He was one of the most influential singer-songwriters of modern music history: Leonard Cohen. After Cohen studied in New York for one year from 1956 to 1957, he decided to start his own literary newspaper: It was called The Phoenix. He wrote in the editorial of the newspaper that he wanted to publish “honest poems, stories and articles of quality. (…) We want the experiment.”
This notion of literary art was to accompany Leonhard Cohen for the rest of his life.
In 1961, Leonard Cohen published his first collection of poetry: with his collection The Spice – Box of Earth, Cohen wanted to reach as many readers as possible. Initially, the publisher planned to publish an expensive hardcover edition of the book: Leonhard Cohen resisted and pushed through a paperback to reach as many readers as possible.
After completing his first collection of poetry, Cohen set off for London: he was impressed by the myth of the capital of English literature.
In 1963 Leonard Cohen published his first novel, The Favourite Game. Much of The Favourite Game was written in London. But after initial enthusiasm, Cohen soon was fed up with London: “I told myself that I had to go somewhere where people lived very differently,” Leonard Cohen later commented. The choice fell on Greece: spontaneously Leonard Cohen decided to leave for Athens. In April 1960, he took a ship from Athens to the Greek island of Hydra: an island with numerous run-down houses and seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. Leonard Cohen bought a house there six months after his arrival and was creative as he had rarely been before in his life.
The island of Hydra
The house was large, offered a phenomenal view, and had a 200-year history. Originally, the house had no electricity or running water: it was Leonard Cohen’s hermitage. Life on Hydra was convenient for him, but Leonard Cohen still kept returning to his Canadian home of Montreal, in order to earn a living.
However, Cohen did not endure the big city climate of Montreal for long: He set off for the next island – this time it was to be Cuba.
Novels & Suzanne
After Leonard Cohen made a last-second escape from embattled Cuba in April 1961, he published The Spice – Box of Earth, a collection of poetry. The reviews were intoxicating, and the first printing sold out within three months. The success of his first publication gave him enough freedom to return to Hydra.
He published his two novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), both from Hydra.
Because of his success as a writer, Leonard Cohen became a literary celebrity.
In the summer of 1965, Cohen wrote the poem Suzanne: it is about the dancer Suzanne Verdal, whom Leonard Cohen met in Montreal. The poem later became one of his most famous songs. Before Leonard Cohen ever discovered singing for himself, folk singer Judy Collins recorded a version of the song.
In 1966 Leonard Cohen’s poetry collection Parasites of Heaven was published: compared to his previous publications, the poetry collection was a flop. The poet Leonard Cohen came up with the idea of pursuing a career beyond literature….
Career as a singer
For Leonard Cohen, the city of New York was a launching pad for his career as a singer: in the sixties, artists such as Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin lived in New York.
Leonard Cohen wrote the song Chelsea Hotel No. 2 about the Chelsea Hotel in New York, at that time a meeting place for many up-and-coming artists.
On December 26, 1967, Leonard Cohen released his first album Songs of Leonard Cohen.
The album was well received, especially in Great Britain – an indicator of his later popularity in Europe.
“I was never married to the spirit of my generation,” Leonard Cohen later said about his career in the sixties: Cohen always distanced himself from the great musical movements of his time. He himself was convinced that things would have been different if he had been offered a lot of money for his work back then.
“Mostly I fought on the front lines of my own tiny life,” Leonard Cohen put it in retrospect: Cohen refrained from recording popular music and thus processed his own character traits in his music.
Music as a stopgap
Leonard Cohen actually wanted to return to literature after a brief detour into music: Singing was initially only a stopgap solution for him, because his last literary publications had been failures.
When Cohen had success with his two following albums Songs from a Room (1969) and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), his attitude changed: from then on he took music more seriously and looked for a way to combine his literary disposition with singing.
In 1970 Leonard Cohen went on tour for the first time: his tour included the United States, Canada and Europe. In 1976, Cohen performed for the first time at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
By the seventies, Leonard Cohen had made his breakthrough as a singer: he was an internationally sought-after artist. In the seventies he released mainly live albums, including the live album Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979. During the seventies Leonard Cohen published literature again and again, but the public now saw Cohen mainly as a singer and not as a man of literature. Moreover, his music publications brought him more success than his work in literature.
The 1980s were a creative decade for Leonard Cohen: in 1984 Leonard Cohen released the album Various Positions, which contains some of his most famous songs. Among them is the song Hallelujah: there are over one hundred cover versions of Hallelujah.
Dance Me to the End of Love is another famous song from Cohen’s album Various Positions. The background vocals to the album were sung by Jennifer Warnes.
The album was released in the U.S. and Europe: in some European states, the album made the top ten. In the US, Various Positions was less successful.
After the release of his new album, Leonard Cohen went on his biggest tour until then: between January and July 1985, Cohen performed in a total of 77 concerts.
Leonard Cohen was able to continue his creative phase: in 1988 he released the album I’m Your Man. The album contains, among other songs, the song Take This Waltz.
After the release of the album I’m Your Man, Leonard Cohen announced:
Until his death in 2016, Leonard Cohen released six more albums. His last album You Want It Darker was released 17 days before his death on November 7, 2016. To this day, Leonard Cohen is one of the most famous songwriters and one of the most covered singers. Especially his songs Hallelujah and Suzanne have become world famous through countless cover versions.
The oeuvre of Leonard Cohen offers not only music: His poetry books and novels are regularly reissued to this day.
After all, he originally did not want to become a musician, but a writer.
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig
Main source: Nadel, Ira B.: Various Positions – The Life of Leonard Cohen, 1997 Berlin publishing house [German version]
All quotes in the article are taken from this book. For more detailed source information Der Bussard can be contacted.