Things You May or May Not Know About Leonard Cohen
Leonard was among the honorary pallbearers for the funeral of Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s 15th Prime Minister, on October 3rd, 2000. Other pallbearers included Fidel Castro, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Aga Khan. Pierre’s son Justin is Canada’s current Prime Minister.
Leonard Cohen is Canada's Beloved Poet
Leonard Cohen is Canada’s beloved poet, shaman, singer-songwriter and unlikely ladies’ man. Now 81 years old, this gentle, humble soul has produced an amazing catalog of tunes that have served as the background scores to our breaking up, making up and making out.
Though he hasn’t mounted a world tour since 2013 – he had said previously that he planned to tour until he was 80 – he has been busy. He released his 13th studio album, Popular Problems, in September of 2014, and while rumors do appear from time-to-time about live events, that seems more and more unlikely as time goes by.
A recent trip to the Old Port in Montreal had me humming his tunes, and inspired me to share some tidbits about the man.
Leonard Cohen is considered by many people, including the late Velvet Underground front man Lou Reed, to be among the most influential songwriters ever.
So Who is Leonard Cohen?
Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital, now part of the McGill University Health Centre, is a massive grey structure perched on the slopes of Mount Royal. It was here in this grand old building, with its view of the mighty St. Lawrence River, that Leonard Norman Cohen was born on September 21, 1934.
Leonard’s father Nathan was a high-end tailor whose store, The Freedman Company, was part of an empire founded by Leonard’s grandfather Lyon, a wealthy Montreal industrialist. Nathan loved formal dress suits, from his boutonnieres right down to his spats. This natty attire would inspire Leonard throughout his life.
Leonard’s mother Masha was a Russian-born rabbi’s daughter who was 16 years younger than Nathan. A passionate woman with dark, wavy hair, she loved to sing Yiddish and Russian folk tunes she had heard as a youngster. At the time of Leonard’s birth, the Cohens already had a five-year old daughter, Esther.
The family lived in a large, dark brick English-style house in Westmount, the westernmost side of Montreal and home to some of its wealthiest families. The house at 599 Belmont Avenue still stands today.
Leonard Cohen's Montreal
Many country artists have recorded Leonard’s music, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris.
Leonard Cohen’s Early Days and Influences
Leonard attended Westmount’s Roslyn Elementary School until he was in grade six, then attended Westmount Junior High, followed by Westmount Senior High. Being public schools, the student bodies at all three schools at that time would have been primarily Protestant but also a good percent Jewish.
It was in high school that Leonard really began to explore his musical and poetic side, and he was a keen student in both subjects. He learned to play guitar, including a little flamenco. Like teens everywhere, Leonard loved music, and he could pick up a country station from West Virginia on his radio. He ate up the music of Hank Williams Sr., Merle Haggard and even Ray Charles.
Escape from Westmount was always on the minds of him and his friends. The only place to hang out that was within walking distance was a small coffee shop attached to St. Joseph’s Oratory, a massive Catholic basilica on the slopes of Mount Royal. There, the boys could have a smoke and a coffee, free from the eyes of their parents and siblings.
When Leonard entered McGill University, he formed a folk-country band called The Buckskin Boys, so named because they all owned buckskin jackets. The trio played school dances and church basements, offering up country tunes and some square-dance music, including “Turkey in The Straw.”
At the end of the ‘60s, Leonard moved to Nashville, where he met Charlie Daniels. This meeting led to Daniels playing bass on two Cohen albums.
Leonard performed Suzanne at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 during his first tour
Leonard Cohen Finally Escapes Westmount
Leonard first moved to a working-class part of Montreal on Saint-Laurent Boulevard, also called “Main Street.” The area had once been home to a large Jewish population, but by the 50s was primarily Portuguese. Main Street was lined with shops, delis and restaurants of all kinds, and was a dividing line in the city; English to the west, French to the east. Evenings were spent with friends exploring the Old Port, a rough-and-tumble part of town in those days, and a favorite bar on Bleury Street..
Leonard began giving readings of his poetry in small clubs in the neighborhood. His studies at McGill continued, and he became a prolific writer of poetry, some of which would later become the lyrics to songs. In 1956, he published his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, a year after he had graduated with a B.A. degree.
Leonard spent a year at Columbia University doing undergrad work, before returning to Montreal to continue his writing. Through the early ‘60s, his focus was on honing his craft, creating poems and even some short fictional works. Always the gypsy, he relocated to the island of Hydra, one of the many Greek islands. There, he was able to truly focus on his writing, and he published another book of poetry and two novels.
In 1966, Leonard wrote a poem that was to take him on a new course. Suzanne, written about the girlfriend of friend and Quebecois sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, was first published as a poem and quickly recorded by songstress Judy Collins that same year. Suzanne lived in an apartment near the Bon Secours, and fed Leonard “tea and oranges that come all the way from China.”
Frustrated with his overall lack of success as a poet and novelist, yet encouraged by his success with the poem Suzanne, in 1967 Leonard headed for New York to become a folk singer.
Leonard was asked to perform "Hallelujah" at the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. He deferred in favor of k.d. lang, saying that, when k.d. had sung the song on the occasion of Leonard's induction into the Canadian Songwriters' Hall of Fame, she had performed it to "its ultimate blissful state of perfection."
Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, performed to "blissful perfection" by k.d. lang
Leonard’s daughter Lorca gave birth to a baby girl by Canadian singer Rufus Wainwright on February 2, 2011. The baby, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, is being raised by both her parents and Rufus’s partner Jorn Weisbrodt.
Leonard Cohen Songs
Since his first album, 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen went gold, the man has gone on to record multiple silver, gold and platinum records. The beautiful lyrics, combined with that rich, dark voice, are unequaled. Everyone who has heard the man has a favorite song, sometimes many favorites. Along with Suzanne, of course, here are a few of mine:
- Dance Me To The End of Love
- So Long, Marianne
- Famous Blue Raincoat
- Joan of Arc
- Closing Time
Dance Me To The End of Love
What is Your Favorite Leonard Cohen Song?
If you could pick only one, which song by Leonard is your favorite?
At an age where most people would be sitting back and reflecting, Leonard Cohen released his 14th studio album You Want It Darker on October 21, 2016.
Leonard Cohen's death was announced on November 10, 2016 on his Facebook page. In a statement written to Rolling Stone Magazine, Cohen's son Adam said "My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records."
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Kaili Bisson