A Hallelujah for Leonard Cohen 

By Moina Arcee, Dec 16, 2015, edited August 26 2018

another tip of the hat

“There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”

Leonard Cohen, from his song Anthem.

Leonard Cohen is so quiet and self-contained that in talking with him you would never realize he has won awards for his poetry, writing, and singing in five consecutive decades. What you might notice instead are pervasive clouds of heavy seriosity he disperses with witty quips – quips which are also used to deflect the topic of conversation when the topic is why Cohen is called the “high priest of pathos.”

That is not Cohen’s only nickname.  After all, in six decades of performing he was bound to pick up a few monikers. Like this one: “The poet laureate of pessimism.” Or this: “The prince of bummers.” Or: “grocer of despair.” Or: “Godfather of gloom.” Or…well, you get the point.

Kurt Cobain wrote about longing for a ‘Leonard Cohen afterworld where I could sigh eternally’. His tunes have been referred to as “music to slit your wrists by.” At times Cohen has gone along with the joke, once suggesting his record company give away razor blades with his records.

The Grim Reaper of Words and Moods does not live up to his reputation when you meet him in person.  Instead of a dark cloaked and hooded figure, Cohen in person displays a clever, utterly self-mocking sense of humor that doesn’t always show up on a lyric sheet.

He has always been a writer. He started getting published in 1956. By the time he picked up songwriting and guitar playing he had already published several novels and poetry books. Cohen began releasing records in the 1960’s and he hasn’t stopped, although he has gone on hiatus from time to time. But before his first song was ever recorded, nine-year-old Leonard Cohen wrote a poem for his dead father that he wrapped around his father’s favorite bow tie and buried in the ground.

Writing is in Cohen’s bones, deeply ancestral, tracing perhaps all the way back to the venerable “priesthood of Aaron,” which Cohen’s (formerly Kohen) parents solemnly informed little Leonard was his lineage.

What is a child to make of that moniker? To round off Cohen’s Polish-Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Kline, wrote a 700-page thesaurus of Talmudic interpretations. Evidently the Rabbi passed on his gift for writing to his grandson.

The Talmud and the priesthood of Aaron were not commonplace notions in the middle class Protestant suburb of Montreal Leonard Cohen grew up in. Montreal in the 1930’s was overwhelmingly Catholic, Protestant, and white. Yet a noticeable minority of Jews co-existed with the majorities, politely (or otherwise) ignoring cathedrals, statues of saints and street names, while giving and receiving sustenance in small private enclaves.

The adult Leonard Cohen looks back and recalls, “I had a very Messianic childhood.” It was a beginning that would inform his art again and again. Even today, at age eighty, Cohen reflects: “I grew up in a very conservative, observant family…It’s not something I have to publicize or display, but it is essential to my own survival. Those are values that my family gave me, which are Torah values…I never stray very far from those influences.”

Hmmm…How far away is studying Zen Buddhism for several decades, being cloistered in a Buddhist monastery for five years, and becoming a Zen Buddhist monk? More on that later.

Cohen attended public schools, where his interests in poetry and music were evident early on.   In the Westmount High School yearbook Cohen is quoted as wishing to become a “world famous orator.” He also became enamored of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

Lorca was a Spanish socialist, writer, and playwright assassinated during the Spanish Civil War. Although his physical body was never found, Lorca’s body of work has attracted an avant-garde following which includes Leonard Cohen, who named his daughter Lorca.

At McGill University Cohen majored in literature and poetry, and created his first band, the Buckskin Boys. Cohen and two friends wore buckskin with phony ponytails and played for square dances in church halls. It was a completely underwhelming start to a notable and well-studied musical career. After the Buckskin Boys went the way of the dodo bird, Cohen published his first book, which he dedicated to his father. Let Us Compare Mythologies was a series of poems published in 1956.

At that point Cohen had graduated college and was trying to make a career for himself as a poet, writer, and general literary genius. He had two novels and several poetry books published. Overall his work was critically praised and occasionally controversial. For instance, Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers, in the eyes of one reviewer was “the most revolting book ever written in Canada”. Ouch.

The main problem, however, was that no one outside of Leonard’s small literary circle of literary friends bought any of his books. “It was very difficult to pay my grocery bill,” Cohen said later. “I’ve got beautiful reviews for all my books, and I’m very well thought of in the tiny circles that know me, but…I’m really starving.”

Hunger pangs led Cohen to songwriting. It was not a difficult switch because Cohen was still using words, which are his medium:

“I always feel that the world was created through words, through speech in our tradition, and I’ve always seen the enormous light in charged speech. “That’s what I’ve tried to get to [and] that is where I squarely stand.”

marianne the muse

Sometimes Cohen entered his stance through muses. The first was Marianne Ihlen, his lover in the early 1960’s. The two lived on the Greek island of Hydra. It was there Cohen began developing his body of work, which eventually included a song for his muse: (So Long) Marianne…

Cohen’s next muse, Suzanne, also got a song named after her, and two children (Adam and Lorca) with Leonard as well. Other influences on Cohen were Zen Catholic novelist Jack Kerouac, and country singer Hank Williams. Williams was such a strong influence that in 1966 Cohen, back in Canada by now, determined to travel to Nashville to do a country album. On the way he stopped in Greenwich Village and had fateful meetings with folk artists Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and others. He didn’t make it to Nashville – that time.

