Leonard Cohen, the Montreal-born singer-songwriter whose music, poetry and prose inspired generations of artists, has died. He was 82.
Cohen had spent the past few years actively recording, releasing three albums since 2012, including You Want It Darker, co-produced by his son Adam Cohen, just three weeks ago. His brand of narrative, in song, poetry and prose, captivated others around the world in both obvious and complex ways – famously, his song Hallelujah was a flop upon release, yet became a contemporary classic because of a cover version of a cover.
Cohen's narratives turned him into an unofficial beacon for Canada, drawing attention to the country's artists and writers. Through his music, poetry and novels, he became one of Canada's foremost masters of storytelling, even as he spent much of his life abroad. Here, Cohen's collaborators, colleagues, and acolytes recall the artist's lasting legacy.
Adam Cohen, son and producer: "My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humour."
k.d. lang, musician: "An elegant practitioner of the senses. Fully engaged in the realm of desire and yet fully dedicated to the spiritual. The quintessential Renaissance man who will never be matched."
Listen: Five remarkable Leonard Cohen songs
Related: Leonard Cohen's Montreal: a refuge, an escape, an inspiration
From the archives: Leonard Cohen: Life of a ladies' man
Robert Kory, Cohen's manager: "I was blessed to call him a friend, and for me to serve that bold artistic spirit first hand, was a privilege and great gift. He leaves behind a legacy of work that will bring insight, inspiration and healing for generations to come."
Michael Ondaatje, author: "He was a hero for our generation and for the next – stepping bravely into new forms, a great writer who then became a great songwriter. We drank a toast to him tonight at the Tulip."
Amy Millan, musician: "His spirit will haunt my beautiful city, lucky for us. … He was the great seducer, wasn't he? His voice was like foreplay."
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, author of All the Broken Things: "Leonard Cohen was the perfect soundtrack to my morose teenage years. I felt safe and known in his calibrated light darkness. He wrote lines like 'I forgot to pray for the angels' and 'Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water' – laconic lyrics that provided a loving antidote to the oppressive Catholic paradigm into which I was indoctrinated. He used words to exalt them and I was a goner listening to them, over and over until I was too tired to get up and pull the needle over onto the scratched-up album, until I had to sleep. So sad to say goodbye. Rest in peace, poet."
Michael Timmins, musician, Cowboy Junkies: "We grew up in the same town, Montreal. And even though his age placed him more in my parents generation, he defined the youthful energy of Montreal in the '60s and '70s: respectfully contrary, with one foot in the old world and one in the new, sophisticated and urbane. This modest, gracious Jewish gentleman whose poems and songs tried to work through the paradoxes, the beautiful victories and the terrible defeats of life and love, taught us what it was to be cool. He came backstage after one of our shows in L.A. in the late 80's with the most strikingly beautiful woman on his arm. The next day at our show, somewhere down the coast, two-dozen yellow roses showed up with a note; 'Thank you for your music and hospitality – Leonard.' Many years later he sat in the first balcony at Massey Hall where, along with our peers and contemporaries, we saluted him in song. But my favourite memory takes place outside a concert hall in Vancouver after he had just been inducted in to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. My wife and I were trying to hail a cab. Beside us was a dapper-looking older man (he would have been close to my current age) standing alone, waiting for a cab or his car. It was Leonard Cohen. I went up to him and introduced myself. He held my hand for an extra beat and slowly intoned, 'Cooool band.' So long Leonard, you taught us well."
Gordon Lightfoot, musician: "I am deeply saddened by the passing of my contemporary, colleague, fellow Canadian and my dear friend Leonard Cohen. He loved music and his music affected millions of people around the world. He will be greatly missed. I offer my deepest condolences to his family as they grieve this tremendous loss."
