Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.
Leonard Cohen Was Canada's Beloved Poet
Leonard Cohen was Canada’s beloved poet, shaman, singer-songwriter and unlikely ladies’ man. Deceased in 2016, this gentle, humble soul produced an amazing catalog of tunes that have served as the background scores to our breaking up, making up and making out.
A trip to the Old Port in Montreal had me humming his tunes, and inspired me to share some tidbits about the man.
Who Was 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
Leonard Cohen was considered by many people, including the late Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed, to be among the most influential songwriters ever.
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 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 Performing "Suzanne" at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970
Leonard 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.
Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, performed to "blissful perfection" by k.d. lang
Best Leonard Cohen Songs
Since his first album, 1967s 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"
Many country artists have recorded Leonard’s music, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris.
Dance Me to the End of Love
What is Your Favorite Leonard Cohen Song?
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.
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."
© 2016 Kaili Bisson
lillyroseinboise on May 27, 2019:
Yes, amazing. Thank you again.
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 27, 2019:
I'm so glad you enjoyed this article...thank you for your kind words. Leonard meant so much to so many people, and he still does. You can honestly feel him when you visit certain places in Montreal. He loved the city, and it always loved him back. His last album was a beauty, and I really like "If I Didn't Have Your Love" too. Among his albums, #7 was a classic, with both "Hallelujah" and "Dance Me To the End of Love." Amazing!
lillyroseinboise on May 25, 2019:
Thank you for writing and providing so much information about Leonard Cohen. I already knew much of it, as I have been his fan for many, many years—but now if I’m ever able to visit Montreal I’ll be able to visit places to which he connected. I hope someday to place a stone on his gravesite, together with a box of chocolates and a long-stemmed rose.
I loved Leonard, though I had no idea how deeply until my heart broke when he died. The words and music he left to the world continue to guide me and bring centeredness and peace when it seems nothing else can. To your list of favorite songs (from which I was unable to select one) I would like to add Anthem, as well as Steer Your Way and If I Didn’t Have Your Love from his last album, You Want it Darker. And I would like to state that, for me, ONLY Leonard’s emotional and heartfelt performances of Hallelujah—e.g., on Live in London—capture its transcendence. Other versions, including those by k.d. lang and Jeff Buckley, are beautiful but I feel that only Leonard captures the Jewish meaning of the word.
Thank you again for what you’ve written. I wish there was a way to officially follow you that didn’t involve Twitter or Pinterest.
Lilly Rose in Boise, Idaho
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on February 10, 2017:
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!
Lambservant on February 10, 2017:
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 (author) from Canada on November 21, 2016:
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 :-)
Lorne Hemmerling from Prescott on November 21, 2016:
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 (author) from Canada on May 12, 2016:
Hi Jodah and thank you. He truly is a living legend. An amazing catalog of songs.
John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on May 12, 2016:
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 (author) from Canada on May 11, 2016:
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!
CJ Baker from Parts Unknown on May 11, 2016:
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".