Leonard Cohen wrote poems and set them to music — intimate, evocative and often enigmatic poems about love, sex, death, grief, spirituality, war and politics.
A former novelist/poet who turned to songwriting in the late 1960s, Cohen wrote music that resonated with songwriters of his generation and generations that followed.
He put out 14 studio albums during a career that spanned almost 50 years, including “You Want It Darker,” released in October, just weeks before his death this week in Los Angeles. He was 82.
Cohen was a supreme lyricist whose songs were covered thousands of times by fellow singers and songwriters, starting with Judy Collins, who recorded two of his songs, “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” for her “In My Life” album in 1966.
A year later, Cohen released his debut album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” which introduced the music world to his deep, resonant baritone and his inimitable, austere arrangements — often nothing more than the strum of a guitar. It included some of his most revered songs, including “Suzanne,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” It would be the only one of his albums to achieve gold status in the United States for sales of 500,000 copies.
He followed that with the equally provocative “Songs From a Room,” which featured classics like “Bird on the Wire,” “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy,” “Lady Midnight” and “Tonight Will Be Fine.”
His early recordings received mixed reviews, mostly because of his unconventional vocal style but also because of his often haunting arrangements. There were limited times and places for his music, which was created to be digested in solitude or during moments of deep introspection.
Nonetheless, Cohen, a native of Quebec, soon rose to prominence among the great songwriters of his time: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell.
In a recent New Yorker article by David Remnick about Cohen and “You Want It Darker,” Dylan lauded Cohen’s songwriting, especially his gift for melody:
“When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. 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.”
Cohen’s best-known song is “Hallelujah,” which has been covered hundreds of times, initially by John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground, and most famously by Jeff Buckley, who recorded it for his “Grace” album, released in 1994. Sales of that album took off after Buckley’s death in 1997.
In 2001, Rufus Wainwright’s cover of “Hallelujah” was included in the “Shrek” soundtrack, and the song soon became a go-to cover on talent shows like “American Idol.”
“Hallelujah” is a tale rife with biblical references about a man trying to reconcile his sexual desires with his search for spiritual enrichment — a marriage, as Remnick put it, of the sacred and profane.
It typifies in many ways Cohen’s manner of writing and composing songs, chronicling a tale of love, lust and faith and the torment that erupts in the struggle to find balance among them.
Cohen wrote many other songs deserving of such lofty status, songs that address sex in language that is simple, yet provocative and incisive.
From “Recitation”: “I loved you when you opened like a lily to the heat / You see, I’m just another snowman standing in the rain and sleet.”
Or from “Tonight Will Be Fine”: “Oh sometimes I see her undressing for me / She’s the soft, naked lady love meant her to be / And she’s moving her body so brave and so free / If I’ve got to remember, that’s a fine memory.”
He was equally adept at addressing the flaws within us and our many weaknesses and defects. One of his most-quoted lines is from the song “Anthem,” which declares: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
In 2008, after discovering his longtime manager had embezzled more than $5 million from him, Cohen launched what would end up being a five-year tour that comprised nearly 400 shows. He performed at the Midland theater in November 2009. He was 75 at the time but put on a robust three-hour show that is now legend. It also revealed his wry, dry sense of humor and a playful streak as it affirmed his iconic status as a poet, a songwriter and a true artist.
Cohen was aware of his decline in health. In the New Yorker article, he declared: “I’m ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” He would later step back from that: “I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.”
He left behind one more statement, a requiem, a valediction. “You Want It Darker” addresses mortality and departure. From “Leaving the Table”: “I’m leaving the table/ I’m out of the game / I don’t know the people / In your picture frame.”
The title track is even more direct: “If you are the dealer, let me out of the game / If you are the healer / I’m broken and lame.” Then: “I’m ready, my lord.”
It was a life full lived, and he leaves behind a trove of great music and memorable words. But in a year that has taken an inordinate number of music legends from us, a lot of us weren’t ready for another one to go.