By Stephen Pate – When the world tour ended in December 2013, Leonard Cohen was not a well man. Three years later one of the most beloved singer songwriter poets of the 1960’s was dead.
Leonard Cohen, born September 21, 1934 in Montreal, died November 7th 2016 at home in Los Angeles on November 7,2016.
“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,” Cohen’s son Adam wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone. “He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.”
Disability problems plagued Cohen
After his financial setback in 2004/2005, Leonard Cohen toured regularly until his last world tour in 2013. We were lucky enough to get 3rd row seats in April 2013. I could not believe that a 79-year-old man could sing so well, dancing with vigor across the stage for 3 hours or more. I worried about that. I have a mobility disability and I was 65 then. I am beginning to learn what age can do to the body.
What we didn’t know was that Cohen had back problems and when that tour ended in December 2013, he was not a well man.
“That five-year, 387-date global odyssey – where he played for well over three hours a night – was a massive musical (and financial) success,” reports Rolling Stone. “But not long after, Cohen began to suffer serious physical problems. “Among many other things, he had multiple fractures of the spine,” says his son Adam. “He has a lot of hard miles on him.”
Limited in mobility due to his health problems, Cohen recorded the album You Want It Darker at home sometimes from his 2nd floor bedroom and sometimes from the home studio his son Adam setup in the dining room. The tracks were then taken to the studio where Cohen supervised the musicians over the phone for the backing tracks. Apparently, he was writing new material up until his death.
Great singer songwriter poet from the 1960’s
Cohen was probably the greatest singer songwriter of the 60’s era, after perhaps only Bob Dylan. Cohen wrote songs about life, love, sex, politics and God. He was altogether a poet, novelists, songwriter and performer. His last concert series that ended in 2013 was a landmark tour that officially ended his public career, although he recorded 3 albums after that including his latest and perhaps darkest – You Want It Darker (now #1 in Pop and Rock on Amazon.com).
Leonard Cohen was born in Montreal, Quebec in Canada where he started out as a young man writing poetry and learning to play folk music on the guitar. Despite being published early, Cohen was discouraged by his prospect in Montreal. He moved to the Greek island of Hydra where he became part of the artistic bohemian culture. He lived with one of the many women in his life Marianne Ihlen who became the subject of several songs, including “So Long Marianne.” He wrote three books on Hydra – Flowers for Hitler in 1964, and the novels The Favourite Game in 1963 and Beautiful Losers in 1966.
1960’s Folk Boom
In 1967, Cohen moved to New York City to break into the by-then aging folk boom. Luckily, his poetic songwriting skills got attention. Columbia paired Cohen with first with producer John Simon for his debut album – Songs of Leonard Cohen which contained classic Cohen songs such as Suzanne, Sisters of Mercy, So Long, Marianne and Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye. Simon was a musical perfectionist who did not help the neophyte Cohen record to his potential. Today the album is a classic but in the 1960’s it only enjoyed cult status among a small band of Cohen followers.
Columbia decided to switch producers Bob Johnston who helped Bob Dylan move from folk to rock with Highway 61 Revisited. Johnston was Dylan’s producer from Blonde on Blonde until New Morning in 1970.
Bob Johnston’s laid back Texas style and sly way of working with musicians clicked. Working out of Nashville, Cohen and Johnston formed a musical bond and a successful album Songs From A Room and the classic Cohen song Bird on a Wire. Cohen’s next album with Johnston was Songs of Love and Hate. Songs like Famous Blue Raincoat were cementing Cohen’s place as a depressive poet songwriter with romantic themes that appealed to women more than men.
Cohen as a live performer
Cohen has up to that time been a terribly nervous live performer. Bob Johnston took the bull by the horns, put together a tour band for Cohen and effectively became his tour producer for the 1972 tour.
The live album was called simply Live Songs. While not a commercial success it did pave the way for future records and live tours that built Leonard Cohen’s dedicated fan base. All Music wrote “The release includes several new songs…all of which skillfully combine heavy doses of erotica, love, and depression.” The die was already cast in stone for Cohen’s life and music.
From the 1970’s to the 2000’s Leonard Cohen wrote songs and poems, recorded, toured sporadically and continued to build his fan base with classic songs like Hallelujah and Everybody Knows. In the 1990’s he became a Buddhist monk and withdrew from public life.
However, a financial setback forced him back on the road touring and recording in 2005 when it was discovered Cohen’s manager had embezzled or lost his savings, about $5 million.
For Cohen’s ever-increasing fan base, it was like the return of the lost hero or savior to some. Cohen toured almost incessantly, 387 nights over 5 years. He recorded four albums Dear Heather (2004), Old Ideas (2012), Popular Problems (2014), and You Want It Darker (2016). Certainly Old Ideas and Popular Problems are as good as anything Cohen has released in the past and express a new serenity with life along with his usual obsessions.
Rest in peace Leonard Cohen. Your gifts and legacy will live on and be cherished.
There is an awesome article on Wikipedia about Leonard Cohen that has many facts I’d long forgotten and new insights. But the music is the greatest thing. Listen.