Leonard Cohen, who turns 77 today, may be the most unlikely of pop stars. His age notwithstanding, his dark, somnambulant vocals and unassuming demeanor hardly qualify him for the rabid following he's attained over the decades, especially since returning to the limelight after having abandoned his music in favor of becoming a Zen Buddhist monk and taking a vow of silence. Financial need necessitated his comeback -- like many older artists, he was the victim of unscrupulous management -- but since taking to the international stage three years ago, he's not only resuscitated his career, but also become an acclaimed idol late in life.
Indeed, Cohen's early trajectory never seemed intentioned to turn him into a pop star. Born in Quebec to a middle class Jewish family, he began his career as a poet, publishing his first book of verse at age 22, and then writing his initial novel some seven years later. In 1967, he made his entry into the musical spotlight with the groundbreaking, yet modestly titled album Songs of Leonard Cohen and immediately established himself as a songwriter with a knack for stunning imagery and spiritual insight. Since that time, he's turned out several remarkable albums, keenly embraced by both critics and his adoring followers, making him one of the most influential artists of the past 50 years. Several tribute albums and documentaries have been devoted to him and his songs, and his material has been covered by a host of renowned musicians -- Judy Collins, Joe Cocker, Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang being but a few. Known as a seductive ladies man, he was also rumored to have had romantic liaisons with both Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin, a study in extremes if ever there was one.
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One of Cohen's most covered songs and still a staple of his sets, its idyllic imagery and surreal stance brings to mind the psychedelic hues of "Lucy in the Skies With Diamonds," given that both songs describe dream-like encounters with an elusive muse. Leonard Cohen claims that the song was based on a woman named Suzanne Verdal, wife of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, and in fact, many of the places described in the song relate to the Montreal environs where their real life meeting supposedly took place.
Heartbreakingly beautiful, this song finds Cohen in full poetic mode ("I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm/Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm") while conveying the inevitably of life's changes. Few other songs have bemoaned a break-up so lovingly and assuredly, and yet offered so much hope for future fulfillment.
A product of the time Cohen spent on the Greek island of Hydra with his girlfriend Marianne, the song was supposedly inspired by the sight of a bird perched on a telephone line. Frequently covered and one of his most famous signature songs, it details the longing and futility that Cohen was feeling at the time. As always though, Cohen's lyrics point to a higher purpose. It's said that Kris Kristofferson once told Cohen that he'd like the song's opening stanza ("Like a bird on the wire/Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free") to be etched on his tombstone.
Like many of Cohen's songs, there's a certain ambiguity at play here, particularly in the line "And you treated my woman to a flake of your life, and when she came back she was nobody's wife." Widely believed to have been written about a three-way relationship and tempestuous sex triangle, it also offers vague references to Scientology, which Cohen immersed himself in for a brief time. The one reality is that Cohen did own a blue raincoat and carried it with him on tour for several years.
Practically omnipresent due to its wealth of cover versions -- much like Joni Mitchell's "River" of late -- "Hallelujah" is among the most spiritual songs of Cohen's canon. Evoking a reverence that soars with sensuality and spirituality, several of its passages reference the Bible while evoking a humanity that's infinitely affecting. The single word chorus offers an opportunity to rejoice, and in the process, practically becomes a mantra. Interestingly enough, the song didn't take flight on its original release, but after being covered by the late Jeff Buckley, it not only caught on, but found a second life that continued over the course of the more than 200 interpretations released ever since.
Originally recorded by Jennifer Warnes with Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar for her entirely Cohen-penned album, Famous Blue Raincoat, "First We Take Manhattan" is one of the most militant and driving anthems of Cohen's repertoire. Recorded around the same time as the fall of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall ("First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin"), the song resonates as a rallying cry that connects him to his family's eastern European origins. Of all the versions recorded over the years, REM's robust take, included on the tribute album I'm Your Fan, still reigns as a definitive version.