By James Sandham
Well, music lover, it’s Leonard Cohen’s 78th birthday this week (he was born on September 21, 1934), so to celebrate the prolific, multi-JUNO Award-winning artist and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee, I thought we’d look back at some of the highlights of his life and career.
Now, for any other artist these highlights would be events like record releases or big music award wins, but for a man like Cohen, who has had one of the longest and most varied careers of anyone in the music business, there’s a whole other realm of alternative experiences to draw from. So, without further ado, here are five things you may not have known about the famous Canadian troubadour.
1. He lived in quasi-seclusion on a small Grecian isle
Yes, back in the heady 1960s, when Cohen was a just a young McGill University grad launching his poetry career, he bought a house on the small (about 25 square miles) Greek island of Hydra. It was while living there that he published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964) as well as the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966).
2. Phil Spector threatened him with a crossbow
Strange but apparently true. After his 1976 European tour, Cohen decided to change his style and arrangements, and subsequently enrolled Phil Spector, synonymous with the Wall of Sound production technique as well as the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson, who he was convicted of killing in his California mansion – to co-write and produce his 1977 album, Death of a Ladies Man. The recording of the album was fraught with difficulty. Spector barred Cohen from the studio before the vocal tracks were finished, then went ahead with the mixes using guide vocals. At one point he even held Cohen at crossbow-point, urging him to sing as though his life depended on it.
3. “The Partisan” was the practical theme song of the Polish Solidarity movement
After Columbia declined to release Cohen’s 1984 album, Various Positions, in the United States, Cohen took things into his own hands and went out to promote it with his biggest tour to date. This included a series of highly emotional and politically controversial concerts in Poland, which at the time was still a Warsaw Pact country and under martial law. There, “The Partisan” came to be regarded as the hymn of the broad anti-bureaucratic social movement that was occurring, and during the ’80s almost all of Cohen’s songs were performed in Polish by Maciej Zembaty, a Polish artist, writer, journalist, singer, poet and comedian.
4. He is an ordained Buddhist monk
In 1994 Cohen retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Centre in the San Gabriel Mountains, forty miles east of Los Angeles. Thus began five years of seclusion at the center. He was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in 1996, and took the Dharma name Jikan, which means silence. There was a subsequent impression that Cohen would not resume recording or publishing but he did, returning to Los Angeles in May of 1999.
5. Despite making millions of international record sales, he has almost gone broke (through no fault of his own)
In October 2005 Cohen alleged that his longtime former manager, Kelley Lynch, had misappropriated more than $5 million from his retirement fund. This left Leonard with a paltry $150,000. Though he won a 2006 civil suit awarding him $9 million, Lynch ignored the ruling and did not respond to a subpoena. It has been consequently questioned whether Cohen will ever be able to collect the awarded amount. Needless to say, he’s been under new management since then.
Happy birthday, Cohen!