Legendary songwriter Leonard Cohen dies at 82
Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer, songwriter, and poet best known for penning oft-covered modern classics like “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy” and “Hallelujah,” has died. He was 82 years old.
His passing was announced Thursday night on his Facebook page, and his representative confirmed that Cohen died on Monday, Nov. 7. “It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away,” reads a post on the social media site. “We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries. A memorial will take place in Los Angeles at a later date. The family requests privacy during their time of grief.”
Cohen’s passing comes just weeks after he gave a wide-ranging interview to the New Yorker, in which he told editor David Remnick, “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” The news also comes just weeks after the release of his 14th studio album, You Want It Darker, a late-period masterwork that found the singer-songwriter coming to terms with his own mortality. On the title track, for instance, he proclaimed, “I’m ready, my Lord.”
Born in 1934 in Quebec, Cohen first made his impact as a poet as a teenager, publishing the award-winning Let Us Compare Mythologies in 1951. Though he toyed with music while at McGill University in Montreal — he had a square-dance band called the Buckskin Boys — Cohen didn’t have a significant impact on music until 1966, when he moved to New York City and met Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond, the same executive who would later sign Bruce Springsteen. Singer Judy Collins recorded the Cohen songs “Dress Rehearsal Rag” and “Suzanne” on her album In My Life, which marked the first of many times Cohen’s material was memorably covered by his peers.
Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out in 1967 and was a commercial smash in the U.K. He followed it with 1969’s Songs From a Room, which was recorded in Cohen’s new home of Nashville. Songs of Love and Hate followed in 1971, the same year that several of Cohen’s songs appeared prominently in Robert Altman’s film McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
Cohen continued to write and publish as a poet, though his musical output remained robust throughout the 1970s. By the end of the decade, his began to toy with his signature sparse, folky style by experimenting with Mariachi flourishes on 1979’s Recent Songs and modern keyboard technology on 1985’s Various Positions. As time moved on, Cohen began to perform less and less and took greater breaks in between albums (there are nine years between The Future and Ten New Songs, and eight between Dear Heather and Old Ideas).
Undoubtedly Cohen’s most enduring song is “Hallelujah,” a tune he recorded for Various Positions. Cohen worked on the track for some time, possibly crafting as many as 80 verses for the song over the years. Though the track was not a hit for him, it got a second life in 1991 when John Cale gained some commercial traction with a cover. But it really exploded in 1994, when Jeff Buckley recorded a version of the song for his debut album Grace. “Hallelujah” became Buckley’s signature song, and the performance grew to even greater prominence following Buckley’s tragic death in 1997. When asked about his thoughts on the “Hallelujah,” Cohen recalled in a TV interview, “I like the song. I think it’s a good song…One is always trying to write a good song, like everything else, you put in your best effort. It took a long time. The song came out in ‘83 or ‘84, and then, the only person who seemed to recognize the song was Dylan. Nobody else recognized it until quite a long time later.”
“Hallelujah” has also been recorded by Rufus Wainwright, Bob Dylan, k.d. Lang, Bon Jovi, and countless contestants on American Idol (including season seven contestant Jason Castro, who had a minor hit with it and created another moment for Buckley’s version). Other famously covered Cohen songs include “Suzanne” (Collins, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack) and “Bird on a Wire” (Joe Cocker, Johnny Cash, Soul Asylum, Katey Sagal).
While Cohen earned commercial and critical success throughout his career, he ran into trouble during in the early-00s: He sued his longtime manager Kelley Lynch for stealing money from him, and though the court ruled in Cohen’s favor, he was unable to collect the damages awarded. In dire financial straits, Cohen embarked on his first tour in 15 years, playing well-received sets at huge festivals like Coachella and Glastonbury. He toured continuously between 2008 and 2013.
Though he never married, Cohen engaged in several long-term relationships over the course of his life. Marianne Ihlen, a Norwegian woman he met on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, was an early muse, inspiring the songs “So Long, Marianne,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” and “Bird on the Wire.” They stayed in touch long after their relationship unraveled, and Cohen sent Ihlen a poignant farewell letter before her death from leukemia in July 2016. “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,” he wrote. “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
Cohen also had relationships with the artist Suzanne Elrod in the 1970s (they had two children, son Adam and daughter Lorca), the photographer Dominique Issermann in the 1980s, and the actress Rebecca De Mornay in the 1990s.
Cohen’s creative influence is massive, as his intense lyrical style, unique musicality, and deadpan delivery informed such artists as Nick Cave, R.E.M., and even U2 (who collaborated on “Tower of Song” for the soundtrack to the 2006 documentary film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man). He has been inducted to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, was given the Companion of the Order of Canada (the nation’s equivalent of knighthood), and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 by contemporary rocker and poet Lou Reed.
For all his accomplishments, Cohen was not inclined to draw any grand conclusions about his life or work in his later days.
“As I approach the end of my life, I have even less and less interest in examining what have got to be very superficial evaluations or opinions about the significance of one’s life or one’s work,” he told the New Yorker. “I was never given to it when I was healthy, and I am less given to it now.”
With additional reporting by Oliver Gettell.