toy synth; Warnes later adds backing vocals. The album tops the charts in Norway and Spain for weeks on end, but performs only modestly in the U.S. "Ain't No Cure For Love" is released as a U.S. single; Cohen sends a note to CBS sales reps ― who are reeling from recent allegations of payola ― reading, "I don't really know how to do this, but I hear you'll be working my record, so here's two dollars."
In 1991, Cohen is both inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame and is made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Cohen's next album, 1992's The Future, written after the fall of the Iron Curtain, finds him more apocalyptic than ever: "I've seen the future, baby, it is murder." The song is edited down from 60 pages in his notebook. Likewise, "Democracy" is whittled down from 80 verses; Don Henley performs it at one of Bill Clinton's Inauguration Balls in 1993. The album goes double platinum in Canada, his bestselling album ever. Cohen has a three-year relationship with actress Rebecca De Mornay, 28 years his junior. More high-profile covers emerge: the Neville Brothers do "Bird on a Wire," Concrete Blonde do "Everybody Knows" for the film Pump Up the Volume, and I'm Your Fan, a tribute record featuring R.E.M., the Pixies and Nick Cave, raises his profile with new fans not attuned to his current hybrid of smooth jazz and noir-ish Europop; on that album, John Cale records "Hallelujah," the first artist to do so, which later inspires Jeff Buckley. In 1993 he wins the Juno for Best Male Vocalist, which he accepts by saying, "Only in a country like this with a voice like mine could I receive such an award." A career-spanning collection of prose and lyrics, Stranger Music, is released in 1993. Kurt Cobain, in the song "Pennyroyal Tea," dreams of living in a "Leonard Cohen afterworld." Cohen says, "I'm sorry I couldn't have spoken to the young man. There are always alternatives, and I might have been able to lay something on him." Cohen moves to Mt. Baldy, living in a two-room cabin that contains only a synthesizer, a radio, and a bed.
1995 to 2000
A Finnish accountant starts an unauthorized Leonard Cohen fan site; Cohen contacts him and offers unpublished poems, notebooks, and photos. In 1996, he is ordained as a Buddhist monk, although he says: "I wasn't really interested in Buddhism. I had a religion of my own, which was perfectly serviceable. What I was interested in was feeling better." In 1997, his manager Kelley Lynch sells his publishing company to Sony; four years later she sells the company future royalties from his 127-song catalogue. Both deals bring in a total of $13 million, placed into a trust fund for his pension, managed by investment advisor Neal Greenberg; Cohen will never see most of it. After experimenting with every antidepressant possible, Cohen pulls over to the side of the road one day and throws all his pills away. He tells Saturday Night, "I said [to myself], 'These things really don't even begin to confront my predicament.' If I am going to go down, I would rather go down with my eyes wide open." In 1999, he returns from Mt. Baldy and claims his lifetime affliction of acute clinical depression has finally lifted. He tells a British newspaper, "It's like that joke: 'When you're hitting your head against a brick wall, it feels good when it stops.' " In 2000, he is an honorary pallbearer at Pierre Trudeau's funeral, along with Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter and the Aga Khan.
Cohen's album Ten New Songs, a somnambulant collaboration with Sharon Robinson, is sparse and seductive. It's about "the pleasure of simplicity," he says. He describes the sound he's most comfortable with now as "dinky factory music," and tells Maclean's, "My range is very limited. The four notes I can sing get lower and lower. I like it down there." The album goes platinum in Canada, and at least gold in most of Europe.
Dear Heather finds Cohen reciting over arrangements both luxurious and ludicrous ― it's definitely his most oddball recording, other than the Spector record. It receives generally positive reviews at the time, but during his comeback several years later, is left off all set lists.
Cohen sues his manager of 13 years, Kelley Lynch, alleging she stole $5 million from his personal accounts and investments. He also sues his investment adviser, Neal Greenberg, who countersues for defamation and wins, resulting in Cohen's case against him being dropped. Six years later, however, unrelated to the Cohen case, Greenberg is found guilty of civil fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Cohen eventually wins a $9.5-million default judgment in his case against Lynch, after she failed to respond to allegations, though he never sees the money. Among many other claims ― some veering into the conspiratorial, involving the police department, her ex-husband, a SWAT team and Phil Spector ― Lynch says she never received a summons in the case. By the end of the trials, Cohen faces massive legal bills and a seven-figure tax bill on the missing money; he takes out a mortgage on his house to pay legal costs. A worthy tribute concert featuring Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, Antony, Jarvis Cocker and U2 is captured in a laughably mediocre film called I'm Your Man.
