I stole the first Leonard Cohen album I ever owned.
I was working in a record store in Connecticut in the early 1980s—more a diehard fan of The Clash, mod-era Who, and the Faces, than of the meditative songs that made up the backbone of Cohen's catalogue. But I was open-minded, too, when a co-worker thrust a cassette of The Best of Leonard Cohen into my hands one day with a simple "you need to hear this." With its mysterious cover and unusual song titles, I took the album home and gave it a spin. As soon as "Suzanne," the opening cut, kicked in, I was transfixed. "Sisters of Mercy," "So Long, Marianne," "Bird on the Wire," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye," "Famous Blue Raincoat," and about a half-dozen others followed—spare and moody, but intense and cutting, each one seemingly a letter to my heart. I've never forgotten that afternoon when Leonard Cohen came into my life for the first time.
And I never gave that cassette back. The music called to something in the bottom of my being, and that emotion was the first thing I felt last night when I heard Cohen had died at the age of 82.
But unlike some of the other artists I came to love, Cohen's music wasn't always the first I picked to listen to while getting on my way in the morning, or after a long day, or while relaxing on the weekend. Like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, probably his only songwriting peers, Cohen's songs and performances were more like a fine wine that required the right time and place and frame of mind. Then I saw Jeff Buckley, just another struggling singer-songwriter at the time, perform Cohen's career-defining "Hallelujah" at the East Village bar Sin-e in the early '90s. It was tentative, in a way, but elegiac and show-stopping, too.
The next time I saw Buckley perform it was at a preview party for his debut album at Sony Studios in midtown Manhattan. He was a fully formed rock god by then, and he owned "Hallelujah"—a song that took Cohen five years to write and that is so unique it warranted its own book—his beatific delivery bringing the small crowd near tears. "Oh, right, Leonard Cohen," I remember thinking. "I wonder whatever happened to him."
I went digging in the record racks and rediscovered him, as I would again and again over the years and will again this weekend.
Cohen grew up relatively well-off in Canada, and started out his career as an author and poet but, like so many of his generation, the siren song of rock and roll was too strong to resist. He got a grant and moved to remote Hydra, where cars were outlawed and living was spare, and found his muse: Marianne Ihlen. (Their letters to each other, written as Ihlen was dying earlier this year, went viral.) He lived a simple life with her and her young son, writing incessantly and honing his songwriting, before wanderlust came and he fell in with New York's folk scene and Andy Warhol's Factory crowd. Judy Collins recorded his song "Suzanne" and, after some folk festival appearances, he came to the attention of the legendary Columbia Records scout John Hammond, the man who had signed Dylan and Billie Holiday and who would later discover Bruce Springsteen.
Cohen became a darling of the growing singer-songwriter scene in the late '60s after the release of his first two albums, Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs From a Room, but by the mid 1970s, his sales had dwindled and the road had taken a toll.
He continued to perform and record, his records dotted with genius, but he became known more for his rich, remarkable and intimate vocal delivery and his legendary way with the ladies than anything else. In the early '90s he left us all behind for the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California, becoming an ordained Buddhist monk in 1996.
That would probably have been the end of Cohen's already unrivaled output, but in 2004 his daughter discovered that his longtime manager Kelley Lynch had drained his accounts. Cohen won a judgment against her, but he was forced to return to making records and performing. It turned out to be a victory lap, with several exquisite new albums and—although Cohen was never a fan of being on stage—four-hour concerts, best evidenced in the 2010 documentary Songs From the Road, that left audience members breathless.
After a year that's seen the loss of so many unique and truly special performers, artists whose careers were built on artistic risk and craft rather than social media counts and songs about status and accomplishment, Leonard Cohen's death cuts deep. Unlike David Bowie or Prince, however, most of you will likely be unfamiliar with Cohen's catalogue, full of rich melodies and powerful words. But thanks to the streaming world we live in you don't have to be stuck with the same dozen songs I played on endless repeat as teenager. So, whether Cohen is an old friend or a new discovery, dig deep this weekend. His lyrics—from "Everybody Knows" to "First We Take Manhattan," and everything in between—are perfect for marking his loss, grappling with this frightening political age or just kicking back and reflecting on life.
It's been said too many times this year, but we won't see his likes here again. Savour what Leonard Cohen has left us.
From: Esquire US