Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Leonard Cohen

Induction Year: 2008

Induction Category: Performer

Leonard Cohen (vocals, guitar; born September 21, 1934)

There are few artists in the realm of popular music who can truly be called poets, in the classical, arts-and-letters sense of the word. Among them are , Lou Reed, and Phil Ochs. Leonard Cohen heads this elite class. In fact, Cohen was already an established poet and novelist before he turned his attention to songwriting. His academic training in poetry and literature, and his pursuit of them as livelihood for much of the Fifties and Sixties, gave him an extraordinary advantage over his pop peers when it came to setting language to music. Along with other folk-steeped musical literati, Cohen raised the songwriting bar.

Cohen’s recording career spans 40 years, commencing with the 1967 release of his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. He was in his early thirties and seven years older than Dylan, and his age set him apart from the young musicians who dominated the rock and folk worlds. Cohen was born and raised in the city of Montreal, a city whose rich history and thriving culture served to train his writer’s muse on three fundamental preoccupations: romance, religion and politics. His first musical group, the Buckskins, played traditional music at square dances. He studied poetry at Montreal’s McGill University and published his first collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, as part of the McGill Poetry Series. His favorite literary figures included the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, the Canadian poet Irving Layton, and Beat Generation figurehead Jack Kerouac.

In 1958, Cohen lived in New York, where he briefly attended Columbia University. He received a grant for his writing that allowed him to travel the world and make the Greek island of Hydra his on-and-off home for a fertile seven-year period. Cohen relocated to the States in 1966 and tried his hand at songwriting, largely as a reaction to having experienced the starving lot of the poet and novelist. By then he’d published four books of poetry and two novels (including the celebrated Beautiful Losers). “But I found it was very difficult to pay my grocery bill,” Cohen said in 1971. “I’ve got beautiful reviews for all my books, and I’m very well thought of in the tiny circles that know me, but…I’m really starving.”

Beyond the promise of better income, his entrée into the music world greatly increased the audience for his poetry. Cohen has always been adamant about the power of words to change individual lives and even entire societies for the better. “I always feel that the world was created through words, through speech in our tradition, and I’ve always seen the enormous light in charged speech,” Cohen told interviewer Robert Sward. “That’s what I’ve tried to get to [and] that is where I squarely stand.”

Cohen found an early supporter and sponsor in Judy Collins, who introduced his songs to the world via her recordings of “Suzanne” (still his best-known song) and “Dress Rehearsal Rag” on her 1966 album In My Life. Legendary A&R man signed Cohen to Columbia Records, and his first three albums for the label – Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate - represent the fruitful first phase in an episodic recording career. The hallmarks of Cohen’s style were his plainspoken vocals, spare arrangements, deep but accessible lyrics, and an abiding preoccupation with the feminine mystique. Cohen’s tightly constructed verses served the rhyming and meter demands of pop-song form without sacrificing the higher ends of poetry.

As a songwriter, Cohen seemed somewhat less comfortable in the Seventies than he had in the Sixties, recording only four albums of new material – Songs of Love and Hate (1971), New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977) and Recent Songs (1979) – in that decade. The first and last of these were marked by strong songwriting and sympathetic production, whereas Death of a Ladies’ Man was marked by difficulties with producer .

Cohen’s output was lesser still in the Eighties, but the pair of albums he did release – Various Positions (1984) and I’m Your Man (1988) – are indisputable classics. The first of these found Cohen writing about spirituality; one of its songs (“Hallelujah”) is among his best-loved and most-recorded, having been covered by Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and Allison Krauss. The release of Various Positions was accompanied by the publication of Book of Mercy, a self-described “book of prayer.” I’m Your Man was arguably Cohen’s greatest set of songs since his 1967 debut, containing such classics as “Tower of Song,” “Everybody Knows” and “First We Take Manhattan.” In 1992, some of rock’s most respected acts, including , the Pixies, and Nick Cave, contributed to the Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Another Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1995), included cover versions from more mainstream artists, including Don Henley, and .

Cohen’s most disenchanted and apocalyptic work, The Future, appeared in 1992. In the title track, he sang, “Get ready for the future, it is murder.” Not surprisingly, Cohen retreated to a mountaintop monastery in Southern California for five years, during which he studied with and served his Zen master, Joshu Sasaki-Roshi. “It was one of the many attempts I’ve made in the past 30 or 40 years to address acute clinical depression,” he acknowledged in a 2001 interview. That year, he released Ten New Songs, his first studio album in nearly a decade. He has since issued Dear Heather (2004) and produced Blue Alert (2006), an album by backup singer Anjani. Between their releases came the documentary I’m Your Man, which featured live performances of Cohen’s songs from , Beth Orton and others.

On his ties to Columbia Records, similar in mutual loyalty and longevity to the careers of and , Cohen told writer William Ruhlmann: “I never sold enough records to make them dependent on my next record or to make them anxious about it. On the other hand, I never lost them any money. [The records] seem to sell themselves in modest quantities with very little money necessary for promotion.”

