Leonard Cohen grabs a drink, circa 1970s.
Singing elegant, melancholic songs in a glamorously tattered voice, Leonard Cohen emerged from Montreal in the 1960s, an artist well into his thirties before he even made his first album. After a few records, he was royalty, on equal footing with Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, and other top-notch singer-songwriters. His songs sound like sinful confidences shared over a bottle of blood-red wine; sadness is his strong suit, though sex is never far from his mind.
Over the years he's racked up classics like "So Long Marianne," "First We Take Manhattan," and the gorgeous ballad "Hallelujah," which in the 1990s and 2000s became ubiquitous in cover versions by Jeff Buckley and others. After escaping into semi-retirement around the turn of the millennium, Cohen found that his former business manager had bilked him out of $5 million, and in 2008 the 73-year-old was forced to hit the road. Cohen's world tour — his first in 15 years — turned out to be triumphant, as Cohen testified for three hours a night to adoring audiences.
Cohen, who was born in 1934 to a middle class Montreal family, already had his style down on 1967's Songs of Leonard Cohen. No one has ever accused him of being a real guitarist, but for some reason, you can always tell it's him playing. In "Suzanne," "Master Song," and the peerless "So Long, Marianne," he sounds bemused by his own romantic travails, inventing what one critic has called "his tuneless, grave, infinitely self-mocking vocal presence." His songs are strictly verse-chorus-verse, with hardly any bridges or fancy bits. Robert Altman used three of the tunes in the soundtrack to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, adding to Cohen's legend.
Songs From a Room (1969) is thin and sparse, weighed down by "Bird on a Wire," a sweet song which became a schlock standard somewhere along the line. But 1971's Songs of Love and Hate is the real deal. Even the track with the children's choir is so intense you can't turn it off. Bursting with wit and imagination, Cohen sings about jealous rivals ("Famous Blue Raincoat"), demon lovers ("Avalanche"), virgin warrior goddesses ("Joan of Arc"), and God knows what else ("Let's Sing Another Song, Boys"). New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974) is almost as great, featuring the boho romance "Chelsea Hotel No. 2."
Cohen has never been in a hurry to make a record just to have product in the racks. Apparently he has the novel idea that before you make an album, you should wait until you have an album's worth of good songs. So sometimes his output is sporadic. Most titles have been valuable. The only total waste is the Phil Spector collaboration Death of a Ladies' Man, though the song title of "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On" made tongues wag in 1977. Recent Songs (1979) has "Came So Far for Beauty." (Next line: "And I left so much behind.") 1985's Various Positions has "Hallelujah," which unexpectedly became Cohen's signature song after Jeff Buckley revived it and a parade of artists covered it through the 2000s. I'm Your Man (1988) perversely adds cheesy Eurodisco synths and disco-girl vocals to some of his bleakest tunes: "Everybody Knows," "First We Take Manhattan," "Tower of Song." The Future has a hilarious eight-minute send-up of Irving Berlin's "Always," plus political/spiritual statements along the lines of "Anthem" ("There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in").
By the end of the decade Cohen's rep as a sage elder was ultra tight, inspiring doom disciples such as Kurt Cobain, Trent Reznor, and Nick Cave. He spent most of the 1990s becoming a monk on a mountaintop Zen Buddhist retreat in L.A., while Cobain was up in Seattle singing, "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally." Ten New Songs (2001) was his first work in 10 years, offering "Alexandra's Leaving" and "You Have Loved Enough," the epitaph Cohen has been writing for himself throughout his career. Of his five live albums, Field Commander Cohen isn't half bad. Surely it's better than 2004's Dear Heather, a collaboration with his romantic partner Anjani Thomas. They also worked together on 2006's Blue Alert. That year also found Cohen publishing a collection of poems and drawings entitled Book of Longing.
In 2005 the singer suffered every boomer's nightmare — his retirement fund was empty. Cohen alleged that former manager Kelley Lynch bamboozled him for more than $5 million, and for all intents and purposes he was broke. He created a short-term fix by hitting the road and touring the globe. Everywhere he went — from Coachella to Glastonbury — kudos followed, and pundits believed him to be at the top of his game. When it came time to give his speech at his 2008 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he recited the lyrics of his "Tower of Song."
On January 31, Cohen was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards. The DVD Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 was also released in 2010.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this story.