Marissa Stapley, author of Mating for Life: "It was 1987, my parents had just divorced, and I was spending weekends with my dad, who was living with my aunt in Pickering. We'd listen to music when we were driving from Stouffville to Pickering: mostly Paul Simon's Graceland, and Jennifer Warnes's Famous Blue Raincoat. I didn't know at the time that these were the songs (poems, really) of our national treasure Leonard Cohen. I only knew that the songs were stories, and that there was a lot more to them than my nine-year-old mind could understand. I'd puzzle over lines like 'I'm aching for you baby; I can't pretend I'm not. I need to see you naked, in your body and your thought.' But it was the song First We Take Manhattan that especially appealed to me. 'I'm guided by a signal in the heavens/I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin/I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons/First, we take Manhattan/Then we take Berlin.' I imagined a woman and a man, running through an airport, all in black leather, saving the world in some way. I made up a story. And this is why I became on author, because of these stories in songs, because once these stories started writing themselves in my mind, they never stopped.
Two years ago, my mom and I went to see Leonard Cohen at the Air Canada Centre. We had a bird's-eye view of him, from up in the rafters in the only seats we could get. But he was vivid, there on the stage in his suit and fedora, shining under the spotlight like no star we had ever seen. Earlier in the night, he had jogged onto the stage with the energy of a young man. He crooned, he rasped, he muttered. He read poetry under that spotlight, all alone. He stepped aside so the beautiful women who sang with him could sing alone, could take the spotlight themselves. We both agreed by the end of the show that if he asked, we'd marry him in a second. Past midnight, we were starting to yawn and joking that an 80-year-old man had more stamina than we did. When I wrote my mom last night to tell her he had died, she replied, "After that night, I was sure he'd live to be a hundred." He was immortal on that stage, and he will be immortal through his words – but still, if only he really were. Farewell, Leonard."
Joel Plaskett, musician: "Mystery, romance, drama. A unique and truly incredible songwriter. I can't think of Montreal without thinking of Leonard Cohen and I can't think of Leonard Cohen without thinking of Montreal. His music and poetry embodies everything I love about the city."
Alix Hawley, author of All True Not a Lie In It: "I heard Leonard Cohen by way of parents' radio, by way of Jennifer Warnes's cover album, and later, by way of Jeff Buckley. It was always the words that gripped me, no matter whose voice they came in, no matter how old I was. 'Mysterious and fertile, they seemed to grow right out of the dark. And Jane came back with a lock of your hair/She said that you gave it to her.' As a child, I had dreams about this Jane, and though I could never picture her, I would have listened to anything she told me. I still would. In Cohen's own tar-paper voice, the words are darker, as he said we wanted it. Think of him singing 'I have tried in my way to be free.' No line is a throwaway. That chain of monosyllables and heavy pauses is a set of prints carefully stamped on blackness, leading somewhere, saying he was here."
Séan McCann, musician, Great Big Sea: "Leonard Cohen was a man who deeply loved this world and was not afraid to say it. As a songwriter, he taught me how to see and touch and feel and taste. He saw the divine in the secular and vice versa."
Jacob McArthur Mooney, author of Don't Be Interesting: "I had the quintessential childhood experience, as a son of Canadian baby boomers, of having one book of poetry in the house growing up and of having that book be Leonard Cohen's. It was the 1969 Selected Poems from McClelland & Stewart. I first read it on the bus to school in Grade 8 and then for about a four-year stretch it was a kind of personal totem; I took it everywhere. I remember going to a church event and holding it in my hand, waiting for some fellow traveller to spot me and strike up a conversation. To me, the image of Cohen and the image of that beaten-up book are inseparable. As a poet, much of what Cohen brought to Canadian literature – cosmopolitanism, ritual, an olive branch to popular culture – he brought by himself and with precious few allies. That iconoclasm is underappreciated. My favourite Leonard Cohen poem is Disguises. My favourite lines in it are 'Goodbye, articulate monsters/Abbott and Costello have met Frankenstein.' Given the context of this week, I like to think of them as his last words, though I suspect they weren't."
Steve Jordan, founder of the Polaris Prize: "His work, so precise, inspired so many from so many walks of life it's not possible to envision anyone reaching those heights again. He will also go down in history as the only person to come up with a rhyme for orange. Door hinge."
