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A Look at the Life and Times of Leonard Cohen

The biographies of the literary greats tells us many things about these authors and the times in which they wrote.

Leonard performing with trademark fedora hat.

Leonard performing with trademark fedora hat.

The Death of Leonard Cohen

On November 7, 2016, Leonard Cohen died in his sleep at his Los Angeles home after experiencing a fall shortly before. The Canadian recording artist and poet is survived by two children and three grandchildren. Cohen was buried in Montreal, Canada in a family burial plot. Despite declining health, the 82-year-old performer had just released a new album, titled You Want It Darker, in which he seemed to accept his death.

News crews gather in front of Leonard's Cohen's home in Montreal, following the announcement that the popular poet-singer had just passed away.

News crews gather in front of Leonard's Cohen's home in Montreal, following the announcement that the popular poet-singer had just passed away.

Leonard Cohen's Early Life

Leonard Cohen was not a fast starter. He was born, raised and educated in Montreal, Canada, where his father owned and ran a clothing store. Though his father died when Leonard was nine, the successful merchant left an inheritance that helped the struggling writer through his early years.

Cohen pursued his education through four years of college at McGill University, where he received a B.A. degree in 1955. After he graduated from the prestigious Canadian university, he had several collections of poetry published. Following the minor literary success, as a poet, he wrote two novels. They were titled The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers. The books weren't widely read, but the second book, Beautiful Losers, did get a few favorable reviews.

Finally, at age 33, Cohen seemed to have found his muse when he released his first album, simply titled Songs of Leonard Cohen. Featured on this recording were two of his biggest hits, "Suzanne" and "So long, Marianne." Cohen continued to release more albums and also performed many times in public, but he did not begin to sell out concert halls until he was in his 70s. Furthermore, five of his fourteen studio albums weren't released until after Cohen turned 65.

Since his death, one of his landmark songs, "Hallelujah," has experienced a musical rebirth and is now back on the Billboard charts.

Living In Greece

Just after he turned 26 in 1960, Leonard Cohen bought a rundown house on the Greek isle of Hydra, located on the western edge of the Aegean Sea. For a tidy sum of $1500, Leonard acquired a three-story, white-washed residence with no running water, plumbing, or electricity. The island was a remote place where automobiles were not allowed and donkeys were.

During the next decade, the fledgling writer used his home as a place to write and ponder the turbulent world away from the island. As a resident of the island, Leonard published both his novels and released his first two studio albums. Life on the island was also an inspiration for two of his most popular songs, "Bird on a Wire" and "So Long, Marianne."


Without a doubt, "Hallelujah" is Leonard Cohen's most iconic song. First released in 1984 on Various Positions, "Hallelujah" went on to become one of Cohen's most covered songs. Artists who have released their recordings of this song include Bon Jovi, J.J. Cale, Jeff Buckley, Willie Nelson, and K.D. Lang. Interesting to note that one of the first persons other than Leonard Cohen to publicly perform "Hallelujah" was Bob Dylan.

Surprisingly, Leonard wrote eighty drafts of the song before settling on the version that was released on Various Positions. Interpretation of the song vary widely but, according to K.D. Lang, the song delves into "the struggle between having human desire and searching for spiritual wisdom."

Leonard Cohen rarely played as a one-man act

Leonard Cohen rarely played as a one-man act

Always Well-Dressed on Stage

In the above photograph, Cohen performs on stage wearing a suit and tie along with his trademark fedora hat. Not only does this attire set the singer apart from most of his contemporary songwriters/performers, but also it highlights his early youth, when his father was still living and ran a popular Montreal haberdashery.

The Aged Performer

Due to economic necessity, Leonard Cohen worked the concert circuit until very late in life. Strangely enough, as the musician progressed in years, his popularity seemed to grow and as a result he continued to fill the concert halls.

Schwartz's Deli Restaurant is a popular Montreal restaurant, located close to this home of Leonard Cohen.

Schwartz's Deli Restaurant is a popular Montreal restaurant, located close to this home of Leonard Cohen.

One Last Hurrah

Even though he passed away in November of 2016, he had one more book of poetry to publish posthumously, which was released to the general public in October, 2017. The poetry book was called The Flame and it contained all the new material that Leonard was working on before his death. The book contains many poems but also some prose, illustrations, notebook entries, and lyrics to a few songs.

The Flame

Leonard Cohen pictured towards the end of his life

Leonard Cohen pictured towards the end of his life

My Take

I have visited Montreal many times often staying at Hosteling International, one of many hostels in the bustling Canadian city. During my last two stays, my trip included a trip to the very popular Deli Restaurant, simply called Schwartz's. On each occasion I went to the restaurant with a large group and both times we walked pass Cohen's row house on our way to the restaurant,

Upon his death, several things that I learned about Leonard Cohen surprised me. The first was the location of his death. I was very surprised to hear that he dwelt in Los Angeles. That's the last place I would expect a world traveler, like Cohen, to live. Also, I felt it was fascinating that he grew up on the English-speaking west side of Montreal and not the International neighborhood, where his row house now stands.

All in all, Leonard Cohen was a remarkable artistic voice, whose words will be remembered for a long time.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Harry Nielsen