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Things You May or May Not Know About Leonard Cohen

Updated on December 13, 2016
Kaili Bisson profile image

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2016 are stuck in her head.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen at Canada House in Los Angeles, July 2007
Leonard Cohen at Canada House in Los Angeles, July 2007 | Source

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

show route and directions
A markerLeonard's Boyhood Home -
599 Belmont Ave, Westmount, QC H3Y 2W1, Canada
get directions

B markerRoslyn Elementary School -
4699 Avenue Westmount, Westmount, QC H3Y, Canada
get directions

C markerWestmount Junior High School -
15 Place Park, Westmount, QC H3Z 1N5, Canada
get directions

D markerWestmount Senior High School -
95 Chemin de la Côte-Saint-Antoine, Westmount, QC H3Y 2H8, Canada
get directions

E markerSt. Joseph's Oratory -
3800 Chemin Queen Mary, Montréal, QC H3V 1H6, Canada
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F markerSuzanne's apartment was near here -
400 Rue Saint Paul E, Montréal, QC H2Y 1H4, Canada
get directions

G markerLeonard still owns a home in Little Portugal on the Plateau -
Parc du Portugal, Rue Marie-Anne E, Montréal, QC H2W, Canada
get directions

H markerMcGill University Campus -
845 Rue Sherbrooke O, Montréal, QC H3A 2T5, Canada
get directions

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 Canadian 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 Cohen

Leonard in Normandy, France in January 1988
Leonard in Normandy, France in January 1988 | Source

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
  • Hallelujah
  • 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?

See results

Epilogue

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."

Closing Time

© 2016 Kaili Bisson

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    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 10 months ago from Parts Unknown

      Very enjoyable read! I remember doing an independent study unit on him back in High School (had to study the work of an established poet). Since then have always been a huge fan. As far as favorite Cohen songs, out of the ones you listed I would select "Bird On a Wire", but my overall faves would probably be a coin toss between "Closing Time" or "Chelsea Hotel #2".

    • Kaili Bisson profile image
      Author

      Kaili Bisson 10 months ago from Canada

      Hi spartucus and thank you!

      I recall studying Suzanne in English class...must be a Canadian thing :)

      Bird on a Wire is fantastic...I could have listed every song ever done by the man. I love his voice in Closing Time...seems even deeper somehow than on some of his other songs. And Joan of Arc...I have been known to cry when I listen to that!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 10 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Great hub. Leonard Cohen is a living legend. I couldn't pick one song as a favourite, though do like "The Stranger Song".

    • Kaili Bisson profile image
      Author

      Kaili Bisson 10 months ago from Canada

      Hi Jodah and thank you. He truly is a living legend. An amazing catalog of songs.

    • Lorne Hemmerling profile image

      Lorne Hemmerling 4 months ago from Oshawa

      Years ago I was playing on New Year's eve with a band at Claude Bissell's residence (the president of The University Of Toronto at that time). I was attempting to sing On The Road Again by Canned Heat. I looked over in the corner of the room and there was Leonard Cohen either smiling or laughing at me, I am not sure which. I remember thinking 'you don't sing that well either, man'...lol

    • Kaili Bisson profile image
      Author

      Kaili Bisson 4 months ago from Canada

      what a great story Lorne...On The Road Again is not an easy song, with all those vocal changes. Perhaps he was thinking you had guts to attempt it :-)

    • profile image

      Lambservant 6 weeks ago

      I'll be honest, Cohen's voice to me is absolutely terrible and I've never understood what the appeal is. This was an interesting read though. KD Lang owns that song figuratively. When I saw the video of it when she sang it for Cohen I was blown away. Though the words are weird and don't really make sense, it's melody is beautiful. It's not surprising so many people sing it.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image
      Author

      Kaili Bisson 6 weeks ago from Canada

      Hello lambservant. Many people, even fans, would agree with you that his voice wasn't the best singing voice. But he has just been nominated posthumously for Juno awards (Canada's Grammy equivalent) for Album of the Year, Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year. Not bad :-)

      And, no doubt about it, k.d. nailed that song. What a voice!

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