Captivating generations with his lyrics

NEW YORK • Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet and novelist who became one of the foremost songwriters of the contemporary era and whose enigmatic song Hallelujah became a celebratory anthem recorded by hundreds of artists, has died. He was 82.

His death was announced on Thursday on his Facebook page.

No details were available on the cause. Adam Cohen, his son and producer, said his father died peacefully at home in Los Angeles.

During a musical career that spanned nearly five decades, Cohen wrote songs that addressed - in spare language that could be both oblique and telling - themes of love and faith, despair and exaltation, solitude and connection, war and politics.

With his broodingly handsome looks and a deep, weathered voice that grew rougher and more expressive with the years, he gained a reputation as, to use the phrase his record company concocted for an advertising campaign, "the master of erotic despair".

He never had a song in the Top 40, yet Hallelujah and several of his other songs, including Suzanne, First We Take Manhattan and Bird On The Wire, were recorded by performers as disparate as Nina Simone, R.E.M. and Johnny Cash.

His lyrics were written with such grace and emotional depth that his songwriting was regarded as almost on the same level as that of Bob Dylan - including by Dylan himself.

Cohen was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

He laboured over his songs, spending five years on Hallelujah, which appeared on his 1984 album Various Positions and is generally acknowledged as his masterpiece.

The ballad, infused with both religiosity and earthiness, was popularised by Jeff Buckley in 1994, and some 200 artists, from Dylan to Justin Timberlake, have sung or recorded it.

In The New Yorker last month, Dylan, who recently was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, explained why he found Cohen's songs so powerful.

"These are all great songs, deep and truthful as ever and multidimensional, surprisingly melodic, and they make you think and feel."

Leonard Norman Cohen was born on Sept 21, 1934, in Montreal.

His family was prominent in the city's Jewish community, founding a synagogue and owning several clothing and manufacturing businesses. "I had a very messianic childhood," he would later say.

He graduated in English from Montreal's McGill University in 1955 and published his first volume of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, a year later. He later moved to New York, where he studied briefly at Columbia University and read his poetry in coffee shops.

He lived in London before impulsively travelling to Greece in 1960 and buying a house on the island of Hydra, where he wrote a pair of novels: The Favourite Game, published in 1963, and Beautiful Losers, published in 1966.

But his initial lack of commercial success was discouraging and he turned to songwriting. "I found it was very difficult to pay my grocery bill," he said.

On Hydra, he met a married Norwegian woman named Marianne Ihlen. She divorced her husband and she and Cohen lived together for several years. She was often described as his muse in the 1960s.

He also had well-known relationships with singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and actress Rebecca De Mornay. "My reputation as a ladies' man was a joke," he said. "It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone."

In the 1970s, he had two children, Adam and Lorca, with his commonlaw wife, photographer Suzanne Elrod.

Cohen, raised Jewish and observant throughout his life, became interested in Zen Buddhism in the late 1970s and often visited the Mount Baldy monastery, east of Los Angeles.

Around 1994, he abandoned his music career and moved to the monastery, where he was ordained a Buddhist monk and took the name Jikan, which means "silence". But in 2001, he released Ten New Songs.

In 2005, he sued his former manager Kelley Lynch, accusing her of defrauding him of millions of dollars that he had set aside as a retirement fund.

The next year, a judge awarded Cohen US$9.5 million, but he was unable to collect any of the money.

In 2008, driven in part by financial necessity, he hit the road for the first time in 15 years for a gruelling world tour.

"It was a long, ongoing problem of a disastrous and relentless indifference to my financial situation," he told The New York Times in 2009. "I didn't even know where the bank was."

His final studio album, You Want It Darker, was released last month.

Ihlen, the inspiration for his well known song, So Long, Marianne, died in July.

The New Yorker profile of an ailing Cohen last month recounted how, after being told she had only a few days left to live, he wrote her:

"Well Marianne, it's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine."

Two days later, he learnt in an e-mail that she had died, after smiling and lifting her hand when his note was read to her.

His survivors include his two children, a grandson, and his companion, singer Anjani Thomas.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2016, with the headline 'Captivating generations with his lyrics'. Subscribe