Cohen was older than his new friends. He was already in his thirties, a published writer, and was in several respects farther along the literary and artistic track than Dylan and the others. Many of them looked up to the older Cohen. Judy Collins recorded Cohen’s signature song “Suzanne” before he did.

Collins’ sponsorship of Cohen caught the eye of Columbia Records. Cohen recorded three albums for Columbia: Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room, and Songs of Love and Hate. His early work was similar to his folkie friends, but not imitative. Cohen was more mature and restrained than his contemporaries, who often got swept away musically with passing social and political situations. Lyrically he was remarkably lean and concise, but also imaginary and evocative. His words could be interpreted in layers, but the lyrics were also accessible. His musical arrangements were very spare. Whether words or notes, Cohen pared everything to the bone.

as a young man

Early on Cohen figured out how to assimilate his poetic talents into the singer-songwriter format of folk music without insulting his muses or failing the requirements of his new medium. His lyrics are a remarkable combination of poetry, fiction, autobiography, religion, politics, and sexuality. For the next several decades Leonard Cohen released albums in a leisurely, sometimes sporadic, fashion.
In 1984 Cohen created perhaps his most famous song: Hallelujah. It is a song that has been covered literally dozens of times by artists all over the world. In some circles it is as well-known as “Jingle Bells.” Hallelujah originally appeared on Cohen’s 1984 release “Various Positions.” He reportedly wrote and rewrote the song dozens of times before he was satisfied with the result.

Hallelujah begins as an Old Testament morality play and turns into a story about the human search for transcendence – spiritual and sexual yearnings for more that either don’t happen or don’t last. Yet even the failed attempts at transcendence can evoke “a cold and a broken Hallelujah,” for the realization that at least our human condition gives us the chance to reach for and even have transcendence for a moment, albeit with the certainty of a future of renewed longings when the transcendence, like all things,  passes away.

The lyrics are “rapturously bleak,” and Cohen’s vocal delivery in the original is dispassionate. Yet the mood of the song can be joyous, bittersweet. or both. Everyone else who has covered Hallelujah has been closer to the joyous, even histrionic end of the scale. In 2008 a poll of 50 songwriters ranked Hallelujah as one of the ten best songs of all time. Rolling Stone also had Hallelujah as a “best of.” The song inspired a BBC documentary and at least one book.

When Cohen talked with Bob Dylan about his writing process on Hallelujah, Dylan shook his head and told Cohen that every song he ever wrote was done in a few minutes. Not so with Cohen. He took the long way round to songwriting. This is one of the reasons his album releases were so occasional. Cohen never went into the studio with the goal of banging out an album in a certain time frame. He was always the poet and the artist, serious to the point of obsession about his craft, taking as much time as it took to hone the lyrics and music down to its essence.

Cohen never settled for lightweight songs. He went for the jugular every time. Sometimes he succeeded and sometimes he missed. But you had the sense that he was always down there digging for something. Writer Pico Iyer wrote of Cohen:

“The changeless is what he’s been about since the beginning…Some of the other great pilgrims of song pass through philosophies and selves as if through the stations of the cross. With Cohen, one feels he knew who he was and where he was going from the beginning, and only digs deeper, deeper, deeper.”

zen life

In the 1990’s Cohen dug for Zen. “It was one of the many attempts I’ve made in the past 30 or 40 years to address acute clinical depression,” he declared. As for other remedies (drugs), Cohen remarked:  “The recreational, the obsessional and the pharmaceutical – I’ve tried them all. I would be enthusiastically promoting any one of them if they worked.” Buddhism sounded like Cohen’s last resort.

It is not known if Cohen uttered a Hallelujah upon disappearing into the sparse quarters of Mount Baldy Monastery in southern California. It is known that he emerged from the monastery an ordained Zen Buddhist monk, after spending five consecutive years living life without distractions under the watchful eye of Zen master Joshu Sasaki-Roshi.

In 2001, at the age of sixty-seven, Leonard Cohen released an album called Ten New Songs. It was a hit in Europe, and in Cohen’s own Canada. There followed a series of albums and world tours, all of which were well received. In 2008 Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2010.

Canada has not forgotten its own son either. Leonard Cohen has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2011 Cohen was given a Princess of Asturias Awards. He has also been made a Companion of the Order of Canada, which is Canada’s highest civilian honor.

With accolades came agony. Cohen discovered his life savings of five million dollars was stolen by his former manager and friend. He has been unable to recoup his losses. so part of Cohen’s motivation to keep playing and releasing albums is financial: he needs the money. Fortunately, he seems to have discovered a remarkable new musical plateau; or perhaps in Cohen’s case it is more accurate to say that he has plumbed downward to discover an underground spring of living water.


In 2012 Cohen released Old Ideas, which became the highest charting album in his entire career. Then in 2014, at the age of eighty, Cohen released Popular Problems, his thirteenth album. Again it was warmly received.

Apparently singing elegant melancholy songs in a coarse baritone voice never gets old. Neither, it seems, does Leonard Cohen, who, despite some serious debauchery over the years, is today looking and acting much younger than his age. Wondering what Cohen will be doing in his nineties? Stay tuned, perhaps the best of Leonard Cohen is yet to be.

tipping the hat


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