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Leonard Cohen, a true entertainer till the end, dead at 82

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Leonard Cohen, the Montreal poet who would become one of the most celebrated and influential musicians in popular music over a career spanning more than 40 years, has died. The news was confirmed on his Facebook page on Nov. 10. He was 82 years old. 

A leading figure of the '60s folk movement centred on Greenwich Village, New York City, Cohen is second, possibly, only to Bob Dylan in terms of influence. His 1984 song "Hallelujah" is considered by many to be one of the greatest songs of all time, and has been covered more than 300 times, notably by k.d. lang, Rufus Wainwright and the late Jeff Buckley. In 1934, Cohen was born into a middle-class family in the English-speaking Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount. His father owned a clothing store, which would have a long-lasting effect on the musician's style; Cohen was rarely seen in anything but a suit and hat throughout his career.

“Darling, I was born in a suit,” he told Sylvie Simmons, the author of the 2012 biography I'm Your Man.

Before releasing his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967, which included such classics as "Suzanne" and "So Long, Marianne," Cohen was a published author and poet, although he struck off to New York in order to pursue the potential financial security of a musician. The move paid off, as Cohen went from becoming an outlier in Andy Warhol's factory crowd to signing a record deal with Columbia.

He followed Songs of Leonard Cohen with 1969's Songs from a Room and 1971's Songs of Love and Hate, the latter proving to be his most successful album, establishing his presence as a leading singer-songwriter. "[Cohen is] one of the most fascinating and enigmatic … singer-songwriters of the late '60s … [and] has retained an audience across four decades of music-making," wrote critic Bruce Eder in a summation of the artist's career.

Cohen wrote about religion, depression and spirituality in his music, but it was his songs about love and, even more so, the women in his life, that still manage to capture the imagination of audiences today. For starters, there is Marianne Ihlen ("So Long, Marianne"), who was with Cohen during his idyllic time spent in Greece in 1960; Suzanne Verdal ("Suzanne"), a friend who, he famously sang, "feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China;" Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his children, Adam and Lorca; Janis Joplin, the ill-fated singer who was the subject of his song "Chelsea Hotel #2;" and Anjani Thomas, who sang backup vocals on "Hallelujah" and worked with Cohen on the albums I'm Your Man, The Future, and Dear Heather.

"I read with some amusement my reputation as a ladies' man," Cohen told the U.K.'s Guardian in 2001. "But for someone who has that sort of reputation and has spent so many nights alone, it has a special bitter amusement attached to it.... There are women whom I have wanted to meet who have declined any interest in my company simply because of my reputation, simply because they did not want to be a name on a list."

Cohen was a true renaissance man. On top of being a poet, author and musician, he was also an exhibited painter and a pursuer of diverse spiritual interests, becoming an ordained Buddhist and achieving the grade of senior dianetic, grade IV release in the Church of Scientology (he fell out with the latter organization in 1969).

Following a long absence from the spotlight, Cohen was forced back into it in 2004 after discovering that his longtime manager, Kelley Lynch, had been emptying his accounts of money and selling publishing rights to his music as early as 1996. In need of money, Cohen returned with verve to touring and releasing new music, including 2012's Old Ideas, which became his highest-charting album in the U.S. at number three. Popular Problems followed in 2014, hitting number one on the Canadian charts. You Want It Darker, his last album, was released just weeks before his death, and was noted for its deep reflections on faith and mortality.

“I said I was ready to die recently,” he said during album release party, playing off the tone of the album as well as remarks to the New Yorker that we was ready to die. “I think I was exaggerating. One is given to self-dramatization from time to time. I intend to live forever.”

On the road, Cohen was known for putting on shows that would surpass the three-hour mark, with the then sprightly septuagenarian running through material old and new, his stage banter highlighting his sense of humour.

One well known moment was when the former smoker would explain, in vivid detail, how he would wait until he was 80 to enjoy another cigarette, an act he would incorporate into his show.
"A young nurse in a white uniform, white lisle stockings, and she’ll be carrying a pack of cigarettes on a silver tray," he said during one particular 2012 performance in Louisville, Ky.. "She’ll walk across the stage — I hope there won’t be any untoward catcalls. The pack will be opened. It will be gleaming, like those pillars of the Parthenon — a beautiful Parthenon of Tobacco. I’ll take one of the cigarettes out of the pack and tap it on my wrist like I learned to do in those movies. She’ll light me up, I’ll take my first [inhales deeply] yeah, it’s gonna be so good. Before she leaves, I’ll say 'Nurse, before you go would you mind tapping out a few of those bubbles in my IV.'"

While he didn’t incorporate it into his show, but he did stay true to his word and celebrated 80 years with a cigarette. On the album cover for You Want It Darker, he’s also pictured looking out a window, surrounded by blackness, his arm dangling downwards, a cigarette in hand.

Cohen made an art out of self-deprecation, which is just one of the many reasons fans from all around the world adored him. He was an Everyman poet, with an ability to be profane and sacred, often in the same sentence, and a true entertainer till the end.

Awards and honours Cohen received include induction into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame as well as a Grammy for lifetime achievement. He was also a recipient of two Governor General's awards, was a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country's highest civilian honour, and he received Spain's Prince of Asturias Award for literature.

“Hineni hineni, I’m ready my lord,” he sang on the title track of You Want It Darker. “Hineni,” which translates from Hebrew to “here I am,” is a phrase commonly used at key points in the Torah when characters come into the presence of God. It’s also used in prayer as a way to express an acceptance of one’s inadequacies. In that regard, it’s touching to hear Cohen, a man who was always so precise with his choice of words, sanctify his self-deprecation to the very end. But it also feels nothing short of an acceptance of the inevitable. Here I am. I’m ready.

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