He was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Montreal.
His father, who had an engineering degree but ran a clothing business, died when he was nine years old.
During degree studies that were solid rather than stellar, he did receive one endorsement indicating future directions: an award for creative writing.
A member of the mid-60s bohemian scene, he published two books of poetry by the time he was in his mid-twenties. Two novels also hit the bookshops.
Breaking away from his Canadian roots, he established a second home on the Aegean island of Hydra, a beautiful and very hilly Greek island where you can still find the occasional donkey carrying baggage up and down steep cobbled lanes.
When his debut album was released late in 1967, he was thirty-three years old.
What followed was a career of songwriting and performing that earned him flocks of adoring fans around the world. Nowhere was this seen more clearly than in the outpouring of grief following his death in November 2016.
He is, of course, Leonard Norman Cohen, and his debut album was entitled simply Songs of Leonard Cohen.
An almost indecent proportion of the ten songs on Songs of Leonard Cohen are so well-known they have become part of the fabric of popular music.
Sensual spiritualism swirls and sways through “Suzanne”.
Somehow you simultaneously smile and weep at the jaunty heartbreak of “Hey, that’s now way to say goodbye”.
The enigmatic “Sisters of Mercy” will sweeten your night and sooth your sunburned soul.
When you do finally say “So long, Marianne” you’ll be flushed with an emotional colour almost shocking in its post-coital vividness even as it sings of angels.
These four deserve their place in the Human Condition Songwriting Hall of Fame (Poetic Observations Section).
But the remainder of the album is far from ordinary. Cohen’s ability to paint both carnal desire and existential suffering were unmatched at the time.
With one hand on the hexagram and one hand on the girl
I balance on a wishing well that all men call the world.
“Stories of the street”
It’s been said before, but really only Dylan and Paul Simon were seeking to connect with listeners deeply, passionately, alchemically through the often-derided medium of popular song. And no-one showed us the mythic power and sordid inertia of the philosopher-lover better than Leonard.
As a callow youth entirely devoid of experience in either Life or its sub-category Relationships, I found his music inaccessible and—to be honest—depressing.
In retrospect this is obviously because (a) the aforementioned naivety provided no access points to his adult observations, and (b) I was already depressed enough that Laughing Len’s subdued musings were more intimidating than cathartic.
Yes, one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.
“Stories of the street”
These days I enjoy the songs for the novella portraits and tone pictures they are. Often I can let the wordsmithery seduce me into a state of gallery-like engagement somewhere between active and passive (An example is “The stranger song” which teems with arcane—perhaps even lysergic—imagery).
Either the characters reach out, or they don’t. Usually the more human, more fallible Cohen’s protagonists are, the more I like them. When a nip of wry humour sneaks in too, that’s the best.
I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me.
But the room just filled up with mosquitos,
they heard that my body was free.
“One of us cannot be wrong”**
Contrariwise, some lyrics (“Master song”, for example) have a whiff of pomposity around them that still repels. Which, given the writer’s propensity for appearing (as a friend once observed) haughty and self-opinionated, is kind of hypocritical. Maybe obtuse poetic imagery can still manage to be an unflatteringly accurate mirror, eh?
The Cohen voice became, over the long decades of his performing and recording career, so familiar that—like the songwriter-poet known to his teachers as Robert Zimmerman—it is no longer comparable to anyone other than himself. But it was not always thus.
Reviewing Songs of Leonard Cohen for Rolling Stone in March ’68, Arthur Schmidt wrote:
It is a strange voice — he hits every note, but between each note he recedes to an atonal place — his songs are thus given a sorely needed additional rhythm.
Herr Schmitt was clearly not aware he was listening to the first flowering of an icon-to-be. If he had been able to gaze into the future, perhaps his ratio of gold to dross for Songs might have been more generous:
The record as a whole is another matter — I don’t think I could ever tolerate all of it. There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three are the flaming shits.*
Scarcely the breathless five star commendation the album now attracts.
Leonard Cohen’s romantic visions seduce old and young, gallant damsel and languid knight. Listening again to “Winter lady” I was transported back to the choking yearning of my lockdown youth while the music softened a middle-aged mouth into a gentle kiss on the cheek of my sleeping partner.
It’s not everyone’s cup of retsina, this poetry-in-song stuff. Even those who love Len probably don’t listen every day. But if you have a place in your soul-cupboard for the mystic memorabilia of the heart, there’s probably room for an album by Leonard Cohen, a louche philosopher who found beauty in anguish and redemption in the threadbare perseverance of the eternal pilgrim. Songs of Leonard Cohen would probably be the one.
* For the record, the RS reviewer loved “Suzanne”, “The Master Song” and “The Stranger Song”. The entire review can be found here.
** This was one of the lyrics the RS reviewer hated. It’s one of my favourites.
Leonard Cohen - Songs of Leonard Cohen Label: CBS Released: December, 1967 Duration: 38:57