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Leonard Cohen, spiritual musician who stirred a generation, dies at 82

Jewish singer-songwriter and poet, best known for ballad ‘Hallelujah,’ dies month after releasing album about coming to terms with mortality

Leonard Cohen in concert at London’s O2 Arena, September 15, 2013. (Brian Rasic/Getty Images/JTA)
Leonard Cohen in concert at London’s O2 Arena, September 15, 2013. (Brian Rasic/Getty Images/JTA)

Leonard Cohen, the storied musician and poet hailed as one of the most visionary artists of his generation, has died at age 82, his publicist announced on Thursday.

“It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away. We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries,” read a statement on Cohen’s Facebook page.

Cohen, who was brought up in Montreal but lived in California late in his life, will have a private memorial service in Los Angeles at a later date, the statement said.

Cohen, whose family was a fixture in Montreal’s Jewish community, began as a poet before at first reluctantly branching out into music, writing some of his generation’s most reflective songs including the oft-covered spiritual “Hallelujah.”

Also a Zen monk, Cohen blended folk music and lyrics inspired by his Judaism with a darker, sexual edge that won him fans around the world and among fellow musicians like Bob Dylan and R.E.M.

He remained wildly popular into his 80s, touring as recently as earlier this year.

He released his final album just last month. Entitled “You Want It Darker,” Cohen on the album reflected at length on his own mortality.

The album’s title track was seen as a return to Cohen’s Jewish roots, and featured Hebrew liturgy as well as the voice of Cantor Gideon Zelermyer of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, which Cohen and his family attended for generations.

“Hineni, hineni / I’m ready, my Lord,” Cohen intones on the title track, employing Hebrew to say “Here I Am.”

In 1972, Cohen played a show in Jerusalem, and famously walked off stage several times saying he was unable to perform.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMhgQOdMdJ4

He eventually stopped the show after dropping acid and then becoming overcome with emotion after the audience sang Haveinu Shalom Aleichem to him.

“How sweet can an audience possibly be?” Cohen told The New Yorker in an interview published last month. “So I go out on the stage with the band . . . and I started singing ‘So Long, Marianne.’ And I see Marianne straight in front of me and I started crying. I turned around and the band was crying, too. And then it turned into something in retrospect quite comic: the entire audience turned into one Jew! And this Jew was saying, ‘What else can you show me, kid? I’ve seen a lot of things, and this don’t move the dial!’ And this was the entire skeptical side of our tradition, not just writ large but manifested as an actual gigantic being!”

He returned to Israel a year later during the Yom Kippur War, where he was drafted into entertaining troops on the front lines.

A decade later, he released his most famous song “Hallelujah,” which took him three years and 70 drafts to complete.

Sung in Cohen’s increasingly husky voice, the song opens with a tale immediately recognizable to students of the Old Testament: “Now I’ve heard that there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord.”

The song was initially rejected by Cohen’s label. But it has since become an anthem of spiritual uplift, with celebrated versions by Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright among many others.

Cohen, who once said he got into music because he couldn’t make a living as a poet, rose to prominence during the folk music revival of the 1960s. During those years, he traveled the folk circuit with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and others as they were moving popular music away from a reliance on lightweight pop lyrics to songs that contained deeply personal meanings.

His contemporary Kris Kristofferson once said that he wanted the opening lines to Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” on his tombstone.

File: Singer Leonard Cohen during a concert in Ramat Gan on September 24, 2009 (Marko/Flash90)
File: Singer Leonard Cohen during a concert in Ramat Gan on September 24, 2009 (Marko/Flash90)

They would be a perfect epitaph for Cohen himself: “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.”

The Montreal-born Cohen never seemed quite as comfortable on stage, however, and he chalked it up in part to being the old man among the group. “I was at least 10 years older than the rest of them,” he told Magazine, a supplement to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, in 2001.

