Brexit. Trump. The passing of David Bowie, Prince, George Martin, Terry Wogan, among many other musical luminaries – 2016 continues to prove itself a cruel year on this day, which sees the passing of Leonard Cohen. The singer, songwriter, poet and novelist who leaves behind work that is as exquisite as it is prolific. Many agree that Cohen is second only to Bob Dylan in his influence as a cultural figure who became known to the world in the 1960s. The music is unmistakeable – his deep, gravelly drawl underpinned by ingenious musical arrangements.
Cohen was born on the 21st September 1934 in Westmount, Quebec, one of Montreal’s English speaking regions. The grandson of a rabbi, his upbringing was a middle class Jewish one, however his father died when he was only nine years old. Poet Irving Layton was a teacher at his school, and would become Cohen’s literary mentor.
While Cohen did play guitar in his early years, poetry was his main focus, with his first collection being published in a magazine in 1954. The same issue included work by Layton. During his time at McGill university, he was strongly influenced by Yeats. His first book of peoms, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published a year after he graduated in 1956.
In the early '60s, Cohen chose a reclusive life for writing his poetry, purchasing a house on the Greek island of Hydra, where he had more poetry published, and also his first novels, The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers. The latter stirred up controversy with its explicit sexual content, and both sold poorly.
Disappointed with his lack of literary success, Cohen moved to the United States in the hopes of faring better as a folk singer-songwriter. He began hanging out with Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’ crowd, and after a few appearances at folk festivals, was signed to Columbia Records. Despite clashing with producer John Simon over instrumentation (Cohen wished for a sparse sound, rather than all the strings and horns added), his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, became a cult hit in both the US and the UK.
Cohen departed from his minimal folk sound in the 70s, first working with pianist and arranger John Lissauer – the new sound won plaudits for his fourth LP, New Skin For the Old Ceremony. Another shake up came in the form of his album Death Of A Ladies’ Man in 1977. This album was produced by Phil Spector, who in his own words had a ‘wagnerian’ approach to rock music, adding layer upon layer to the songs he produced. This of course conflicted with Cohen’s previous approach, and predictably caused great friction between the two – Spector would mix much of the music in secret, and Cohen even alleges the producer once threatened him with a crossbow. The singer called the production ‘grotesque’.