For Leonard Cohen, the end came with a fall in the night

Canadian singer Leonard Cohen greeting the public during the international Festival of Beincassim.
Canadian singer Leonard Cohen greeting the public during the international Festival of Beincassim. PHOTO: AFP

(NYTIMES) - When Leonard Cohen's family announced last week that he had died at 82, it gave no cause.

Although the poet and songwriter had been open about his failing health in recent months, fans knew little other than what The New Yorker reported in its weekly radio show, that Cohen had been battling cancer.

On Wednesday (Nov 16), however, Cohen's manager, Robert B Kory, offered more detail about his client's death.

"Leonard Cohen died during his sleep following a fall in the middle of the night on Nov 7," Kory said in a statement. "The death was sudden, unexpected and peaceful."

In the months before his death, Cohen was busy. Even as his body was growing frail and he was experiencing pains in his back, he was working diligently to bring several projects to completion, according to friends and colleagues.

In addition to finishing his last album, You Want It Darker, which was released in October, he was working on two other musical projects and a book of poetry.

"He felt the window getting narrower," said Patrick Leonard, a producer and songwriter who had worked closely with Cohen on his last three albums. "He wanted to use the time as productively as he could to finish the work that he was so good at and so devoted to."

Cohen, whose working pace was slow - he took five years to write his most famous song, Hallelujah - had been extremely productive in recent years, touring steadily between 2008 and 2013 and releasing three studio albums since 2012. Some of that work, his collaborators say, was a matter of polishing material he had been working on for many years.

Leonard said that when Cohen died, they were at work on an album of string arrangements of his songs and another of songs that he said were inspired by old rhythm-and-blues grooves.

Describing their working method, Leonard, who has collaborated with Madonna, Pink Floyd and many other artists, said that he would sometimes get emails through the night in which Cohen tweaked lyrics. Then Cohen joked about it in further emails the next day.

"I feel really grateful that I have been able to have my email ding," Leonard said, "and there's a new Leonard Cohen lyric."

At times this year, people who wrote to Cohen - usually a dependable correspondent on email - got an automatic response.

Chris Douridas, a host on the California public radio station KCRW, got a terse "Unable to read/reply," and got a worried feeling.

"It told me that he was unplugging from the digital world," Douridas said.

But that message was also Cohen's way of keeping distractions at bay while he worked.

In the weeks and months before his death, he appears to have engaged in as much creative activity as he could handle. Leonard said that he emailed Cohen a set of new R&B tracks the morning he died. Other friends spoke of dining with him just days before.

Last month, Cohen and his son, Adam, who produced You Want It Darker, were interviewed by Douridas in a promotional event for the album at the Consulate General of Canada Los Angeles. Cohen had to be helped to his seat and appeared short of breath. But he spoke with his typical mixture of spiritual wisdom and dark, self-effacing wit.

"I've often said that if I knew where the good songs came from I'd go there more often," Cohen said, in his dry, deep baritone, when asked about his songwriting method.

Douridas said that after the event, he asked Adam Cohen whether fans could expect another album. "He genuinely seemed to not know the answer to that question," Douridas said.

Through a representative, Adam Cohen declined to comment for this article, but in a Facebook post last week announcing his father's burial, he wrote: "As I write this I'm thinking of my father's unique blend of self-deprecation and dignity, his approachable elegance, his charisma without audacity, his old-world gentlemanliness and the hand-forged tower of his work."

Even near death, Cohen's debonair charm was intact. Sharon Robinson, a singer and songwriter who has been a longtime collaborator of his, said she was sitting in the front row at the Canadian consulate event, and she gave Cohen a hug as he stepped down from his seat.

"He said into my ear, 'You look beautiful, darling,'" Robinson recalled.

She had last seen Cohen in August, just before she left for a concert tour. He invited her to his house, and after first offering her "chocolate, ice cream and sandwiches", played her the new album on a boombox.

As the songs played, he closed his eyes and recited the words quietly to himself, she said, a ritual she had witnessed many times before. But this time he was working against the clock.

"He was dealing with the ultimate challenge, I suppose," Robinson said, "and wanted to make sure that he got everything out that he wanted to say."