Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen
Poetic musician remembered for his haunting style, lyrics
The music world has lost yet another of its visionaries. Leonard Cohen passed away on Thursday at the age of 82. Few musicians could match Cohen’s depth of talent as a lyricist, poet, singer, composer — or be able to sustain it for more than 50 years, as he did.
Cohen, who was born in Quebec and graduated from McGill University, actually began as a poet when, in his 30s, he published “Flowers for Hitler” and two novels. In 1966, he met the legendary Judy Collins and penned two songs for her “In My Life” album. This set him on a path as a songwriter for some of rock and folk music’s greatest talents, including Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Diana Ross, and others.
For those nights after a breakup or loss of a loved one, or for late-night bull sessions in the dorm, Cohen’s music is perfect.
After writing songs for others, Cohen struck out on his own and released his first album, “The Songs of Leonard Cohen” in 1967. Compared to so many peers who achieved success in their early 20s, Cohen was 34 at the time of that release, but still did not achieve broad success for many years, though the album hit gold.
Perhaps the greatest compliment for the album was provided by legendary filmmaker Robert Altman, who nabbed three of the tunes for his landmark 1971 film, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”
As folk music and coffeehouses rolled through the country in the 1960s and ’70s, Cohen planted himself in java haunts for many years, earning a cult-like status. As more and more albums were released, critics latched onto him for his poetic lyrics, unique sound, and baritone voice. Soon his fan base exploded — and the rest is history.
“Songs from a Room” (1969) contains what may be his most famous song, “Bird on a Wire.” As with many of his works, the dark and melancholy song tracks the emotions of a lost man, battling all who reach out for him, trying to find his own way and asking for forgiveness.
“Hallelujah” (1984) has numerous interpretations in regard to the lyrics, but most consider it a song about how confusing and confounding love is — and yet despite all the pain it can bring, it remains the most beautiful thing there is. The song is believed to have been covered more than 300 times in numerous languages, achieving renewed popularity after the film “Shrek” (2001) used it to great effect.
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“Everybody Knows” (1988) was co-written by Sharon Robinson, who frequently collaborated with Cohen and served as a backup singer for his tours in 1979, 1980, and from 2008 to 2013. The song offers a cynical and pessimistic view on the state of affairs, and is timeless — its lyrics could refer to any time, any place, and any unfortunate situation perpetuated by mankind.
For such a comparatively dark and introspective performer, it may seem odd that Cohen achieved such notoriety. Yet it is exactly those reasons that he earned the fan base he did. For those seeking intelligent and thoughtful lyrics, ones that explore and expose both human frailty and transcendence; for those nights after a breakup or loss of a loved one; for late-night bull sessions in the dorm — Cohen’s music is perfect.
It’s almost as if Cohen’s songs were lifted from every barfly pounding away at the local dive bar from 10 a.m. until closing — the kind of man who reeks of cigarettes, dresses in a rumpled suit, and hasn’t had a shave in days.
Cohen joins other visionaries who have passed to the Great Music Hall in the Sky this year, including Prince and David Bowie. Somewhere, they are making beautiful music together.