2016 is certainly a year for the deaths of famous people. There has been an astounding number of musicians, actors and entertainers to pass away this year. The latest is celebrated singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. He was 82 when he died on 7th November, just three weeks after the release of his final album.
His early years were certainly colourful. Cohen was born in an English-speaking area to Jewish parents in Canada’s French-speaking province of Quebec. On his mother’s side, he was the grandson of Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline, a Talmudic writer. On his father’s side, he was the grandson of Lyon Cohen, founder of the group Canadian-Jewish Congress.
He may have had a political and religious activist upbringing, but he felt a calling to creativity fairly early on. During his late teenage years and 20s – indeed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he wrote poetry and novels. Surprisingly, he did not begin a music career until 1967 when he was 33 years old.
Leonard Cohen Music Career
Feeling disappointed with a lack of success with fiction and poetry writing, he moved to the US to pursue music. He was part of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” crowd and Warhol most likely influenced his style in those early years. He met Judy Collins who would cover one of his most famous songs “Suzanne” and a number of others later on. She invited him to a fundraising event that also featured Jimi Hendrix. Pushed into going on stage, he performed Suzanne and walked off halfway through, thinking the crowd didn’t like it.
However, it was to prove the making of Cohen. The crowd loved him and his song “Suzanne” which he always maintained was not a song, but a poem. Audiences took to his unconventional style and way with words, coming from a background of poetry and fiction. It was, for many, something different in a time dominated by pop music.
Music Career Takes Off
His first album met with popular and critical acclaim. Called simply Songs of Leonard Cohen, it spent over a year in the album charts in the UK and the US. By 1968, he was appearing regularly on television and made his UK debut on the BBC in 1968 in which he performed a duet with Julie Felix. The next few years were prolific for Cohen. He launched his first tour in 1970 and in 1971, three of his songs appeared on the soundtrack of McCabe and Miller.
The fame did not let up. In 1971, he appeared at the prestigious Isle of Wight Festival and toured again in 1972 and 1973, both including legs in Israel. Most notably, he performed for Israeli soldiers during the Yom Kippur War.
Cohen on Reflection
Cohen’s appeal across the decades was in the fact that he was willing to experiment. In the 1970s, he changed bands several times and regularly played around with his musical style and sound system set up. While being seen as experimental, it’s important to remember that Cohen himself did not rate his own musical talent. It’s arguable that he still perceived himself as a poet at heart. He wished he could play his guitar better and sang about his own life, experiences that he felt did not amount to much.
His most famous track “Hallelujah” is one of the most iconic songs of all time. Covered at least six time, notably by Alexandra Burke for The X-Factor, Jeff Buckley, and by Rufus Wainwright for the soundtrack of the film Shrek, Cohen is an icon to many people who may never have heard of him until his death.
Although Cohen had cancer, it was not what killed him. He had a sudden fall at his home the day before and passed away in his sleep. Cancer made him ill that it was a contributing factor to his fall.