Photo by Graeme Mitchell for The New Yorker
Another brilliant artist of legendary proportions that Carolyn and I both admire is the late Leonard Cohen. Cohen was a Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist, whose emotionally powerful work explored such themes as romance, isolation, sexuality, loss, politics, and death. His husky voice and soulful words have touched the hearts of millions, and he continues to soothe and inspire us with his wildly innovative songs and mesmerizing poetry.
Cohen was a masterful poet; he had 17 collections of poetry published in his lifetime, and he didn’t begin his music career until he was 33. Cohen graduated from McGill University in 1952 and spent some time in graduate school at Columbia University, but he wasn’t happy there; he described his academic experience as “passion without flesh, love without climax.” In 1957 Cohen left school to pursue a career as a poet and novelist; he began working various odd jobs so that he could focus on his creative writing.
Disappointed with his lack of success as a writer, in 1967 Cohen moved to New York City to reinvent himself as a folk music singer-songwriter. He began hanging out with artist Andy Warhol and mixing with his associated creative community. Popular singers such as Judy Collins and Joan Baez started covering some of his songs around this time, translating his poetry into music. After performing at a few folk festivals, Cohen came to the attention of a Columbia Records producer who signed him to a record deal, and his first album was released that same year. Cohen released 14 studio albums and eight live albums during the course of a recording career lasting almost 50 years, and a posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, was released in 2019.
Cohen was a deeply contemplative man, who sought the advice and guidance of spiritual leaders throughout the world. He spent much of his life as a spiritual seeker, alternating periods of deep study of the Jewish Torah with long retreats at Zen monasteries. He had ancestral roots in religion, and his deep personal sense of spirituality was expressed in his most well-known song, Hallelujah, which was the result of a long and profound spiritual journey; it took him years to write the revered classic, filling notebook after notebook with rejected lyrics.
Cohen ran into financial difficulties later in life due to missing money that his ex-manager had stolen, and in 2008 he embarked on his first world tour in fifteen years. He performed his final time in New Zealand in 2013. Appreciation for Cohen’s songs spans across generations, as he had the ability to reach people of all ages, and although I never saw him perform, Carolyn saw him numerous times, and so did my mom, who is also a great admirer.
Cohen was immensely creative and, in addition to his poetry, prose, and music, he also produced countless sketches, drawings, and lithographs, some of which are collected in his book The Flame: Poems Notebooks Lyrics Drawings. Cohen died in 2016, at the age of 82. His legacy is enormous; he is recognized as one of the most influential musicians of our time. His albums have sold millions of copies, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Some quotes that Leonard Cohen is remembered for include:
Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.
You look around you and see a world that doesn’t make sense; you raise your fist or you say ‘hallelujah.
Like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it. — Cohen describes his writing process
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.
Carolyn added: “David Campagna and I experienced Leonard at many concerts, with seats right next to his performance. At one point he looked into David’s eyes, which were tearing, smiled his half smile, and fell backwards, his eyes also full of tears.“
“Then a few months later, while David was at Mt. Sinai Hospital in LA, Leonard said ‘Hi bro’ I ‘They are just hanging us on.’ Then David brought my book The Divine Kiss to Leonard the next week, while dragging himself across the room attached to a chemo machine. Leonard remarked what an act of passion it was that the book was dedicated in David’s honor. I’m not sure if they saw each other again, but Leonard’s family estate does have that book, thanks to David’s heroism.”