Life & Arts

Leonard Cohen: The agony and the ecstasy

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Angst-ridden singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen died last week, aged 82.

The Quebec native's iconic career spanned 50 years and he was best known for dark songs that had heavy religious and spiritual overtones.

Sometimes dubbed "music to slash your wrists by", Cohen's tunes covered topics that ranged from sexual ecstasy through to war, political upheaval and depression. Along with Bob Dylan, Cohen was one of the most influential folk performers of the 1970s and managed to parlay this into a musical career that lasted into his 80s.

He was born Leonard Norman Cohen on 21 September 1934 to a middle class Jewish family. Cohen described his childhood as "very Messianic" and much of his work reflects his Jewish heritage.

Cohen learned acoustic guitar as a teenager and later switched to flamenco. He formed a country-folk group called the Buckskin Boys and frequented Montreal dive bars, where he would read his poetry.

A modest trust fund after his father passed away enabled Cohen to pursue his literary ambitions. However, he moved to New York City in 1966 at age 31 to break into the music business after he became frustrated about his lack of financial success as a writer. While in New York, Cohen befriended artist Andy Warhol and became close to Warhol's German chanteuse, Nico. In 1967, Cohen penned 'Suzanne', which later became a big hit for Judy Collins. Although Cohen claims he was duped into giving up the rights, he said he was proud to write a song that people loved and which provided him with enough money to continue his music career.

Following his debut album The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Cohen followed up with Songs from a Room, which featured the oft-recorded 'Bird On A Wire'.

He followed this up with Songs of Love and Hate and Live Songs, which – as the name suggests – was gleaned from Cohen's successful live tours of Europe.

The year 1977 heralded a dramatic change in style and direction for Cohen, who hooked up with Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector and released Death of a Ladies' Man. Spector's multi-layered instrumentation was in stark contrast to Cohen's previously sparse musical arrangements. However, the recording of the album was fraught with difficulty. Cohen later disowned it and did not include any songs from the album on "best of" compilations.

Cohen returned to his more traditional style with Recent Songs in 1979, combining his distinctive bass voice with jazz fusion, gypsy guitar and unusual instruments such as the oud and mandolin.

During the 1980s, Cohen frequently collaborated with other musicians and released his most famous song, 'Hallelujah', in 1984. In the song, he invokes the Biblical King David and draws parallels between physical love and a desire for a spiritual connection.

In 1988, Cohen won a new legion of fans with 'Everybody Knows'. Later covered by Concrete Blonde in the 1990 teen film Pump Up the Volume, it enabled the Fedora-clad Cohen to appeal to the grunge generation.

Cohen was forced to call a temporary halt to his career in 1995. While he never renounced Judaism, Cohen said entering a Buddhist monastery and becoming an ordained monk helped him curb the depressive episodes that had haunted him for years.

The final act of Cohen's career began in 2005 after his daughter discovered Cohen's long-time manager had embezzled his retirement account to the tune of more than $5 million. To replenish the funds, Cohen embarked on a massive world tour taking in 387 shows over six years. He continued to record and release albums during this time as well.

Cohen's last album, You Want It Darker, was released in October 2016, shortly before his death.

At the time, Cohen admitted he was in poor health and unable to leave his home due to severe back problems.

He said:

"I am ready to die. I hope it's not too uncomfortable. That's about it for me."

Although not unexpected, Cohen's death saddened performers who had worked with him.

Australian musician Clare Bowditch, who toured in support of Cohen in 2010, described him as a "consummate host":

"He was so kind to everyone, including myself ... He was a father figure to everyone on the crew."

While discussing one of Cohen's favourite topics, spirituality, Bowditch asked if Cohen believed in God.

Cohen replied:

"Believe in God? I know God."

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