Leonard Cohen, who turns 78 next week, has had nine lives -- and he's needed them. It's impossible to encapsulate these lives, beyond saying that his work "explores themes of religion, isolation, sexuality and power" and that he "has remained relevant and unrelenting for his entire 50-year career." So I'll try to be brief:
1. Cohen was the son of a prosperous Montreal Jewish family.
2. "In his teens he was a plumpish fraternity president and cheerleader who played in a country and western trio."*
3. Cohen attended McGill's law school and graduate school at Columbia (both briefly) after graduating McGill.
3. In his twenties Cohen was an early succès d'estime as a poet and novelist (a career he has continued throughout his musical life), writing The Favourite Game before he turned 30 and Beautiful Losers just after.
4. "In 1967 (Losers was published in 1966), disappointed with his lack of financial success as a writer, Cohen moved to the United States to pursue a career as a folk music singer-songwriter,"+ where Judy Collins took him under her wing in the Village folk music scene.
5. In 1967 Cohen stunned the world (or at least some part of it, including me) with his first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, including one that still makes me cry, "That's No Way To Say Goodbye" (played achingly here with Collins).
6. Also on Songs were "Suzanne" and "So Long Marianne," names each belonging to more than one crucial woman in his life -- several of whom seem not happy with him, including perhaps the mother of his two children.
7. Cohen is both painfully shy (so that Collins had to force him back onto the stage at one of her concerts), and has had so many lovers that his biographer only "provides glimpses of a well-chosen few"* -- many of whom have become involved in his musical life.
8. Cohen has engaged in "extravagant drug and alcohol use that explains some of his stranger recordings,"* while pursuing a life-long spiritual journey that has involved a stop at Scientology and current full membership in both the Buddhist and observant Jewish communities.+
9. Although his first album's success might seem to have guaranteed him a lifetime sinecure, Cohen floundered in the music business and left it during several disillusioned retreats -- oh, in 2012 he released his twelfth album to critical acclaim.
10. (Sorry -- nine just won't cut it) While living and working in Los Angeles for much of his career, Cohen has had a significant presence and lived for substantial periods on the Greek isle of Hydra.
11. Despite having had a series of award-winning sliver, gold, and platinum albums, in 1994 Cohen retreated to a Buddhist monastery for five years, took a vow of silence, and was ordained as a monk.+
12. Although he was widely thought to have retired from music, Cohen returned to LA in 1999 and actively re-engaged in his career.
13. In 2005, Cohen noticed the world that his agent had ripped him off while he was in the monastery; he was later awarded a court judgment of $9 million that he seems never to have collected.
14. Driven by this financial reversal, Cohen released new material that affirmed his status as a world-wide musical figure and he embarked in his mid-seventies on a more-or-less continuous world tour (2008-2011) before adoring audiences.
15. Whatever happened in that monastery, after which he fully re-engaged his Jewish identity, Cohen said that Buddhism enabled him to escape a lifetime of depression (a number of his songs concern suicide+), and to enjoy happiness and piece of mind for the first time.
Collins expressed her wonder about Cohen: “that a Jew from Canada can take the Bible to pieces and give the Catholics a run for their money on every story they ever thought they knew”* (my personal favorite in this regard is "Billy Sunday"). Cohen's miracle of combining spirituality, sex, depression and salvation is embodied by "Hallelujah," his most popular and oft-recorded song -- which was virtually ignored when first released. Maslin says about "Hallelujah": "it has been interpreted as everything from raw erotica to Christmas carol to elevator music," and that "there are so many twists to this story that a whole book about Halleluljah is due late this year."
My, life can be long and varied -- if you let it.
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* Several quotes here, as noted, are from Janet Maslin's NY Times review of Sylvie Simmons' new biography of Cohen -- I'm Your Man -- and if you don't know that title, you're not allowed to read this post.
+ Wikipedia's entry for Cohen is exhaustive, and exhausting.