Among the singer-songwriter breed, few are genuine trailblazers. Leonard Cohen is a poet pioneer rooted in that Dylan pantheon in terms of artistic influence and resilience. But while Cohen's '60s songwriting brethren aimed for catharsis, his songs have always been knitted with deep concerns. Over the years, the author and singer has addressed the dark complexities of relationships, of infidelity, of sin, sacrifice, and redemption. In his music you hear the specters of failure, suicide, and depression, sung in his signature dry, wry baritone. His contemporaries chronicled the struggles happening around them. Cohen focused on the existential conflicts within, the ones seeded in places where the scarring is less obvious.
Cohen embarked upon a music career in the late '60s, at a time when the folkies were painfully earnest. His response to the world's madness and cruelty was harrowing perceptiveness and humor, albeit deadpan ("You were the whore at the Feast of Babylon/I was Rin Tin Tin") and caustic ("Destroy another fetus now/We don't like children anyhow"). He focused on themes of transcendence through fiery trials, Christian martyrdom and salvation playing strong roles in his lyrics.
Even Cohen's appearance was at odds with the casual rebellion of the Vietnam era. He often looked professorial, with neatly trimmed hair, performing in a white shirt and tie. The cover of his Live Songs (1973) album finds him looking like a Folsom Prison chaplain, grimly smoking a cigar against an ascetic white background, his hair short enough for the Marines. In fact, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Cohen went to Israel to enlist in its military — the government demurred, instead employing his services as an entertainer for the frontline troops in the Sinai Desert.
The evocative nature of Cohen's lyrics can in part be attributed to his background as a writer. Born in Canada in 1934, he was a semisuccessful author of a novel and collections of poetry (one cheerily entitled Flowers for Hitler) by the time he'd graduated college. Like many a young hepcat in the '50s, he read his poetry while accompanied by jazz musicians in coffeehouses.
As he furthered his forays into songwriting, Cohen's approach was shaped by the plainspoken realism of country music and world-weary French chanson singers like Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf. Like his influences, his song-stories don't always have happy endings, or even the hope for positive resolution. Cohen's worldview has been incisive and bitter, although in an even-tempered, seemingly offhand manner. Dylan righteously railed against the "Masters of War," but Cohen wisely maintained that life would still be fucked even if the masters faded away.
The bastard kids of Cohen's approach are all around us. The proto-goth combo Sisters of Mercy got its name from a Cohen song. Contemporary performers affected by his happy-go-unlucky disposition include the Handsome Family, Lloyd Cole, and Silver Jews. His sublimely shaded "Hallelujah" ("Now I've heard there was a secret chord/ That David played, and it pleased the Lord/But you don't really care for music, do you?") has become a standard in recent years, covered by Jeff Buckley,John Cale, and One Tree Hill's Kate Voegele. The '90's movies Pump Up the Volume and Natural Born Killers included Cohen songs, helping introduce the man to new generations of the motivated morose.
Cohen credits serious studies of Zen Buddhism in the '90s with some relief from depression. But that was before October 2005, when he alleged that his longtime former manager, Kelley Lynch, had misappropriated more than $5 million from his account, along with publishing rights to his songs, leaving Cohen with only $150,000. Though Cohen won the civil suit and a $9 million settlement, she has ignored both the suit and the subpoena issued for her financial records. Result? He may never be able to collect. Oy. As long as this world retains its dark side, Cohen will never run out of source material.