DarkerPoet, sage or songwriter – talent will shine through

Jun 2019 DarkerPoet, sage or songwriter – talent will shine through

By Derek Mead

LEONARD COHEN was born on September 21, 1934, in Westmount Quebec Canada into a Jewish family observing Orthodox Judaism.

He enjoyed a career as a poet and novelist in the 1950’s and early 1960’s before commencing a career in music from 1967. His love of music was encouraged by his mother and he learned to play the acoustic guitar forming a country-folk group before moving on to the classical guitar. His total career lasted until his death in November 2016 but we will firstly look at his progress from the early 1950’s as a poet and novelist through music and song in the late 1960s and 1970s with glimpses beyond.

So, from March 1954 Cohen’s first poems were published; then, in 1956, his first book of poetry was published as the start of a series and he continued to to write poetry and fiction well into the 1960s. In 1966, he first mentioned that he wanted to write songs and due to lack of income from writing, he moved to the US and became a folk music singer-songwriter with his poetry paving the way for his career change.

Then came the first example of Cohen’s songs being covered by an established and popular singer, something that would become a frequent occurrence in the years to come. Judy Collins sang Suzanne,an evocative much-loved composition with her covering several of his other songs and singing with him, fronting a large audience, then singing duets.

It became clear that his Jewish background considerably influenced his atmospheric words and music. Joan Baez also sang it during her many tours.

Meanwhile, Cohen was performing at folk festivals and came to the notice of Columbia Records. His first album was Songs of Leonard Cohen 1967, and in 1968, he sang a duet from the album with Julie Felix. The album became a favourite in the US and the UK, and more of the songs on the first album were covered by James Taylor and Judy Collins.

He followed the first album with Songs from a Room, 1969, with the frequently covered Bird on the Wire. Esther Ofarim, the highly talented Israeli singer, described as ‘a singer of international folk songs’ and ‘the diva of cultured songs’, found Cohen to be ideal for his music and poetry.

In 1969, in Israel, she released two albums – firstly ‘Esther Ofarim’ with the covers – You know who I am – Bird on the wire – Don’t pass me by –
Partisan – secondly ‘Portrait’ with the covers – Hey that’s no way to say goodbye – (The Song of the French) Partisan. Both Partisan tracks were not written by Cohen but he has a strong connection with it and made it famous.

Esther was already developing a strong Leonard Cohen connection and in her ‘I’ll see you in my dreams’ concerts throughout Germany, Leonard Cohen is prominent. In 1976, Cohen went on a major European tour with adapted arrangements and sounds, and with Laura Branigan as one of his back-up singers.

In 1979, Cohen produced Recent Songs with new influences and sounds, and Jennifer Warnes was among the backing vocalists. She had toured twice with Cohen as a back-up singer in the 1970s, and he considered her a ‘real friend’. Looking forward into the 1980s, her iconic tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat was an important occasion for Cohen, with much admired arrangements for him in difficult times.

Again, looking into the 1980s, Hallelujah was released on the studio album Various Positions, 1984, with limited initial success, although in the longer term it was covered by John Cale and Jeff Buckley and then by some 200 artists in many languages, when Janet Maslin said that the song
was eventually one of the most frequently performed songs in American musical history.

In fact, the 1980s would prove to be his most energetic song writing era. The Various Positions LP was supported by his biggest tour to date, including concerts in Poland under martial law just a few months before and politically controversial, where he performed the song The Partisan adopted as the hymn of the Polish Solidarity movement.

The 1990s produced many album tracks often for a younger audience, in particular in 1992, The Future brought forward tracks in Biblical terms urging ‘perseverance reformation and hope in the face of grim prospects’. It included lyrics that were dark with references to political and social disorder.

The new album started in 2006 was left unfinished when the 2008-2010 world tour started and Cohen turned the tables on artistes who had covered his own numbers effectively, paying tribute to U2, Window in the Skies – Paul Simon The Sound of Silence – Joni Mitchell Take Me to the Mardi Gras and Judi Collins the poem Since you’ve Asked.

Also in 2006, Cohen’s book of poetry and drawings – Book of Longing – topped the bestseller list in Canada, and at an event in Toronto, he sang So long Marianne and Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.

Then followed the Tours. An extended 2008-2010 tour including at Glastonbury singing Hallelujah at sunset with a euphoric reception, 2012-13 a world tour, then in 2016 his final album You Want It Darker. Son Adam is hoping to release a posthumous collection of his father’s unfinished songs in 2019.

Musicians and others, including Cohen himself, have expressed opinions about Leonard Cohen and many critics, writers and artistes have, over the years, attempted to describe his poetry and his songs in words to match his own. Here are some of them: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2008 – For six decades, Leonard Cohen revealed his soul to the world through poetry and song – his deep and timeless humanity touching our very core.

Simply brilliant. His music and words will resonate forever.

Judy Collins – People think Leonard is dark, but actually his sense of humor and his edge on the world is extremely light.

Jennifer Warnes – describing Cohen’s lyrics – Leonard acknowledges that the whole act of living contains immense amounts of sorrow and hopelessness and despair, and also passion, high hopes, deep love and eternal love.

Leonard Cohen by himself about himself 1979 – It is a beautiful thing for us to be so deeply interested in each other. You have to write about something. Women stand for the objective world for a man, and they stand for the thing that you’re not. And that’s what you always reach for in a song.

Leonard Cohen by himself about Jesus Christ – I’m very fond of Jesus Christ – I’m not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. But to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me.

The main worldwide single releases of Leonard Cohen.

1967 – Suzanne
1968 – So Long Marianne/Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
1969 – Bird on the Wire/The Partisan
1971 – Joan of Arc/So Long Marianne/Bird on the Wire
1976 – Suzanne (re-issue)
1978 – Suzanne/Bird on the Wire (re-issue)
1984 – Hallelujah
1988 – First We Take Manhattan/Ain’t No Cure for Love
1991 – Hallelujah/Ain’t No Cure for Love (commemorative Sampler)
First We Take Manhattan/Suzanne/So Long Marianne (Solid Gold EP)
2007 – So Long Marianne/Bird on the Wire (re-issue)
Hallelujah (re-issue)
2009 – Suzanne (Live)
2016 – You Want It Darker