There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in1

Canadian poet Leonard Cohen had a singing/songwriting career spanning almost four five decades. His gravelly voice and poignant lyrics are combined with a folk music influence, inspiring listeners to either love or hate his work.

You know who I am,
you've stared at the sun,
well I am the one who loves
changing from nothing to one.2

Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Montreal on September 21, 1934. He came from a Jewish family who celebrated their descent from the Kohanim - high priests descended from Aaron, brother of Moses. His father Nathan - owner of a clothing store - died in 1944. His death left Leonard depressed, but with a trust fund that was to see him through university and allow him to pursue a writing career in his early life.

Cohen's mother, Masha, encouraged him to express himself through poetry. At age fifteen, he bought a guitar, and in the year he started at McGill University he also began a country band called "The Buckskin Boys".

While still at university he published his first collection of poems: "Let Us Compare Mythologies". Upon graduating from McGill he spent some time at Columbia University, then travelled for a period before buying a house on the Greek island of Hydra. Here he settled, writing two more collections of poetry "The Spice Box of Earth" and "Flowers for Hitler", as well as two novels: "The Favorite Game" and "Beautiful Losers". For seven years he lived mostly on Hydra with his lover/muse Marianne Jensen and her son Axel. He would travel to Canada or the United States to make money, then return to sun-drenched Hydra for another year.

Come over to the window, my little darling,
I'd like to try to read your palm.
I used to think I was some kind of Gypsy boy
before I let you take me home.
Now so long, Marianne, it's time that we began
to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.3

"For the writing of books, you have to be in one place. You tend to gather around you when you write a novel. You need a woman in your life. It's nice to have some kids around, 'cause there's always food. It's nice to have a place that's clean and orderly. I had those things and then I decided to be a songwriter."4

Cohen left Hydra and Marianne in 1967 and moved to New York to pursue a song-writing career. His poetry and novels had brought him critical acclaim but not much in the way of an income, and he approached music as a way to make more money. Originally his songs were performed by other artists: Judy Collins recorded his "Suzanne" in 1966. Leonard came to the attention of Columbia Records, and in late 1967 Columbia released Cohen's first album: Songs of Leonard Cohen.

The first album contained greats such as "Suzanne", "So long Marianne" and "Sisters of Mercy". The next few albums saw Cohen's career take off, and over the 70's and 80's he produced a new album every few years.

Cohen has been romantically linked with several women. "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" records a one night stand with Janis Joplin. He has never married, but has two children: daughter Lorna and son Adam, with artist Suzanne Elrod (not, incidentally, the Suzanne of the song), and is currently with singer Anjani Thomas - with whom he wrote her only-just-released album "Blue Alert".

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will.5

In the early years of the 1990's, Cohen sought seclusion in the Mount Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, where he was to live for 5 years. He studied and worked as one of the Buddhist monks, caring for the leader of the community, living in a tiny, bare room. He took the name Jikan, meaning "silent one". Leonard stresses that in studying zen he wasn't looking for a new religion, and that he remains Jewish. Neither did he shun the outer world - he still made frequent trips away from the center and gave fairly regular interviews.

Leonard Cohen came down from the mountain in 1999, the year he turned 65. Several more albums and a book of poetry have been added to his list of achievements.

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice.6

"Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win 'Vocalist of the Year'."7

"This guy might not be as bad as I thought. Only one in ten thousand digs Leonard Cohen."8

Opinions on Leonard Cohen are divided. He's been labeled "the poet laureate of pessimism", "the godfather of despair". His tunes are "music to slit your wrists to". His voice is "a whispered croak, a tragic monotone"9. On the other hand "Leonard Cohen could read the phone book and I'd drool"10. Some of the most prominent musicians of the last several decades list Cohen as a major influence. His songs have been covered countless times, perhaps most notably in the album "Tower of Song", in which artists and bands such as U2 combined to sing Cohen's works.

I am, of course, a Cohen devotee. I'm too young to be one of the original fanbase: like many of the younger set I first heard his songs in the movie "Pump up the Volume" (being about 15 at the time, the movie naturally sparked a love affair with Christian Slater, rather than Cohen). Several years later I heard Rufus Wainwright's version of "Hallelujah", looked up the original, and remembered that gritty voice that had sung "Everybody Knows".

