Leonard Cohen: Part 2

Jun 14, 2012

By James Sandham

Well, well, music lover – good to see you back on the blog. If you were here last week, you might recall that we were taking a look at the mind-blowing career of one of Canada’s most iconic troubadours: the one and only Leonard Cohen, 1991’s Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee.

We left off in 1967: Cohen was 33, and his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, had just come out on Columbia Records. While it didn’t do exceedingly well in the United States (it only reached No. 83 on the Billboard charts and didn’t achieve gold status until 22 years after its release) it was reasonably successful in the United Kingdom, where it spent about a year-and-a-half on the charts, peaking at No. 13. This was indicative of the path Cohen’s career would take: middling success in the United States, but a much broader audience overseas. Cohen’s debut album nonetheless became a “cult favourite” in the U.S., and other artists, including Grammy Award–winners James Taylor and Judy Collins, covered several of its songs. Cohen followed it up in 1969 with Songs From a Room, which features one of my favourite of his tracks, “The Partisan,” an adaptation of “La Complainte du Partisan,” written in 1943 by French Resistance fighter Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie and Anna Marly. Like his first album, Songs From a Room peaked in middling ground on the U.S. charts – at No. 63 – but rose to the No. 2 position in the U.K.

Cohen’s next album, Songs of Love and Hate, came out the following year. While it only made it to No. 145 on the U.S. Billboard charts, it hit No. 4 in the U.K. and No. 8 in Australia – good enough to get Cohen touring for the first time. The tour made stops in the U.S., Canada and Europe, including dates at the U.K.’s Isle of Wight Festival, where Bob Dylan had performed the year prior. It was said at the time that the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival was one of the largest human gatherings in the world, with estimates of over 600,000 fans in attendance, which even surpassed the attendance at Woodstock. But with performers including Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Joni Mitchell, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis in addition to Cohen, it’s not hard to see why. Unfortunately, the unexpectedly high attendance level led British parliament to pass the “Isle of Wight Act” in 1971, banning gatherings of more than 5,000 people on the island without a special permit. Drat. On the upside though, Cohen’s performance there was later released as the 2009 LP, Live at the Isle of Wight 1970. So not all was lost.

Cohen toured again in 1972, with stops in Europe and Israel, and then again in ’74 and ’75 to support New Skin for the Old Ceremony, his latest album. The Best Of Leonard Cohen came out later in 1975. By ’76 he was touring again, playing 55 shows between April and July, including his first appearance at the famous Montreux Jazz Festival.

In 1977, however, Cohen decided to change things up. He released Death of a Ladies’ Man that year, which was co-written and produced by the now notorious Phil Spector, who was convicted in 2009 of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of American actress and fashion model Lana Clarkson. Spector is currently serving a prison sentence of 19 years to life – but in 1977, he was bringing a very different musical approach to Cohen’s typically minimalist album instrumentation. The end result was received ambiguously by fans and by Cohen himself, who has referred to the album as both “grotesque” and “semi-virtuous.” Either way, the actual recording of the album was fraught with difficulty, and Cohen claims that at one point in production Spector actually threatened him with a crossbow. Such craziness aside, while the album eventually came out on Warner, Cohen chose not to include any of the album’s songs on his later compilations More Best of Leonard Cohen and The Essential Leonard Cohen, and in 1979 he returned to his more traditional style with his Recent Songs LP. It was the first of his albums that Cohen co-produced, a trend he would continue throughout the rest of his career.

And on that note, music lover, we’ll have to leave it for this week. We’ll wrap this up after Father’s Day as Cohen’s career moves into the 1980s with the rock musical film Night Magic and his Various Positions LP. Until then, here’s another Cohen classic from his original 1967 debut.

Leonard Cohen – “So Long, Marianne”