What a sad footnote to a wretched week. Leonard Cohen – singer-songwriter, poet, Canada’s gentleman-in-chief – died last Friday, two days after the election of Donald Trump. Like David Bowie, Cohen had only just released a new album, You Want It Darker, a collection of songs pared with a mordant knife and shadowed in deathly clues. How horribly prophetic that title is. Everyone loved him, especially his fellow musicians: Nick Cave called him “the greatest songwriter of them all”; on Nirvana’s ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, Kurt Cobain begged for “a Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally”; even reluctant Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan felt “no one else comes close to this in modern music.” He was the master of erotic disquiet, densely economical lyrics about mortality, sex, sadness and faith slippered into simple-sophisticated melodies and a voice like wine on scorched clay.
Born in Montreal in 1934, three months before Elvis Presley, Cohen’s early poetic heroes were Yeats and Lorca. Having studied English Literature at McGill (where he discovered Tolstoy, Eliot, Joyce and Pound), he released the poetry collections Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), The Spice-Box of Earth (1961) and Flowers for Hitler (1964). So admired was he already in North American literary circles that the Boston Globe compared his 1966 novel Beautiful Losers to one his heroes: “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen.” But literature’s loss would be music’s gain. Performing in the French chanson tradition of Jacques Brel, he caught the ear of Colombia’s John Hammond, who had spotted Dylan and Springsteen and wanted to add Cohen to his stable.
The imagery of his first three albums - Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967); Songs from a Room (1970); Songs of Love and Hate (1971) – had a bleak richness, tea and oranges, avalanches and goodbyes, embers of wit under the solemnity. The album-titles alone suggest a growing breadth of scope and 1972 marked a watershed. Robert Altman liked his music so much he practically wrote his film McCabe and Mrs Miller around it. Cohen's first European tour, captured in the documentary Bird On A Wire, revealed a prickly defeatist only half-comfortable with the attention and fearful of “disgrace”. Unsurprisingly his fourth album New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1972) is more fame-conscious, like the reference in ‘Chelsea Hotel No 2’ to Janis Joplin “giving me head on the unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street”. Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977) bears the discordant fingerprints of tyrant producer Phil Spector, but I’m Your Man (1988) was a potent elegy against war, AIDS and the graft of writing. ‘Hallelujah’, which took him five years to write, has been covered over two hundred times, too many for Cohen: “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it”. His entire playbook is endlessly covered, some songs better than others (my own personal favourite is Antony Hegarty’s ‘If It Be Your Will’), but he rarely listens to his own music and is nicely self-deflating about it. “Can you stand Leonard Cohen for more than half an hour?”, a journalist asks in Bird On A Wire. “Nowhere near that long”, he purrs.