Even at His Most Depressing Moments, Leonard Cohen Made a Lot of People Happy

Even at His Most Depressing Moments, Leonard Cohen Made a Lot of People HappyEXPAND
By Rama (Own work)/CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, via Wikimedia Commons

As if the world didn’t have enough heartache to deal with this week, breaking the blockade of President Trump headlines was the sudden death of the Canadian singer-songwriter, novelist, poet, and Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk Leonard Cohen.

Just like David Bowie’s demise earlier this year, Cohen’s passing comes right on the heels of a new album, You Want It Darker, released just three weeks ago, on October 21.

According to the official statement from Cohen's son Adam, his father passed from this world knowing “he’d made one of his greatest records ... He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.”

Oddly enough, Cohen’s name had come up a lot in recent weeks and not just because of the acclaimed new album. When people were arguing whether Bob Dylan was deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature, those in the negatory column would bring up Leonard Cohen’s name as an also-ran or even a substitute. In the pop world, only Cohen could come as close to Dylan's wordsmithing and have that accolade stick.

No stranger to literary prizes, at least Canadian ones, Cohen received a Prince of Asturias Award for literature. Cohen has written seven collections of poetry and two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966).

But it is his body of recorded music for which he will be most remembered. In 1966, he set out to make a more lucrative living as a country songwriter after Judy Collins recorded his first valuable copyright, “Suzanne.” That song appeared on his 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. “Suzanne” has been a favorite of singers ranging from Noel Harrison, who had a pop hit with it; Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA; R.E.M., who interpolated it for their song "Hope"; and Nick Cave. That first album also contained "So Long, Marianne,” which Pitchfork Media placed at number 190 on its list of "The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s." The real-life inspiration for the song, Marianne Ihlen, died in hospital in Oslo on July 28, 2016, at age 81. Cohen wrote to his muse just before she died, prophetically as it turns out, "Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine ... Goodbye, old friend. Endless love, see you down the road."

Ihlen was also the inspiration for his other oft-covered song “Bird on the Wire,” with Joe Cocker, Tim Hardin, Airport Convention, the Neville Brothers, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and k.d. lang among the many who did the honors.

Other notable songs by Cohen include "Famous Blue Raincoat" (a song for all you guys who want to confront another guy for having an affair with your wife), "Everybody Knows" (covered by Bette Midler, Concrete Blonde, Don Henley), and of course, “Hallelujah,” Cohen's most famous song, the one that will continue to be butchered nightly in karaoke bars and on TV singing contests but was once rendered quite beautifully by the late Jeff Buckley.

Ironically, “Hallelujah” was a track on Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions, which Columbia Records president Walter Yetnikoff, his hands full releasing singles from Thriller, balked at releasing. Supposedly he told Cohen, “Look, Leonard, we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good.”

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Of the possible burnout factor of “Hallelujah,” Cohen once graciously said, "There's been a couple of times when other people have said, 'Can we have a moratorium, please, on "Hallelujah"? Must we have it at the end of every single drama and every single [American Idol]?' And once or twice I've felt maybe I should lend my voice to silencing it, but on second thought, no. I'm very happy that it's being sung."

One of the earliest people to cover it in concert? Cohen's friend and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Bob Dylan.

Rest in peace, Leonard Cohen. Even at your most depressing, you made a hell of a lot of people happy.


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