Leonard Cohen turned 80 last month. And what did he do to celebrate this momentous occasion? Did he kick back on the beach and celebrate his long and remarkable career (he should have)? No, he released his critically acclaimed 13th studio album, “Popular Problems,” and then proceeded to go out on the road, bringing these newly minted songs to his fans. He’s a nice guy like that.
Although this recent spark in creative activity was spurred on by the felonious acts of his former manager-a man who cheated him out of millions of dollars-it is good to see him sounding so relevant and reinvigorated, even if the circumstances and motivations surrounding the album were less than ideal. But the story and history of Cohen goes way back before his current financial problems or any of his questionable latter-year production choices. And any discussion of his music should begin in 1934, the year that he was born.
Or more accurately, you should look to his formative years growing up in Westmount, a city in Quebec, Canada, as being the greatest influence on this future singer, novelist and poet. Born to a middle-class Jewish family, his mother was the daughter of a Talmudic writer (Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry), while his father owned a large clothing store and subsequently passed away when Cohen was only 9 years old. He was surrounded by religion, teaching and history as he grew, and so it comes as no surprise that these themes found themselves explored in his music. He was even told once that he was a descendent of Aaron, one of the high priests mentioned in the Bible.
Throughout high school, he studied music and poetry and learned to play the guitar, which led to him forming his first band, called The Buckskin Boys. Initially playing a regular acoustic guitar, he switched to a classical guitar after meeting a Spanish flamenco guitar player who taught him “a few chords and some flamenco.” He eventually moved into a neighborhood in Montreal, where he read poetry at various clubs and began writing the lyrics to the songs that would find their way onto his debut record, “Songs of Leonard Cohen.”
But before Cohen could even begin thinking about releasing a record, he needed a label, and that’s where Columbia Records producer and talent scout John H. Hammond came into the picture. Instrumental in priming the careers of artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Billie Holiday, Hammond was a legend within the recording industry. And at his suggestion, Columbia signed Cohen to a record deal, and the events that would lead to his debut LP were set into motion.
But the recording process of “Songs of Leonard Cohen” was not without its share of obstacles. First and foremost, Hammond was unable to produce the record because of a prolonged illness, and John Simon had to step in and take over the sessions. There’s well-documented instances of Cohen and Simon clashing over the sound of the record, with Cohen wanting a far more stripped down and stark aesthetic and Simon wanting it to be more fleshed out, incorporating strings and horns. And though Cohen did have some authority to make changes to Simon’s production choices, there were some occasions where the additions were made directly to the four-track master tape; and in those instances, no changes could be made.
And so “Songs of Leonard Cohen” was released in limited numbers Dec. 27, 1967-though it found a much larger release the following February. The album immediately garnered a cult following, both here and in the U.K., with it charting far better there than here in the states. Many songs, such as “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne,” become favorite cover tracks for folk artists like Joan Baez and Judy Collins. With its austere musical tendencies and bleak, confessional attitude, this album was like a series of raw nerves, splayed open and exposed. Nothing was held back, and you could hear the desperation lingering after every word.
Cohen was channeling some deeper spirits of the human consciousness-these narratives weren’t simply songs; they were doorways into specific emotional catharses, with Cohen acting as our own personal Virgil as we are led through a series of revelatory experiences. Superficially, this album was fairly basic. The music wasn’t especially complicated, nor was Cohen’s technical skill far and away better than some of his peers (although the brilliance of his rhythmic simplicity cannot be understated). What set this album apart from so many others was the scope of its emotional connection with its audience.
Anyone could relate to the events documented so truthfully within these songs. And though you could almost see the thin, sardonic smile on his face when he sang some of these tracks, the overall feeling was one of release and emotional freedom. He was at once the keeper of the keys, hovering above the music like some ancient statue, ready to intercede on our behalf if it became necessary. And he played the part perfectly.
“Songs of Leonard Cohen” is an easy album to become lost in, disoriented even. The entry is simple enough, but you soon become overwhelmed and curiously intoxicated by the landscape. Driven by an internal and infernal need to explore the darkest reaches of our hearts, these songs were quietly ominous intimations of need, desperation and sadness but never felt bogged down by maudlin detritus. It was, and is, a masterpiece of emotional association, and Cohen is always there just on the periphery, waiting to step in and show us the way out. But for his part, he’s content to let us wander on our own for a time.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.