The Book of Longing is his first book of poetry in 21 years; a year after its 2006 release, Philip Glass sets 23 of the songs to music and debuts the work at Toronto's Luminato festival. He co-writes and produces ten songs for the album Blue Alert, by his current flame, Anjani Thomas. She is 26 younger than Cohen; they met when she sang on the original version of "Hallelujah" in 1984, and was married to his lawyer.
On May 11, Cohen opens a 250-date two-year tour in Fredericton, NB in a 700-seat theatre, bouncing onto the stage and playing a 20-song set plus four encores in front of an insatiable audience. A year later, he would play in front of 175,000 people at the Glastonbury Festival. At Christmas, "Hallelujah" appears in the British Top 40 three times: at No. 1 by talent-show contestant Alexandra Burke, at No. 2 with Jeff Buckley's version, driven by a fan campaign to try and knock Burke off the top spot, and at No. 36 with Cohen's own version. No version of the song had ever charted before. Cohen is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; a choked-up Lou Reed introduces him. Cohen opens his speech by saying, "I'm reminded of a prophetic statement by Jon Landau in the 1970s: 'I have seen the future of rock'n'roll, and it is not Leonard Cohen.' I'm very pleased to be here ― at such an unlikely event."
Cohen is urged to cancel a 55,000-seat stadium show in Tel Aviv to show support for the Palestinian cause; he refuses, and books a show at a 700-seat theatre in Ramallah as well, which organizers cancel, claiming Cohen's offer is a token gesture. Cohen donates all proceeds from the Tel Aviv show to human rights organizations working with both Israelis and Palestinians. Live in London, recorded at the O2 Arena, receives rave reviews as both a document of the tour and as one of the best recordings in his 40-year career.
In 2010, he postpones another leg of his European tour for six months due to a back injury. The 1974 film Bird on a Wire is unearthed by director Tony Palmer; the negatives had been lost long ago by Cohen, who didn't like the film; he thought it was confrontational and that he looked wasted ― which he was. Cohen is inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York, and wins a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys. He co-produces an album by Montreal singer NEeMA, and releases another new live album, Songs from the Road.
Cohen's daughter Lorca gives birth to Viva W. Cohen; Rufus Wainwright is the father. Cohen wins Spain's $70,000 Prince of Asturias Award for Letters; the jury calls him "one of the most influential authors of our time." In his speech, he mentions his first guitar teacher, as well as the key lesson he learned from the poet Lorca: "If one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty." He announces a new album, Old Ideas, which turns out to be his best since I'm Your Man, co-produced by Madonna associate Patrick Leonard and incorporating his killer live band of recent years. It's an album of atonement, of humility and healing. It's the album you would expect a 77-year-old poet with decades of drama and heartbreak to write ― and at an age when he should be taking nothing for granted, it has all the weight and attention to detail of a final statement. The music sounds perfectly lovely and content, though Cohen is still heard rumbling, "I got the darkness, baby, and I got it worse than you."
The Essential Leonard Cohen
Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia, 1967)
From the plaintive poetic beginning of "Suzanne" to the curious caterwauling that closes "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong," Cohen's debut has a lovely naiveté ― and a strong melodic sense ― before the depression took hold. John Simon's production touches are perfectly subtle, never overbearing, and Cohen's amateurish Spanish guitar sets the music far apart from any other Dylanite of the time.
I'm Your Man (Columbia, 1988)
Cohen's comeback album is top-to-bottom his best: he's ominous ("Everybody Knows"), unsettling ("First We Take Manhattan"), a cheeseball ("Ain't No Cure For Love"), a ham ("Jazz Police"), a lover ("I'm Your Man") and the self-deprecating author of the greatest song about songwriting ever written ("Tower of Song"). While his experiments with synths often misfire on other records, he stumbles upon the ideal selection of sounds here that, intentionally or not, capture both the dread and self-parody of '80s production.
Live In London (Columbia, 2009)
Cohen's second comeback album is more than merely live versions of his greatest hits: in almost every instance, they better the original studio performances and breathe new life into old lines ― once best enjoyed privately in the silence of an empty room, they are cheered on by thousands of adoring fans. Plus, Cohen's voice ― needless to say, never his strongest suit ― is utterly fantastic: rich and resonant, and yes, he finally nails "Hallelujah."
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