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Leonard Cohen Biography

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Leonard Norman Cohen, CC (born September 21, 1934 in Montreal, Quebec) is a Canadian poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter. Cohen began his career in literature, publishing his first book of poetry in Montreal in 1956 and his first novel in 1963. Following his breakthrough in the music industry in the late 1960s, Cohen became one of the most distinguished and influential songwriters of the late twentieth century.

Musically, Cohen's early songs are based in folk music, both for melodies and instrumentation, but, beginning in the 1970s, his work shows the influence of various types of popular music and cabaret music. Since the 1980s he typically has sung in a baritone register, with synthesizers and female backing vocals.

Cohen's songs are often emotionally heavy and lyrically complex, owing more to the metaphoric word play of poetry than to the conventions of song craft. His work often explores the themes of religion, isolation, sex, and complex interpersonal relationships.

Cohen's music has become very influential on other singer-songwriters, and more than a thousand cover versions of his work have been recorded. He is iconic in his native land, having been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation's highest civilian honour.

Recurring themes in Cohen's work include love and sex, religion, psychological depression, and music itself. He has also engaged with certain political themes, though sometimes ambiguously so.

Love and sex are common enough themes in popular music; Cohen's background as a novelist and poet brings an uncommon sensibility to these themes. "Suzanne," probably the first Cohen song to gain broad attention, mixes a wistful type of love song with a religious meditation, themes that are also mixed in "Joan of Arc." "Famous Blue Raincoat" is from the point of view of a man whose marriage has been broken (in exactly what degree is ambiguous in the song) by his wife's infidelity with his close friend, and is written in the form of a letter to that friend, to whom he writes, "I guess that I miss you/ I guess I forgive you … Know your enemy is sleeping/ And his woman is free", while "Everybody Knows" deals in part with the harsh reality of AIDS: "… the naked man and woman/ Are just a shining artifact of the past." "Sisters of Mercy" evokes of genuine love (agape more than Eros) found in a hotel room encounter with two Edmonton women, whereas "Chelsea Hotel #2" treats his Janis Joplin one-night stand rather unsentimentally, and the title of "Don't Go Home with Your Hard-On" speaks for itself.

Cohen comes from a Jewish background, most obviously reflected in his song "Story of Isaac", and also in "Who by Fire," whose words and melody echo the Unetaneh Tokef, an 11th century liturgical poem recited on Rosh Hashanah. Broader Judeo-Christian themes are sounded throughout the album Various Positions: "Hallelujah", which has music as a secondary theme, begins by evoking the biblical king David composing a song that "pleased the Lord"; "Coming Back to you" and "If It Be Your Will" are clearly addressed to a Judeo-Christian God. In his early career as a novelist, Beautiful Losers grappled with the mysticism of the Catholic/Iroquois Katherine Tekakwitha. Cohen has also been involved with Buddhism at least since the 1970s and in 1996 he was ordained a Buddhist monk. However, he still considers himself also a Jew: "I'm not looking for a new religion. I'm quite happy with the old one, with Judaism." [9]

Having suffered from psychological depression during much of his life (although less so with the onset of old age), Cohen has written much (especially in his early work) about depression and suicide. The wife of the protagonist of Beautiful Losers commits a gory suicide; "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" is about a suicide; suicide is mentioned in the darkly comic "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong"; "Dress Rehearsal Rag" is about a last-minute decision not to kill oneself; a general atmosphere of depression pervades such songs as "Please Don't Pass Me By" and "Tonight Will Be Fine." A reviewer once remarked tongue-in-cheek that Cohen's albums should be sold with razor blades.

As in the aforementioned "Hallelujah", music itself is the subject of many songs, including "Tower of Song", "A Singer Must Die", and "Jazz Police".

