Leonard Cohen is many things to many people: poet, novelist, singer, songwriter, monk. But to all, is a legend.
He was born in the English-speaking Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount on September 21, 1934. His earliest musical venture was a country and western square dance band, the Buckskin Boys, co-founded with a childhood friend while Cohen studied English at McGill University.
Cohen’s songwriting, however, would take a backseat to poetry (Flowers for Hitler, Let Us Compare Mythologies) and novels (The Favorite Game, Beautiful Losers) for several years. It was not until 1966 that he would make a concerted effort to sell his music, establishing himself in New York on the way to his proposed destination, Nashville. Via Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, Cohen sold the songs “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag” to folk singer Judy Collins. (They appeared on her 1967 album In My Life.)
His debut album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, finally appeared in 1968, and contains his own version of “Suzanne.” Director Robert Altman used three tracks from the record in his 1971 film McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
The ‘70s would see Cohen establish a fertile working relationship with producer John Lissauer (1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony) and a more controversial one with Phil Spector (1977’s Death of a Ladies’ Man).
Cohen would finally come into his own commercially in the ‘80s with the Lissauer-produced Various Positions (1985) and its semi-hit “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which saw Cohen make his first video.
His reputation would be burnished by the success of Famous Blue Raincoat (1987), an album of Cohen covers by his backup singer Jennifer Warnes. It included the Cohen original “First We Take Manhattan,” featuring Stevie Ray Vaughn on guitar. Cohen would later include his own version on his own acclaimed 1988 album I’m Your Man.
Cohen’s renaissance continued in the ‘90s with 1992’s The Future getting a warm reception. Filmmaker Oliver Stone used three of its songs in 1994’s Natural Born Killers.
A period of seclusion followed as Cohen was ordained a Buddhist monk. He returned to public life with the release of 2001’s Ten New Songs and has continued to tour and record, most recently releasing Popular Problems in 2014.
The number of awards and honours Cohen has accrued over his career are too numerous to detail, but some of the most prominent include a Governor General’s Award (in 1968), his induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (in 1991) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 2008), five JUNO awards, a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Awards (in 2011), and being made an Officer of the Order of Canada (1991).
His artistic legacy, likewise, is ongoing and immeasurable. Kurt Cobain namechecked him in the lyrics of Nirvana’s song, “Pennyroyal Tea.” He has been the subject of three major tribute albums: the aforementioned Famous Blue Raincoat, 1991’s I’m Your Fan, and 1995’s Tower of Song. He has been namechecked as an influence by countless artists, including Nick Cave, R.E.M. and The Pixies, and the number of beautiful covers of his song “Hallelujah” – Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang first and foremost among them – is astonishing.
Won (but declined) the 1968 Governor General’s Award for Selected Poems 1956–1968
Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame
Was made an Officer of the Order of Canada
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Has won five JUNO awards and a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award