A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
OF LEONARD COHEN
written by Larry Sloman
for the Future tour book (1993)
Photo © 1979, 2001 Hazel Field, Montreal.
Timeline of Leonard Cohen on the next page!
Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934 (on September 21). His
father, an engineer who owned a clothing concern, died when
Leonard was nine. He went on to attend McGill University, where at
17, he formed a country-western trio called the Buckskin Boys.
He also began writing poetry and became part of the local boho-
literary scene, a scene so "underground" that it was bereft of
"subversive intentions because even that would be beneath it."
"His first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published
in 1956, while he was still an undergraduate. The Spice Box of Earth
(1961), his second collection, catapulted Leonard Cohen to international
After a brief stint at Columbia University in New York, Leonard
Cohen obtained a grant and was able to escape the confines of North
America. He travelled throughout Europe and eventually settled on
the Greek island of Hydra, where he shared his life with Marianne
Jensen, and her son Axel.
Cohen stayed in Greece on and off for seven years. He wrote
another collection of poetry, the controversial Flowers For Hitler
(1964); and two highly acclaimed novels, The Favorite Game (1963),
his portrait of the artist as a young Jew in Montreal, and Beautiful
Losers (1966), described on its dust jacket as "a disagreeable religious
epic of incomparable beauty." Upon its publication, the Boston Globe
declared, "James loyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the
name of Cohen." To date, each book has sold more than 800,000
But Cohen's restless spirit couldn't be contained even by
warmth of Hydra. "For the writing of books, you have to be in one
place," he told Musician magazine in 1988. "You tend to gather
around you when you write a novel. You need a woman in your life.
It's nice to have some kids around, 'cause there's always food. It's
nice to have a place that's clean and orderly. I had those things and
then I decided to be a songwriter."
Leaving behind his domestic scene, Cohen returned to America,
intent on settling near Nashville and pursuing a musical career.
was championed by Judy Collins, who recorded both "Suzanne"
"Dress Rehearsal Rag" on her 1966 album, In My Life. In 1967,
Cohen appeared at the Newport Folk Festival where he came to
attention of legendary Columbia A&R man John Hammond (who also
recruited Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to the
label). By Christmas, Columbia had released his first album,
The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
It was a remarkable debut, as songs like i'Suzanne," "Hey That's
No Way To Say Goodbye," "So Long, Marianne," and "Sisters of
Mercy" propelled Cohen to the top of the pop-confessional pantheon.
The songs had such power that Robert Altman's 1971 film, McCabe
and Mrs. Miller became, in effect, the first long-form video for
Songs From a Room (1969), his second album, and Songs of
Love and Hate (1971 ) further reinforced Cohen's standing as the master
of mortification and the sentry of solitude. With "Bird On a Wire"
"The Story of Isaac," "Joan of Arc," and "Famous Blue Raincoat,"
continued to stretch the borders of the pop song landscape.
1972 marked the release of Live Songs, Cohen's first live album,
which teatured an amazing 14-minute improvisation, "Please Don't
Pass Me By," along with live versions of songs from his second
album. New Skin For the Old Ceremony (1973), was a bit of a stylistic
departure. Featuring a more orchestrated sound (thanks to producer
John Lissauer), Cohen continued his investigations into the hottest
crucible of the human spirit-the muffled battles in the boudoirs.
Cohen took a sabbatical from the musical wars for the next few
years, releasing only a greatest hits album, Best of Leonard Cohen
(1975). In 1977, he was back with what was certainly his most curious
album, Death of a Ladies' Man. It started as a collaboration with famed
producer Phil Spector, but ended with Cohen being excluded from the
final stages of recording. "It was a catastrophe," he remembers. "Those
are all scratch vocals, and Phil mixed it in secret under armed guard. I
had to decide whether I was going to hire my own private army and
fight it out on Sunset Boulevard, or let it go. I let it go."
Recent Songs (1979), the next album, was another stylistic departure
from its predecessor. Gone was the Spectorian wall-of-sound,
replaced with a more delicate musical patina partly due to the influence
of co-producer Henry Lewy (who had previously worked with
Joni Mitchell). The songs continued Cohen's dissections of the vicissitudes
of the male-female union, but also began to reflect his longstanding
explorations into the religious arena.