His music has what I love in my favourite poems - the ability to make me feel that I understand it, without requiring me to read and comprehend every line. There's a meaning that the words portray that can't necessarily be found by dissecting rhyme and meter.

His voice is indeed gritty, gravelly, monotonic. In more recent albums he has used female backing vocals, and the combination of growled melody with pure soprano harmony is one that I find glorious.

Really, you either love him or hate him. I find a lot of the people who fall into the latter category have heard songs such as "Hallelujah" by other artists, and can't cope with Cohen's version.

Much returns to us when we read it
which we do over and over again
It is not inspired
It took days and days to write
You are a detail in it
then you are the engine of the song.11

In "Songwriters on songwriting" by Paul Zollo, Leonard Cohen is interviewed about his method of writing his songs. You will find the entire section on Leonard Cohen here, and I strongly recommend reading it.

Cohen says that, unlike songs where the tune is written first and the lyrics are made to fit it (this seems to be most usual: think Gilbert and Sullivan, Andrew Lloyd Webber etc) or those where a lyric is given a tune (I always think of David Bowie's "Changes" as being one of these...) the lyrics and the tune evolve simultaneously. There is no one without the other. As the lyrics come to mind, there is a tune with them. As the tune is changed, the lyrics have to change also. In tweaking the lyrics, the melody has to follow suit.

Leonard Cohen's songs are also immense labours of love. He has page upon page of drafts for his songs, upwards of 60 different verses written for a song that may only end up with a handful of them in the final recording. Until he is happy with a song, it remains unfinished, perhaps for decades.

{Hallelujah} was a song that took me a long time to write. {Bob} Dylan and I were having coffee the day after his concert in Paris a few years ago and he was doing that song in concert. And he asked me how long it took to write it. And I told him a couple of years. I lied actually. It was more than a couple of years.
Then I praised a song of his, "I and I," and asked him how long it had taken and he said, "Fifteen minutes."12

Magic moves from hand to hand like money

In March of 2006, Leonard won a suit brought against his manager of 17 years, and one-time lover, Kelley Lynch. The suit found that she had appropriated around US$5 million through her management of his accounts. Cohen's savings have been drastically reduced, and though Lynch was ordered to pay, she shows no signs of doing so.
But maybe, this new need for money will bring us more songs from the Ladies' man!

2016 update: Well, Leonard brought us more songs, and toured again...and again...and again. Only a couple of years after this writeup was posted Cohen was back on the tour circuit. From 2008 through to 2013, Cohen seemed to be constantly on the road, with two extensive (and extended) world tours. Three new albums were added to his discography. With the most recent: "You Want It Darker", media consensus seems to be that at 82 years old, Cohen's health is failing and his touring days are done. His muse and ex-lover Marianne died in mid-2016, and Cohen's last letter to her indicates that he believes he'll be close behind her.

Leonard left us on November 10, 2016.




Titles and honours

  • In 1968, Cohen refused Governor General's Award (in category for English language poetry or drama) for Selected Poems 1956–1968.
  • In 1991, Cohen was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
  • In 1996, he was ordained a Rinzai Buddhist monk.
  • In 2003, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honour.
  • In 2004, Beautiful Losers was chosen for inclusion in Canada Reads 2005.
  • In 2006, Cohen was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame

Quotes used in the text

  • 1: Anthem - Leonard Cohen
  • 2: You know who I am - Leonard Cohen
  • 3: So long, Marianne - Leonard Cohen
  • 4: Interview from Musician magazine in 1988 - Leonard Cohen
  • 5: If it be your will - Leonard Cohen
  • 6: Tower of Song - Leonard Cohen
  • 7: Speech accepting the Juno Award for Best Male Vocalist (Canada, 1992) - Leonard Cohen
  • 8: "The Right Path" - Johnathan Shute
  • 9: review of "The Essential Leonard Cohen" -
  • 10: Catbox archives, Everything2 - andromache01
  • 11: "This is the Poem we have been waiting for" (poem) - Leonard Cohen
  • 12: Leonard Cohen in "Songwriters on Songwriting" by Paul Zollo

Other Sources

Editor Note: Leonard Cohen died on November 7, 2016 at the age of 82 at his home in Los Angeles; cancer was a contributing cause.

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