Social justice often shows up as a theme in his work, where he seems, especially in later albums, to expound a leftist politics, albeit with culturally conservative elements. In "Democracy" lamenting "the wars against disorder/ … the sirens night and day/ … the fires of the homeless/ … the ashes of the gay," he concludes that the United States is actually not a democracy: A specifically (and classically) leftist position, as is his observation (in "Tower of Song") that "the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor/ And there's a mighty judgment coming." In the title track of The Future he recasts this prophecy on a pacifist note: "I've seen the nations rise and fall/ …/ But love's the only engine of survival." In "Anthem," he promises that "the killers in high places [who] say their prayers out loud/ … [are] gonna hear from me." In "The Land of Plenty," he characterizes the United States (if not the opulent West in general) of benightedness: "May the lights in The Land of Plenty/ Shine on the truth some day." And in "On That Day," in a sincere and genuine lament for the 9-11 tragedy, he nevertheless, startlingly, raises (and takes an agnostic position on) the question of whether "It's what we deserve/ For sins against God/ For crimes in the world."

War is an enduring theme of Cohen's work which in his earlier songs, as indeed in his early life, he approached ambivalently. In "Field Commander Cohen" he (perhaps metaphorically) imagines himself as a soldier/spy socializing with Fidel Castro in Cuba—where he had actually lived at the height of US–Cuba tensions in 1961—allegedly sporting Che Guevara-style beard and military fatigues. This song was actually written immediately following Cohen's front-line stint with the Israeli air force, the "fighting in Egypt" documented in an (again perhaps metaphorical) passage of "Night Comes On:" In 1973, Cohen, who had traveled to Jerusalem to sign up on the Israeli side in the 1973 war with Egypt, had instead been assigned to a USO-style entertainer tour of front-line tank emplacements in the Sinai Desert, at one of which he both came under fire and reportedly shared cognac with an unlikely self-professed fan, then-General Ariel Sharon. Disillusioned by encounters with captured and wounded enemy troops, and having expressed ambivalence from the start about the causes of the conflict, he eventually left, but not before beginning to write his song "Lover Lover Lover," as he later claimed, "for the soldiers of both sides."[10]

His recent politics continue a lifelong predilection for the underdog, the "beautiful loser,". Whether covering "The Partisan", a French Resistance song by Anna Marly and Emmanuel d'Astier, or singing his own "The Old Revolution", written from the point of view of a defeated royalist, he has throughout his career through his music expressed his sympathy and support for the oppressed. Although Cohen's fascination with war is often as metaphor for more explicitly cultural and personal issues, as in New Skin for the Old Ceremony, by this measure his most "militant" album.

Cohen blends a good deal of pessimism about political/cultural issues with a great deal of humor and (especially in his later work) gentle acceptance. His wit contends with his stark analyses, as his songs are often verbally playful and even cheerful: In "Tower of Song," the famously raw-voiced Cohen sings ironically that he was "… born with the gift/ Of a golden voice"; the generally dark "Is This What You Wanted?" nonetheless contains playful lines "You were the whore and the Beast of Babylon/ I was Rin Tin Tin"; in concert, he often plays around with his lyrics (for example, "If you want a doctor/ I'll examine every inch of you" from "I'm Your Man" will become "If you want a Jewish doctor …"); and he will introduce one song by using a phrase from another song or poem (for example, introducing "Leaving Green Sleeves" by paraphrasing his own "Queen Victoria": "This is a song for those who are not nourished by modern love").

Some of his songs, such as "Ballad of the Absent Mare" and "Hallelujah" are simply beautiful, and "Democracy" looks at a future as hopeful as that of "The Future" is bleak.

Cohen has also covered such love songs as Irving Berlin's "Always" or the more obscure soul number "Be for Real" (originally sung by Marlena Shaw), chosen in part for their unlikely juxtaposition to his own work.

A film titled The Favourite Game / Le Jeu de l'ange was released in Canada in 2003 based on his novel of the same name.

A film titled Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man was released in the USA on June 21, 2006. It is a film of the 2005 tribute to Leonard Cohen "Came So Far For Beauty" held at the Sydney Opera House; the concert was produced by Hal Willner. The film, directed by Lian Lunson, has appearances by Nick Cave, Beth Orton, Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, among others, and a performance of "Tower of Song" by Cohen and U2. The film also features Cohen recalling significant parts of his life and career.
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