Written By: Nathan Ecarma
Managing Editor/Correspondent for Worldview and Culture
With the death of Leonard Norman Cohen, 2016 has experienced an exodus of music revolutionaries. Sensations such as Prince, David Bowie, and Merle Haggard have left the building.
Cohen was born on September 21, 1934 in Quebec, Canada. After 82 years, Cohen died in his bed after taking a fall during the night in his house in Los Angeles on Monday, November 7. With the cause of death Cohen’s manager commented, “The death was sudden, unexpected, and peaceful.” Though he never married, Cohen left behind two children from his relationship with Suzanne Elrod, Lorca and Adam.
While most of Cohen’s fame comes from his success as a musician, he began his career as a novelist and poet. In 1951, he enrolled at McGill University to study English. During his undergraduate education, he released his first book of poetry, “Let us Compare Mythologies.”
Unsure of his future, Cohen enrolled in law school at McGill University, but eventually transferred to Columbia University in New York City to study literature. After a lack of commercial success with his poetry and novels, Cohen sought to expand his audience through songwriting.
Cohen proved successful in the music industry, but doubtful of his performing abilities, he mostly composed music for other musicians. Judy Collins, in her autobiography, “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My life in Music” (2011), wrote, “Leonard was naturally reserved and afraid to sing in public.”
According to Forbes, “Cohen’s total album sales and track/ stream equivalent sales over this period were 3.4 million, with on-demand streams of 69 million.”
Cohen described his childhood as, “a very messianic childhood,” as his mother’s father served as a Talmudic rabbi and scholar. In 1991, he made a major religion and career shift when he decided to serve at the local Mt. Baldy Zen Center as a Buddhist monk.
Like Ernest Hemingway, Cohen searched far and wide for eternal answers, but never found satisfaction. In an interview, Cohen told Pico Iyer, “I don’t think anybody really knows why they’re doing anything. If you stop someone on the subway and say, ‘Where are you going – in the deepest sense of the word?’ you can’t really expect an answer.”
Cohen showed his eclectic faith when Cohen’s rabbi, Adam Scheier, explained how Cohen requested a traditional Jewish rite in order to be buried with his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
After many financial problems, including Cohen’s manager, Kelley Lynch, robbing him of $5 million, Cohen embarked on a world tour from 2008-2013 performing 387 times.
He left the public eye after his tour, but returned with his final album “You Want it Darker.” Producing his father’s album, Adam said, “[He died] with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records.”
Cohen’s music possessed an indistinguishable brand of melancholy lyric and song with a baritone and gravelly voice. Professor of communication, Michael Palmer, said, “while simultaneously baptizing you with a vivid sense of the hopeful and the search and the distress of being strapped to the earth all the while smuggling in an alertness to the divine spark while being utterly human.”
In 2008, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Cohen and said, “His academic training in poetry and literature . . . gave him an extraordinary advantage over his pop peers when it came to setting language to music.”
Richard Gehr, writer for the Rolling Stone, said “Only Bob Dylan exerted a more profound influence upon his generation, and perhaps only Paul Simon and fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell equaled him as a song poet.”
Like Hemingway and music sensations Prince, Bowie, Haggard and Elvis, Cohen left the building still searching. Perhaps echoing in his ears, St. Augustine’s oft quoted words may be ringing: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
For a better understanding of Cohen, listen to my personal favorite Cohen song, Anthem.