“If someone could guarantee me that the preliminaries will not be too disagreeable, I look forward to…” This was Leonard Cohen’s response to a question asked of him in a 2009 interview with the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi. What he was looking forward to is what ultimately happened Thursday. Poet, novelist, songwriter, Leonard Cohen has died at the age of 82. His death was confirmed on his Facebook page.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Adam Cohen, his son and producer issued the following:
My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.
The record his son is referring to is the recently released You Want it Darker, an album hailed by the magazine as a “late career triumph.” The album was recorded as Cohen was suffering from back issues that kept him confined to the house. His son created a recording studio in the house the elder Cohen had been sharing with his daughter Lorca. The resulting album is nothing short of a beautiful goodbye.
Cohen’s most famous composition, “Hallelujah,” has been performed by everyone from Bob Dylan to high school choirs. The most renowned version was done by Jeff Buckley nearly a decade after it was first recorded. The song was recorded for his 1984 album Various Positions, an album seen as not commercial enough by his label. The spiritual ballad has been so ubiquitous since Buckley brought it to the forefront that Cohen himself indicated that maybe there should be a moratorium on performing it. In the coming days, however, it is sure to appear many times over in tribute to its creator.
Cohen began his career as a musician later in life than most of his contemporaries. He was a highly regarded poet and novelist, but was unable to parlay that into a career. So he turned to music in an attempt to make a living through his writing. His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen was released in 1967, when he was 33 years old. His song “Suzanne” from his debut, was recorded by Judy Collins as well as many other artists, launching his musical career.
Known among his fans as “The Godfather of Gloom,” Cohen still possessed a sardonic wit, once suggesting that perhaps his label should give away razor blades with his albums. Despite the grim and somber tone of his work, he influenced not only his contemporaries but a generation of pop musicians to follow. According to the New York Times, his work has been recorded over 2,000 times by everyone from the aforementioned Dylan, Collins and Buckley to Elton John, U2 and R.E.M.
Cohen was born in Montreal on Sept. 21, 1934 to Nathan and Masha Klonitzky, his father a Polish emigre, his mother the daughter of a Lithuanian Rabbi. His father, a clothier, died when Cohen was nine years old, leaving a trust fund that allowed Cohen to pursue his writing interests.
He enrolled at McGill University, studying English. Upon graduation, he spent time pursuing a graduate degree with little satisfaction, likening it to “passion without flesh, love without climax.”
Cohen’s eventual move to the U.S. fostered the musical career he sought. He became a member of Andy Warhol’s inner circle and began to achieve success as a touring musician throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. Always a spiritual, if not necessarily religious man, Cohen chose to retreat to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in the Los Angeles area in 1994, becoming an ordained Zen Buddhist monk in 1996.
Following his five year retreat, Cohen again returned to the studio in 1999. The result was the 2001 album Ten New Songs. He continued writing, recording and touring through the early years of the 21st century. A bitter legal dispute with his former manager Kelley Lynch, however, left him financially strapped.
In 2008, he embarked on an extensive tour, mainly out of financial necessity. Between 2008 and 2010, Cohen performed all over the world without rest. Stops on his tour included New Zealand, Canada, Europe and performances at the Glastonbury and Coachella Festivals.
Cohen often referred to his career as a three-act play. Thursday night, the curtain was drawn on the final act of this legendary career. His final album was released in October and is a fitting cap on the life of a true Renaissance man.
“He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them”