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Poet, songwriter Leonard Cohen dead at 82

Cohen in France, 1988. (Photo: Roland Godefroy, Creative Commons)

Cohen in France, 1988. (photo: Roland Godefroy, Creative Commons)

Leonard Cohen, the poet who became a legendary troubadour, died on Nov. 7 at the age of 82. His label, Sony Music Canada, and son, Adam, confirmed his death on Nov. 10.

Cohen’s chart success never matched contemporaries such as Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, but few singer-songwriters from the 1960s matched his influence or longevity. His songs touched on a variety of subjects, including love, sex, war, and religion, all of which took on a dark hue when sung in his hypnotic bass voice.

Cohen was born in 1934 and raised in Westmount, Quebec, then a suburb of Montreal. He studied music and poetry at an early age, eventually attending McGill University. His first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, an entry in the McGill Poetry Series, was published in 1956. It was his second book, The Spice-Box of Earth (McClelland & Stewart), that gained him initial recognition. A $3,000 grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, received in 1960, allowed Cohen to travel, first to London and eventually to Greece, where he used an inheritance to buy a small house on the island of Hydra. It was here Cohen wrote his best known books, the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (M&S), and the novels The Favourite Game (Secker and Warburg) and Beautiful Losers (M&S). It was also in Hydra where he met his famous muse, Marianne Ihlen, who inspired Cohen’s songs “So Long, Marianne,” “A Bird on the Wire,” and “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”

From the late-60s on, Cohen focused more on songwriting. Songs of Leonard Cohen, his first of 14 albums, was released in 1967. His original acoustic sound eventually gave way to a synthesized aesthetic – with an ill-fated detour to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound for 1977’s Death of a Ladies’ Man. His other well-known songs include “Suzanne,” “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” and the oft-covered “Hallelujah.” A cover album recorded in 1987 by his former backup singer Jennifer Warnes led to a career renaissance for Cohen, who released what would be his become his highest charting album (No. 7) in Canada up to that point, The Future, in 1992.

Cohen took a break from his career for a period in the 1990s when he spent five years at the Mt. Baldy Zen Centre in California, where was ordained as a Buddhist monk. He returned to recording in 2001. A few years later, Cohen sued his former manager, Kelley Lynch, for misappropriating his $5-million retirement fund and selling his publishing rights without his consent. Cohen won the suit, but was never able to collect money owed from Lynch, who eventually was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Cohen began to tour extensively, and released his final three albums – all of which reached No. 1 – in the past four years, the most recent, You Want It Darker, released just three weeks before his death. Cohen recently told New Yorker editor David Remnick that he was “ready to die,” though he quickly countered to Billboard that he had exaggerated. “I intend to live forever,” he said.

Cohen was inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame as well as the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He held Juno and Grammy awards, and was named a companion of the Order of Canada in 1991. Though he never married, he was notorious for his relationships with many women. Aside from his son, Adam, he is survived by a daughter, Lorca, and three grandchildren. Both his children are from a 1970s relationship with Los Angeles artist Suzanne Elrod. Cohen currently was living in Los Angeles, where a service is expected to take place.