Judy Collins, who had a hit with Cohen’s song “Suzanne,” once recalled he was so shy that he quit halfway through his first public performance of it and she had to coax him back onstage.

Like Dylan, his voice lacked polish but rang with emotion, and as he aged its gravelly bass tone took on more power. In 1992, he won the Juno Award for vocalist of the year — the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. While he never won a Grammy, Cohen received numerous other honors, including being named a companion of the Order of Canada in 1991, his native country’s highest civilian honor. In 2016, Dylan told The New Yorker that Cohen’s best work was “deep and truthful, “multidimensional” and “surprisingly melodic.”

“When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” Dylan said. “Even the counterpoint lines — they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.”

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, telling the audience: “This is a very unlikely occasion for me. It is not a distinction that I coveted or even dared dream about.”

In songs such as “Sisters of Mercy,” Cohen melded romantic imagery with minimal orchestration to produce music that rang with the authenticity of traditional folk songs. Many had a dark mood, featuring black humor or sardonic social commentary.

“Destroy another fetus now, We don’t like children anyhow,” was one of the lines from his song “The Future.”

Detail from Leonard Cohen‘s final album, You Want it Darker  (Youtube screenshot )
Detail from Leonard Cohen‘s final album, You Want it Darker (Youtube screenshot )

Once asked if he was a pessimist, he responded with typical dark humor.

“I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all,’ he told the London Daily Telegraph in 1993. “I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin.”

Cohen suffered bouts of depression throughout his life that he sometimes tried to mitigate with alcohol and drugs.

When he gave his first US concert in 15 years in early 2009, the 74-year-old received countless standing ovations from the sold-out crowd at New York’s Beacon Theatre.

“It’s been a long time since I stood up on this stage in New York City,” Cohen said. “I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream. Since then I’ve taken a lot of Prozac.”

Born September 21, 1934, in Montreal, he formed a country music group called the Buckskin Boys while still in his teens.

He was attending McGill University when his poetry book, “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” was published in 1956 to critical acclaim. It was followed by “The Spice-Box of Earth” in 1961. His first novel, “The Favourite Game,” came out in 1963.

He published several more poetry collections while living on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s and began to get wide notice with his experimental novel “Beautiful Losers” in 1966 and his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” in 1968.

“Leonard Cohen seems on the verge of becoming a major spokesman for the aging pilgrims of his generation,” The New York Times wrote in 1968. He told the Times interviewer: “I don’t even think of myself as a writer, singer or whatever. The occupation of being a man is so much more.”

In all, he published more than a dozen novels and books of poetry and recorded nearly two dozen albums.

A man places candles in front of the home of singer and poet Leonard Cohen, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016 in Montreal.  (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)
A man places candles in front of the home of singer and poet Leonard Cohen, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Cohen considered himself both a Jew and a Buddhist.

For decades, Cohen was a student and friend of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Zen Buddhist monk, and from 1994 to 1999 he lived as a disciple of Roshi’s at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles.

He claimed not to fully understand Buddhist concepts, but he said the retreat and its hard work gave him a better sense of himself.

“I was the cook up there,” he told Magazine. “My life was filled with great disorder, with chaos, and I achieved a little discipline there. So I decided to return to music.”

He continued to write and produce albums and books.

In 2006, Cohen won a lawsuit against his former manager, Kelley Lynch, whom he alleged stole more than $5 million of his retirement money while he was in seclusion at the Zen center. He was left with a nest egg of about $150,000, the lawsuit claimed.

Cohen was awarded $9.5 million but he was unable to collect it. He returned to touring in 2008-09 in part because of the financial losses, telling The New York Times the case was “a long, ongoing problem of a disastrous and relentless indifference to my financial situation. I didn’t even know where the bank was.”

Cohen never married but he had two children, Adam and Lorca, with artist Suzanne Elrod.

In later years, he was linked romantically with actress Rebecca De Mornay and with jazz singer Anjani Thomas, who performed on several of his albums.

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