Various Positions (1984) was the full flowering of these religious
concerns. Songs like "Hallelujah," "The Law," "Heart With No
Companion," and "If It Be Your Will" are contemporary psalms, born of
an undoubtedly long and difficult spiritual odyssey, so difficult that its
conclusion left Cohen literally "wiped out."
"I had a lot of versions of myself that I had used religion to
support," Cohen told L.A. Style in 1988. "If you deal with this material
you can't put God on. I thought I could spread light and I could
enlighten my world and those around me and I could take the
Bodhisattva path which is the path of service, of help to others. I
thought I could, but I was unable to. This is a landscape in which men
far stronger than you, far braver, nobler, kinder, more generous, men of
extremely high achievements have burnt to a crisp on this road. Once
you start dealing with sacred material you're gonna get creamed.'
I'm Your Man (1988) was the culmination of Cohen's professional
and personal reintegration, an amazingly crafted work that speaks eloquently
to the experience of one of our musical elders. Bouyed by
now-classic songs like "First We Take Manhatten," Tower of Song,"
and "Ain't No Cure For Love," it was no surprise that the album went
to #1 in several European countries.
While Cohen's painstaking meticulousness has led to many long
passages of time between albums, artists as diverse as Neil Diamond,
Nick Cave, Diana Ross, Joan Baez, Rita Coolidge, and Joe Cocker have
kept Cohen's music on the airwaves with their own interpretations of
his songs. Long-time musical colleague Jennifer Warnes released the
critically acclaimed Famous Blue Raincoat in 1986, an entire album of
In 1992, a number of contemporary recording artists collaborated
on an evocative tribute to Leonard Cohen. I'm Your Fan was the
brainchild of Christian Fevret, the editor of Les Inrockuptibles, the most
popular rock magazine in France. Originally intended for release on the
magazine's small offshoot label Oscar, the project mushroomed into an
18-song cover collection released by Atlantic, featuring such prominent
musicians as REM, John Cale, Nick Cave, lan McCulloch, The Pixies,
House of Love and Lloyd Cole.
For a man who only "aspired to be a minor poet" early in his
career, Leonard Cohen has produced a body of work that has withstood
the passage of time. With the release of The Future, his eleventh
album, he continues to bring to us, through the musical idiom, a
documentation of maturity and survival. He has become an elder.
"Cohen told L.A. Style. "That's what I became. I became a writer
and as my friend Layton always said, a writer is deeply conflicted and
it's in his work that he reconciles those deep conflicts.
"That place is the harbor. It doesn't set the world in order, you
know, it doesn't really change anything. It just is a kind of harbor,
it's the place of reconciliation, it's the consolumentum, the kiss of peace."
Leonard Cohen has taken us down to that place by the harbor and
our world has become that much richer for the journey.
After the Future tour in 1993 Leonard Cohen lived several years at the Zen Center on Mount Baldy in California.
In 1994 he released his second live album, Cohen Live!. In 1997 the More Best Of compilation followed.
In January 1999 he decided to move on, left Mt. Baldy and settled in Las Angeles. Two years later he broke the long
silence and released two records, first another live album
Field Commander Cohen - Tour of 1979 and in October - finally, after nine years, the new studio album
Ten New Songs. Next year, in 2002, many of his best known songs were digitally remastered and released on the double CD The Essential Leonard Cohen.
In 2004 Cohen returned with the new album Dear Heather, and the year 2006 may bring more new tracks by the master - even a world tour has been mentioned.
As a writer Cohen has been active during the whole decade of the 1990s. In 1993 he published Stranger Music,
the most complete text available of his poetry and songs. His new poetry written on Mount Baldy, India, Hydra and Los Angeles
is waiting to be published in 2006 in the Book of Longing. Many of those poems are available
on this site, in the Blackening Page section.
I'M YOUR MAN
Leonard Cohen at the Edinburgh Odeon, 11 December, 1979.
Photo © Alan Wilson. More photos on Alan's