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Happy Birthday, Leonard Cohen, a Premier Poet, Superb Songwriter, and Zen Buddhist Monk

Happy Birthday, Leonard Cohen, a Premier Poet, Superb Songwriter, and Zen Buddhist Monk

At the relatively ripe old age of age 78, Leonard Cohen still retains a powerful grip on the folk-rock firmament. This isn't due only to his venerable age and indomitable presence but to the robust narratives and surreal imagery that inhabit his songs. 

Born in Montreal on September 21, 1934, Cohen belongs to the original school of early to mid- '60s songwriters, a contingent that also includes Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez. Primarily a poet, he infused his material with a striking lyrical illumination unmatched by any of his contemporaries. Revered by fans and critics alike, he's managed to reinvent himself several times throughout his career -- one that's yielded 12 studio albums to date -- and yet never lost his hallowed stature.

Cohen's contributions to music and the arts have garnered him a daunting list of accolades -- induction into both the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, lifetime achievement awards, Grammys, Junos, and literary recognitions. That such honors would be bestowed on an artist who began his efforts as a poet and novelist seems all too appropriate, but the fact that he never shed his artistic intentions and managed to incorporate them into songs that became part of the popular landscape also speaks to his skills and sentiments. 

A Zen practitioner, committed Buddhist, and religious Jew, he elevates his music by exploring themes of spirituality, sex, individuality, and the human condition. It's not surprising, then, that many of his album titles -- Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, The Future, Old Ideas -- offer testament to his deep, and often dark, philosophical focus.

 

Cohen's meditative ruminations weren't confined to his music and poetry, however. In 1994, he went into self-imposed isolation, retreating to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, where he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk. He returned to music in 2001, diving into a number of disparate projects before embarking on a much-heralded world tour in 2008, one that took him around the world and lasted nearly two years. While Cohen seemed to be in top form, at least part of the impetus stemmed from financial difficulties caused by misappropriation of funds by his former manager.

Ultimately, Leonard Cohen comes across as part enigma, part activist, and given his riveting themes and sublime method of expression, he's never been an easy persona to penetrate. Still, many of his songs have become popular standards that have been widely covered by other artists. Here are a few -- but by no means all -- of the Cohen compositions that have become modern standards:

"Suzanne" 

According to Cohen himself, the song was written about his meeting with Suzanne Verdal, the wife of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, with whom it was rumored he had an affair (although that's been denied by both parties). The surreal suggestion inherent in the lyrics derives from the place of their encounter -- Montreal, to be precise -- but the origin of the text actually derives from one of his early poems, "Suzanne Takes You Down," which first appeared in his book of poetry called Parasites of Heaven in 1966. Of all the many covers that have been recorded over the years, Judy Collins' early version remains among the best-known.

"Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" 

Heartbreakingly beautiful, this is the ultimate song of separation, albeit one that attempts to cushion the blow. "But now it's come to distances and both of us must try/Your eyes are soft with sorrow/Hey, that's no way to say goodbye." Rich with imagery and astute as always, it's a poignant treatise on the sadness that occurs when two people realize they must part ways for the sake of their own sanity.

"Bird on the Wire" 

One of Cohen's signature songs, it was inspired by then-girlfriend Marianne when she attempted to lift him out of one of his many bouts of depression. After she handed him his guitar, he glanced at a bird perched on a tree and began composing with that creature in mind. It subsequently became one of his most covered songs, with versions by Judy Collins, Tim Hardin, Rita Coolidge, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, K.D. Lang, and Jennifer Warnes, to name but a few of the dozens of artists who have left their own imprint on the song.

"Famous Blue Raincoat" 

Making its first appearance on the album Songs of Love and Hate, it makes vague references to a love triangle that includes the narrator, a woman named Jane, and a male who is identified only as "my brother, my killer." It was also said that some of the typically ambiguous lyrics make some reference to Scientology, a philosophy that Cohen was briefly involved with at one point in his life. As far as the raincoat itself, Cohen said it belonged to him. "I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959," he explained in the liner notes to a best-of compilation. "It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather. Things were clear. I knew how to dress in those days."

"Hallelujah" 

One of the most beautiful songs to grace his repertoire, this somber, hymn-like melody is underscored by themes of spiritual salvation. Cohen supposedly wrote 80 drafts of the song, tweaking it in later live performance. His original version boasts several biblical references, with lyrics that name-checked Samson and Delilah ("She cut your hair") and David and Bathsheba ("You saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you"), making the music all the more compelling in the process. John Cale, Rufus Wainwright, and Jeff Buckley are among those who recorded versions of their own.

"I'm Your Man" 

"If you want a lover/I'll do anything you ask me to/And if you want another kind of love/I'll wear a mask for you/If you want a partner/Take my hand/Or if you want to strike me down in anger/Here I stand/I'm your man..." Cohen cops to compromise.

"First We Take Manhattan" 

There are those who suspect the song refers to the ominous ambition of certain terrorist sects, Germany's Red Army faction in particular. Certainly, the battle cry echoed in the title offers a hint as to its forcible designs. R.E.M.'s version on the all-star compilation I'm Your Fan revved up the intensity only hinted at in the original recording that graced 1988's I'm Your Man.

"Closing Time" 

Cohen offers a rare bit of revelry to shore up the festivities.




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