Michael Winter, author of Into the Blizzard: "I was 15 and my sister Kathleen had come home from university for Christmas. She had the album Songs of Leonard Cohen and she played it one night. We both thought it very important. Then we got to the last song, One of Us Cannot Be Wrong, and we burst out laughing at the line, 'I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me.' We realized Leonard had ventured this deep in creating a serious album of confession, but couldn't hold it any longer, and was offering us a clue as to how ridiculous his predicament was. Last Christmas, 35 years later, I found the album hiding behind a curtain in my father's house. My parents were born the same year as Leonard Cohen, a fact my mother enjoyed and that gave me the notion that Leonard could be my spiritual father. I gave the album to a friend who had a turntable. But she couldn't play it, the vinyl was warped. I have to admit that's how I'm feeling today: a little warped, a little bent out of shape. But a bend is good for art; bend makes new. Though I may be wrong."
Shane Carter, president of Sony Music Entertainment Canada: "Leonard Cohen left an indelible legacy and his artistry will be cherished around the world."
Adam Lewis Schroeder, author of All-Day Breakfast: "As a teenager I read a lot of horror novels and Marvel comics. I gave no thought to writing, or even reading more widely, until our English teacher, Wayne Emde, passed out photocopies of what I realize now were the classics of Leonard Cohen's oeuvre. A line like, 'Giving me head on the unmade bed / While the limousines wait in the street' is remarkable today, but at 16 it showed me how alive and immediate writing should be. We watched a '70s video of Cohen in a bell-bottomed suit, strolling barefoot through downtown Montreal; then we wrote poems, and though mine was a smartass piece about how Leonard was looking to contract hookworm, it was the first time I wrote in something like my own voice. The era of writing that has been the rest of my life started then. I sang in a band that played Hallelujah before Jeff Buckley (okay, senseless bragging) and my copy of Stranger Music is warped from the tub. Leonard Cohen has gone, in such a foul week for the world, but by his example we might preserve; 'I will place my/paper hat on my/concussion and dance.'
Jared Bland, publisher of McClelland & Stewart: "Leonard Cohen was one of the of the great artists of our age: a poet of transcendent beauty and wisdom, a novelist of moral urgency and insight, and, of course, a peerless singer and songwriter. His work, in all its forms, touched our hearts, informed our lives and made our world better. It is almost impossible to imagine a world without his singular voice. His presence will never be forgotten. His profound art will endure."
Natalee Caple, author of In Calamity's Wake: "When I was about 11, and had just been moved from Montreal to Scarborough, I was so lonely. My family went to the Pickering flea market and my dad gave me two dollars to buy myself something – like a candy – and we split up for 45 minutes (that way my parents could move around without my misery beside them). There was a guy with a box of records for two dollars each. I flipped through and saw a picture of a man who looked a bit like my dad on the cover and knew he was from Montreal. I bought the record and took it home. There was a scratch over the whole record except for the song Famous Blue Raincoat and I played it over and over.
Through my teens, I borrowed the school library's copies until a particularly sour librarian told me, 'That's enough,' even though my name was the only one on the little envelope in the back. Later, I scoured used book stores and tried writing like him, but with my own content, the objects and confusions of my life, and I learned a lot about patterns and imagery. In my 20s I turned against him, I felt betrayed when I realized how much of his portraits of women were about sex and desire – I saw the misogyny that is there. I was done with excuses about confessions of ladies' men. I appeared on a radio show talking about getting over Leonard Cohen.
In recent years, his openness about depression and mental illness moved me and his work continued to develop really right until the end. I missed him and I listened to him again and saw a man being as open as he could be and staying engaged with culture and giving what he could and knowing and speaking and owning his own failures. As an adult having accumulated failures, I could see again how his face still looked like dad's had aged into the same face and I thought how precious, how fragile, my Leonard Cohen."
Judy Collins, musician who first recorded Suzanne in 1966: "He came to my apartment, and on the first day we just talked. … He thought he had a terrible voice. When we parted that night, I said, [a mutual friend] says you've written some songs. Do you want to come by tomorrow and sing them? He came by the next day and he said to me, 'I can't sing and I can't play the guitar, and I don't know if this is a song.' And then he played me Suzanne. In '67, when the song was very, very big. … I said Leonard, you must come with me to this big fundraiser I'm doing. It was a big show; Jimi Hendrix was on it. He'd never sung [in front of a large audience] before then. He got out on stage and started singing. Everybody was going crazy - they loved it. And they stopped about halfway through, and walked off the stage. Everybody went nuts. ... And they demanded that he come back. And I demanded; I said, 'I'll go out with you.' So we went out, and we sang it. And of course, that was the beginning. I am best friends with his oldest friend, Nancy Bacal, who is the one who sent me an e-mail on Tuesday morning, the morning of the election, which said, 'He's gone. Friendship is everything. Call me; I love you.'"
Emily Schultz, author of The Blondes: A Novel: "Here's the story of a Leonard Cohen CD and a ménage à quatre that could only happen in a college town in the 1990s. My now-husband, Brian, was on a date with a woman who had previously broken up with the man I was living with at the time. The man had given her a CD: Various Positions. She then passed the CD to Brian telling him, 'It's weird and dark. Like you.' A few months later Brian gave me the CD before he moved out of town. I listened to Dance Me to the End of Love when I was alone in my shared apartment, and wondered why he and I weren't together. It only took a couple years before we were. Isn't love complex?"
Bruce Cockburn, musician: "A beautiful romancer of the darkness in our souls. Hands down, the best wordsmith in contemporary song. Sail on, Older Brother!"
Art Bergmann, musician: "November 11, just before 11 a.m., I heard a recent recording Leonard Cohen made of the poem In Flanders Fields. Even in this, his wisdom is palpable; on the line, 'We are the dead,' he stops for a deep pause, and then finishes. I have been in deep reflection on Leonard since his recent album and song You Want it Darker. With all that is happening recently, the line, "A million candles burning for the help that never came/You want it darker" still stunned with its brutal wisdom. I love that he knew how much work was involved in crafting his art and was reluctant – he called it laziness, hah! – to start down the path of new works that would take years sometimes to complete. But you should quote him, not me: "And there's a mighty judgment coming but I may be wrong/You see, you hear these funny voices in the tower of song."
Rose Cousins, musician: "He didn't waste a word. I deeply appreciate his contemplations from within and out of the throes of love and struggle. He hit the highest highs and the darkest dark – equal parts humble human and mystical creature. I feel so thankful that he's left so much of himself with us."
Rufus Wainwright, musician: "Like for most of us, for me he dwelled in a higher strata inhabited by some living but mostly passed icons who seemed to have this direct line to the galaxy, whilst at the same time knowing exactly when to take out the trash. Formidable in both the sacred and the mundane. But fortunately I now covet these few personal moments, I'm pretty sure it's about seven in total (a sacred number of course!) And credit them with grabbing hold and shifting the direction of the restless path my life has always taken. It was never a fundamental shift, just a kind yet brutally strong nudge towards where I really ought to be heading. I would have liked to have had more time to ask him more questions, and certainly now in this pathetic dinghy, adrift in a violent sea, we all need help in manoeuvring a truly busted rudder through a series of magnificent typhoons. But it's okay, it's all in the music. Farewell, Leonard, we need you now up there as much as we did down here. Love always, Rufus.
Patrick Leonard, co-producer and co-writer for Cohen's final three records: "We started with Old Ideas about 7 or 8 years ago now. There was a surplus of things that built up over the years that weren't quite finished. There were always new things coming up. But there was a method about getting things finished, and having them find musical homes.
He could say, 'Could you take these three things and move them toward the finish?' He'd give me a lyric, and I'd write a song. The ability to have music written so it wasn't so much of a concern helped him move quicker. Getting songs written and records made was arduous to a poet. He just kinda went, 'I'm not that interested in the tunes any more.' And he still wrote some great tunes, but that was not the concern.
Five days ago, I sent him another R&B groove. There's five or six songs that were ready to be finished. There's another record that could have happened. It sounds crazy, but yes, there was. I think maybe that was my biggest value to him was that I could help him get these things finished, so that the poetry got out. Because he wrote every day, all day, and every night, all night."