Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet and novelist who abandoned a promising literary career to become one of the foremost songwriters of the contemporary era, died on Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 82.
Cohen’s record label, Sony Music, confirmed his death on Thursday night, but provided no further details regarding the cause. His most recent album, You Want It Darker, was released on October 21.
In the mind’s eye (and ears) of your HRAC CCO, Cohen was a literary songwriting genius who set a standard and forged a style unmatched in contemporary music. “Hallelujah” is, of course, a timeless classic, and Jeff Buckley’s impassioned rendition of it remains a personal favorite, but my all-time #1 song of Leonard’s is “The Future,” from the 1992 album of the same name: “I’ve seen the nations rise and fall/I’ve heard their stories, heard them all/but love’s the only engine of survival.”
Right behind that one would be “Everybody Knows,” from 1988’s I’m Your Man: “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded/Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/Everybody knows the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost.” Noted music pundit (and friend of us here at HRAC) Bob Lefsetz shares his own insightful analysis of Cohen’s career and especially of “Everybody Knows” in his most recent Lefsetz Letter.
Adam Cohen, Leonard’s son and producer, 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 [i.e, You Want It Darker]. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.”
As The New York Times noted, over a musical career that spanned nearly five decades, Cohen wrote songs that addressed — in spare language that could be both oblique and telling — themes of love and faith, despair and exaltation, solitude and connection, war and politics. More than 2,000 recordings of his songs have been made, initially by the folk-pop singers who were his first champions, like Judy Collins and Tim Hardin, and later by performers from across the spectrum of popular music, among them U2, Aretha Franklin, R.E.M., Jeff Buckley, Trisha Yearwood, and Elton John.
Cohen’s best-known song is likely the aforementioned “Hallelujah,” a majestic, meditative ballad infused with both religiosity and earthiness. It was written for a 1984 album that his record company rejected as insufficiently commercial. Since then some 200 artists, from Bob Dylan to Justin Timberlake, have sung or recorded it. A book has been written about it, and it has been featured on the soundtracks of movies and television shows and sung at the Olympics and other public events. At the 2016 Emmy Awards, Tori Kelly sang “Hallelujah” for the annual “In Memoriam” segment recognizing recent deaths.
Cohen was an unlikely and reluctant pop star, if in fact he ever was one. He was 33 when his first record was released in 1967. He sang in an increasingly gravelly baritone. He played simple chords on acoustic guitar or a cheap keyboard. And he maintained a private, sometime ascetic image at odds with the Dionysian excesses associated with rock ’n’ roll.
You can read more of Cohen’s obituary at The New York Times.
Sleep forever well, o mystical, magical bard.