Cohen has earned a better living as a singer-songwriter than he would have as a poet and novelist alone. Yet he’s enjoyed the poet’s advantage of not having to compromise his dignity by indulging in the often-distasteful rituals of pop celebrity. In other words, he’s drawn the best from both worlds, forging a wholly unique and remarkable niche for himself. There’s no denying that Cohen’s voice has deepened and coarsened over the years, but there’s still a marvelous musicality to his phrasing and poetical lilt to his lyrics that attests to an unquenchable spirit.

In his notes for The Essential Leonard Cohen, writer Pico Iyer noted, “The changeless is what he’s been about since the beginning…Some of the other great pilgrims of song pass through philosophies and selves as if through the stations of the cross. With Cohen, one feels he knew who he was and where he was going from the beginning, and only digs deeper, deeper, deeper.”

Cohen’s artistic outlook might best be expressed in his own words with this lyric from “Anthem”: On Anthem (1992), he wrote: “There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” He remarked, “That’s the closest thing I could describe to a credo. That idea is one of the fundamental positions behind a lot of the songs.”


September 21, 1934: Leonard Cohen is born in Montreal, Canada.

1956: Let Us Compare Mythologies, Leonard Cohen’s first book of poetry, is published in Canada as part of the McGill Poetry Series.

1966: Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen’s second novel, is published.

December 1967: Songs of Leonard Cohen, the poet/novelist’s debut as a singer-songwriter, is released. It contains “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy,” among his best-known songs.

April 1969: Songs from a Room, Leonard Cohen’s second album, is issued. From it comes “Bird on the Wire” and other favorites.

March 1971: Songs of Love and Hate, Leonard Cohen’s third album, is released. It is highlighted by “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc.”

November 1974: New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Leonard Cohen’s fourth album of original material, is released. Its original cover is banned in the U.S.

November 1977: Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man –a production – is released. It will be followed by Cohen’s book Death of a Lady’s Man.

September 1979: Leonard Cohen’s Recent Songs, is released. The Songs of Leonard Cohen, a documentary, is filmed in Canada and Europe the same year.

December 1984: Various Positions, Leonard Cohen’s is released abroad. PVC Records issues it in the U.S. two months later after his label, Columbia Records, passes on it.

January 1987: Jennifer Warnes, who has sung backup with Leonard Cohen as Jennifer Warren, issues Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of covers from Cohen’s songbook.

November 10, 1989: Songs of Leonard Cohen, the singer/poet’s 1967 debut, is certified gold by the RIAA.

October 25, 1990: I’m Your Man, by Leonard Cohen, is released. Arguably the poet-singer’s best album since his first, it includes “Tower of Song” and “Everybody Knows.”

November 26, 1991: The Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan is released. It includes cover versions by , the Pixies and other indie-rock acts.

November 24, 1992: Leonard Cohen releases The Future, a dyspeptic album reflecting a mental state that inspires a five-year retreat.

November 2, 1993: Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, by Leonard Cohen, is published by Pantheon Books. The 432-page collection was assembled by the poet/singer himself.

September 26, 1995: Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen is released. Contributors include Don Henley, , Peter Gabriel, , and other stars.

October 9, 2001: Leonard Cohen releases Ten New Songs, his tenth studio album, his first new album in nine years, and his first to chart in the U.S. since 1973’s Live Songs.

October 22, 2002: The Essential Leonard Cohen, a double-disc retrospective compiled by the artist, is released.

August 31, 2004: Judy Collins, whose recordings of Leonard Cohen’s songs introduced the world to the singer/poet in the late Sixties, releases Democracy: Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen.

October 26, 2004: Dear Heather, Leonard Cohen’s second studio album of the new millennium and the 11th of his career, is released shortly after the artist turns 70.

September 2005: Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man, premieres at the Toronto Film Festival. The documentary includes tribute-concert footage from Sydney, Australia.

February 2007: Leonard Cohen’s first three albums – Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate – are reissued in expanded editions to mark his 40th anniversary as a recording artist.

December 11, 2007: Composer Philip Glass’ Book of Longing – a double-disc song cycle based on the poetry and images of Leonard Cohen – is released on the Orange Mountain Music label.

March 10, 2008: Leonard Cohen is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the 23rd annual induction dinner. Lou Reed is the presenter.

Essential Songs

Tower of Song
Famous Blue Raincoat
Everybody Knows
So Long, Marianne
The Future
Came So Far for Beauty
Bird On the Wire
You Have Loved Enough

Recommended Reading

Billboard magazine
November 28, 1998. (Note: This issue pays tribute to Leonard Cohen.)

Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs.
Leonard Cohen. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

“Hallelujah: 70 Things About Leonard Cohen at 70.”
Time De Lisle.  The Guardian (September 17, 2004).

Leonard Cohen: In His Own Words.
Jim Devlin (ed.).London: Omnibus Press, 1998.

Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart.
L.S. Dorman and C.L. Rawlins. London: Omnibus Press, 1990.

Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen.
Ira B. Nadel. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007.

LaVern Baker's Blue And White Beaded Dress

Photo by Design Photography
Gift of LaVern Baker