In the dark, turbulent sea of 2016 - a year in which the beacons of hope, tolerance and kindness continue to be subdued by wave upon wave of hatred, fear and brutality - and especially in this week of all weeks, it seems poignantly fitting that another of the great songwriters, poets and thinkers of our time has chosen this moment to make his exit. Leonard Cohen, the hugely influential singer and songwriter whose work spanned six decades, has died at the age of 82.
Cohen's label, Sony Music Canada, said in a statement, "It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away. We have lost one of music's most revered and prolific visionaries." His son, Adam Cohen, wrote in a statement, "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 humor."
Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Westmount, Montreal, on 21 September 1934 to a mother who had emigrated from Lithuania to Canada and a father whose ancestors came from Poland. His father died when Cohen was only nine years old, but left a trust fund which enabled his son to pursue a literary career.
Cohen attended a privately run Jewish co-educational day school where he learned to play guitar (Because “Guitars impress girls", he said) and formed a folk group called the Buckskin Boys. In 1951 he enrolled at Montreal's McGill University to study English Literature, and published his first collection of poetry, the well-received Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956.
After graduating, he moved to the Greek island of Hydra and published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964) and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). He lived there with Marianne Jensen, who became the muse for many songs, including So Long Marianne, and whose death earlier in 2016 inspired his final album.
Following disappointing book sales, Cohen came to New York in 1966 to immerse himself in the city's folk-rock scene, and there he met folk singer Judy Collins, who that same year included two of his songs on her album In My Life, and marked him out as a songwriting talent to watch. His New York circle expanded to include the likes of Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, and German singer Nico, whose own work would have a profound influence on his funereal and weary intonation.
His debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, released in December 1967, was by no means a commercial success but became a cult classic for folk fans. Over the subsequent seven years he recorded three more albums, Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate and New Skin for the Old Ceremony. Despite near-paralysing stage fright, he toured these albums extensively around the world, stating in 1971, “One of the reasons I'm on tour is to meet people, I consider it a reconnaissance. You know, I consider myself like in a military operation. I don't feel like a citizen."
After a critically-bashed, Phil Spector-produced fifth record, Death of a Ladies' Man, and a stint fighting in the Israeli army, Cohen's music fell out of favour, and he found himself somewhat in the wilderness during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Interest revived, however, in 1985 with the release of the album Various Positions, which featured the now oft-covered track Hallelujah, a mournful ballad which touches on themes of love, sex, religion, longing and regret, and which, Cohen said, explained "that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value".
The modest cult success of the album was followed in 1988 by a collaboration with backing singer Jennifer Warnes on the more accessible I'm Your Man, including now-iconic songs like First We take Manhattan and Take This Waltz and resulting in his biggest hit in a decade,
After 1992’s The Future, Cohen removed himself to Buddhist retreat in California to try to deal with the depression that had always plagued him, becoming an ordained Buddhist monk and assuming the Dharma name Jikan, meaning "silence". Cohen broke this silence in 2001, returning with Ten New Songs, a collaboration with Sharon Robinson, 2004’s Dear Heather, a collaboration with his partner Anjani Thomas, and 2012’s Old Ideas which became his highest charting album of all time.
Cohen was working on music until the last, following an epic tour and a powerful new critically acclaimed album, You Want It Darker, produced by his son Adam and released just three weeks ago. Rolling Stone called the album a "late career triumph" and Pitchfork described it as "a pristine, piously crafted last testament, the informed conclusion of a lifetime of inquiry".
Like David Bowie earlier this year, here was an artist using his final breaths not for self-pity, but to describe the experience of dying, to make his peace but never to cower, to address the existential and actual fear of what is or isn’t beyond, to face the night without flinching, to show himself as weak and human, and yet by that very act, as eternal.
“If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame”