Leonard (Norman) Cohen. Poet, singer-songwriter, novelist, b Montreal 21 Sep 1934; BA English (McGill) 1955, honorary LLD (Dalhousie) 1971, honorary D LITT (McGill) 1992.


One of the most widely recognized Canadian artists of the later 20th century, in parallel to acclaimed literary work Cohen built a successful career in pop music on the most rudimentary musical skills: a narrow-ranged, gruff voice that deepened and darkened with age and a dependence on simple melodies of a singsong nature. What set him apart was the intense imagery of his lyrics, which constantly probed at the human condition with themes of love, loss, and death, and his commitment to his art.

At 15, under the influence of country and western music, he began playing guitar. While studying at McGill University he worked in a country band, The Buckskin Boys. He gave his earliest poetry readings in a Montreal nightclub to the accompaniment of jazz. In the years following he wrote the poems collected in Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), Flowers for Hitler (1964), and Parasites from Heaven (1966), and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966).

Cohen moved briefly to England in 1959, then relocated to the Greek island of Hydra. Although he returned occasionally to North America, Greece remained his primary residence for the next seven years.

In March 1966, during a poetry reading at the YMCA in New York, Cohen sang two of his poems, "Suzanne" and "Stranger." His readings soon evolved into concerts, and his songs became increasingly popular through performances by other artists. In New York, Judy Collins sang and recorded several of his songs and introduced Cohen himself to some of her audiences. In 1967 Cohen performed at the Mariposa and Newport folk festivals and Expo 67. In that same year Norma Beecroft based two works - Elegy and Two Went to Sleep - on Cohen verses.

After three years of relative inactivity, Cohen appeared in 1970 in Europe at London's Royal Albert Hall, Paris' Olympia Music Hall, and the Isle of Wight rock festival. During the next two decades Cohen performed frequently on the concert tour circuit, particularly in Europe, where his popularity continued to be more widespread than in North America. Significant North American tours were mounted in 1985 and 1988.

In 1993 Cohen retreated to live at the Zen Center on Mount Baldy, near Los Angeles. Ordained as a Zen monk in 1996, he lived there under the name Jikan intermittently until early 1999.


Cohen's first recording, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released in 1968. Though musically rudimentary in the context of its era, the album was extremely influential for including several of his most enduring songs, among them "Suzanne" and "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye." Songs from A Room followed in 1969. In 1971 he released Songs of Love And Hate, which introduced another spate of influential songs, such as "Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Joan Of Arc." After several more recordings, Death of a Ladies' Man in 1977 signalled a bold new direction, with heavily orchestrated production by legendary pop music producer Phil Spector. Recent Songs, released in 1979, was his last recording for several years, and his next, Various Positions, in 1985 found him returning to his country music roots and exploring aspects of spirituality.

I'm Your Man, released in 1988, was another significant departure for Cohen, introducing a sophisticated electronic backdrop and dark songs like "Everybody Knows" that referenced current events such as the rise of AIDS. The Future (1992) continued the examination of themes of loss and social degradation, and gained widespread notice through the inclusion of three songs in director Oliver Stone's controversial film Natural Born Killers. Nine years passed before the release of Cohen's next recordings: a live album, Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979, and Ten New Songs (2001). Other albums have followed, including Live at the Isle of Wight, 1970 (released in 2009) and the studio recording Old Ideas (2012).

Cohen's songs have been collected on several compilations, including the popular The Best of Leonard Cohen (1975) and The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002).

An album of Cohen material recorded in 1986 by his onetime backup singer Jennifer Warnes, Famous Blue Raincoat (Cypress/Attic LAT-1227), sparked a renewal of interest in Cohen in the pop mainstream. Warnes' version of two new songs, "First We Take Manhattan" and "Ain't No Cure for Love," were popular. French versions of several Cohen songs were prepared and performed in the early 1970s by Graeme Allwright on the LP Graeme Allwright chante Leonard Cohen (Philips 6325-600). Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" was a hit in 1990 as recorded by the Neville Brothers; the song was also included on albums by Warnes, Joe Cocker, Fairport Convention, and others. A variety of performers (John Cale, Nick Cave, the Pixies, REM, etc) recorded Cohen's songs for the tribute album I'm Your Fan (EastWest CD-75598), issued in 1991. Possibly the most popular cover of a Leonard Cohen song has been k.d lang's version of Cohen's "Halleluja" which appeared on her 2004 album Hymns of the 49th Parallel and was later performed by her at the 2005 Juno awards in Winnipeg and at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Film, Video and Theatrical Presentations

Brian Macdonald's ballet The Shining People of Leonard Cohen interpreted verses of the poet incorporated in an electronic score by Harry Freedman. A musical, Sisters of Mercy, put together by Gene Lesser from Cohen's writings about women (utilizing poems, songs, fiction, letters, and fragments of unpublished manuscripts), was produced in 1973 at the Shaw Festival. Six Cohen songs were dramatized in the half-hour music video I Am a Hotel (1984).

Cohen's songs figured prominently on the soundtrack of Robert Altman's feature film McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and have been used in more than 50 other films. The composer collaborated with Lewis Furey on songs for the feature film Angel Eyes (1985).

Cohen was the subject of several documentaries including Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965), Bird on a Wire (1974), and The Song of Leonard Cohen, produced in 1980 by Harry Rasky and seen on CBC-TV.


In 1969 Cohen was the winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for English-language poetry (an award he declined). He received PROCAN's William Harold Moon Award in 1984 and was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame in 1991. In 1991 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in 2003 he was elevated to Companion. In 1993 he received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award; he was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006, the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, and the US Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010. Cohen was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize for lifetime achievement in the arts in 2012 and at the 2013 Juno Awards in Regina, won the Artist of the Year award as well as the Songwriter of the Year Juno for his 2012 album Old Ideas.

See also Leonard Cohen.