Leonard Cohen isn't like most octogenarians. Not only does he regularly play stunning three-and-a-half-hour concerts, but he continues to make music every bit as good as the classics he released five decades ago. If you don't believe us, check out "Almost Like the Blues" and "Nevermind" from his new LP Popular Problems. We asked our readers to vote for their favorite songs by Cohen. Here are the results.
Few people were paying attention to Leonard Cohen by 1988. The miraculous resurrection of "Hallelujah" was still years away, and to many he seemed like an aging 1960s folk singer destined to play clubs for the rest of his life. But then he released I'm Your Man, a brilliant album full of synthpop songs about everything from neo-nazi's to the art of songwriting to whatever the hell "Jazz Police" is about. The title track is a profoundly horny song of pure lust. "And if you want a doctor," Cohen sings. "I'll examine every inch of you." He's played it at virtually every concert he's done since 1988, and it never fails to make the ladies in the audience coo.
Leonard Cohen has written a ridiculous amount of great lines over his long career, but few can compare to "Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." It's the key line on "Anthem," one of the standout tracks from his 1992 disc The Future. The song has sent comfort to people in hard times for many years, including famed blogger/journalist Andrew Sullivan. "[That line] that has always stayed with me," he wrote in 2005. "It kept me going in a bleak moment in my life, when I thought, as we all sometimes do, that I couldn’t see how good could come out of the dreck I had turned my life into."
A lot of people were surprised when Leonard Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, including Cohen himself. "I'm reminded of the the prophetic statement by Jon Landau in the early 1970s," he said. "He said, 'I've seen the future of rock and roll and it is not Leonard Cohen.'" From there, he couldn't do much else but read the lines to his 1988 classic "Tower of Song." The crowd laughed at lines like "I ache in the places where I used to play," but they slowly realized he was delivering a profound statement about his life's work and hushed up.
Back in May of 1988, Leonard Cohen decided to push "Heart With No Companion" towards the end of the night and open up his show with "Dance Me to the End of Love." He must have really thought it was a good move because, as far as we can tell, it's opened up every single concert he's done ever since — and we're talking well north of 400 consecutive shows. The 1984 song was written on a dinky Casio synthesizer he found in a tourist shop in Times Square. As author Sylvie Simmons tells it in her incredible Cohen biography I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, the machine didn't even have an output jack. Cohen insisted they find a way to make it work in the studio, and the result is a tune that sends chills down the spine of many Cohen fans because they know it means a magical night of music is just beginning.
Long before he released a single note of music, Leonard Cohen encountered Marianne Ihlen, a beautiful Norwegian woman that would serve as his lover and muse for many years. She was married to writer Axel Jensen when they met and she'd later have his child, but the attraction between Ihlen and Cohen was intense and they eventually they found room in their lives for each other. She inspired many of his most passionate love songs off his early albums, including "So Long, Marianne." He spent months trying to get it just right, and the end result kicks off side two of his 1967 debut LP Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen was going through a bout of depression while living on the Greek Island of Hydra when he noticed a bird sitting by himself on a telephone wire. He began writing a poem comparing himself to the lonely bird, but it would be a long time before he turned it into a song he was happy with. During the 1968 Songs From a Room sessions in Nashville, Cohen ran through the song over and over until he got so frustrated that he sent most of the musicians home and gave up. Days before the final session, he simply walked up to the microphone and spontaneously found a whole new way to approach the work. It became one of his most beloved songs, and a staple of his live show for decades.
"Everybody Knows" must be the most pessimistic song in Cohen's vast catalog. Here are things that everybody supposedly knows: The dice are loaded, the boat is leaking, the captain lied, the poor stay poor, the rich get rich, the plague is coming and moving fast. It's quite the bummer, but somehow packaged all together you get the feeling we're going to survive this parade of horrors together. Over the years it's been covered by everyone from Don Henley to Concrete Blonde to Rufus Wainwright.
Sometime in the early 1970s, a thief stole Leonard Cohen's old raincoat from Marianne Ihlen's New York apartment. God only know what happened to it, but the thief almost certainly had no idea he was stealing an object that belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, if not the Smithsonian. It was that very coat that inspired Cohen to write one of his most beloved and mysterious songs. It's written in the form of a letter, possibly to the narrator's brother, who stole his lover, Jane.
"Famous Blue Raincoat" has captivated listeners ever since it first appeared on 1971's Songs of Love and Hate, though Cohen admits he's not happy with the lyrics. "It was a song I've never been satisfied with," he said in 1994. "It's not that I've resisted an impressionistic approach to songwriting, but I've never felt that this one, that I really nailed the lyric. I'm ready to concede something to the mystery, but secretly I've always felt that there was something about the song that was unclear."
There was a real Suzanne. Contrary to what the song implies, she never had sex with Leonard Cohen. The stunningly gorgeous Suzanne Verdal did, however, serve tea and oranges when he visited her and her boyfriend, renowned Canadian sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, at their home in Montreal. Cohen was forced, as the song says, to "touch her perfect body with his mind." The song began as a poem and was first recorded by Judy Collins in 1966. Cohen cut the song himself the following year. It's the first track on his debut record, kicking off one of the most incredible careers in music history.
The year 1984 was a pretty amazing time for pop music, with new releases by Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Van Halen filling the airwaves. Amidst all that greatness came Leonard Cohen's Various Positions, which landed with a thud towards the end of the year. Interest in Cohen was so low that Columbia initially refused to even release it, figuring it wouldn't be worth the effort of printing copies and sending them to stores. Virtually nobody paid attention to a little song called "Hallelujah" that kicked off the second side of the LP.
Cohen, however, knew he had something special. He spent an unusually long time on the lyrics, obsessing over every word and going through 80 different drafts. When the Velvet Underground's John Cale asked him to send over the lyrics so he could cover it, he received a 15-page fax full of discarded verses. Cale cobbled together a new version of the song, which he recorded on the piano. It was that version that Jeff Buckley covered on his 1994 LP Grace, and slowly the song became an absolute sensation, covered so many times that Adam Sandler spoofed the practice at the 12/12/12 charity show at Madison Square Garden.
By now, people that have never even heard the name "Leonard Cohen" know "Hallelujah." It's become a modern-day hymn, performed everywhere from street corners to American Idol. Even people that feel they could go the rest of their lives without hearing it again get a lump in their throats when the spotlight hits Cohen at his shows and he begins singing, "I've heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord…"