Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Leonard Cohen performing

Leonard Cohen by Rama / CC-BY-SA-2.0-FR via Wikimedia Commons

With great sadness, we learned that poet and musician Leonard Cohen passed away on November 10 at the age of 82. Cohen was something of an enigmatic and underground figure for much of his career, with his songs becoming influential through other performers. In his later years though, Cohen became a cult celebrity when he came out of retirement in 2005. He toured and recorded frequently until his death, releasing what would be his final album, You Want It Darker, at the end of October. His last live concert was here in Auckland in 2013 at the Vector Arena.

If you’re looking for material relating to Leonard Cohen talk to the staff at the Music and Dance Library  about books, recordings, and articles. You may want to access the streaming video of the celebratory documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man from 2005, a fascinating collection of interviews and performances by Cohen and some of his musician fans.

The best known of his songs, Hallelujah (1984), is possibly one of the most covered and reinterpreted songs (Jeff Buckley, John Cale, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Rufus and Martha Wainwright and more) of the later 20th century. It was something of a “sleeper” hit, not noticed particularly by audiences until 1994 Jeff Buckley covered John Cale’s 1992 cover of it. It is also one of the most used pop songs in TV and film used in hit shows such as ER and The West Wing and movies like Shrek and Feast of Love. Hallelujah is an excellent example of how Cohen worked as a poet and composer, as he recorded and performed several distinct versions of the lyrics over the years. The multiple versions of it have also encouraged other singers to append some of their own lyrics to Cohen’s originals, or to mix versions of his lyrics together. The song has fascinated audiences and critics since the 1990s and several treatises have been written on the song.

Of course, Leonard Cohen was far more than just Hallelujah. His songs (and poetry) explored the intersections of the sacred and profane, life, love, and death. Such varied songs as So Long Marianne, Tower of Song, Dance Me To The End Of Love and Everybody Knows have all garnered critical praise and large fan bases, and while Hallelujah is the best known, these and other songs made Cohen one of the best known songwriters of the late 20th and early 21st century. He also collaborated with a wide variety of musicians over the years, but perhaps one of the most interesting is a collaborative performance with jazz great, saxophonist Sonny Rollins.

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