Death of a Ladies’ Man: R.I.P. Leonard Cohen, one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries

By on November 11, 2016

Like many of you, we too were saddened to learn of the death of Leonard Cohen, who passed away on Monday, November 7, 2016, at the age of 82.

If you’re in the mood to reminisce on Cohen’s career — the influential singer/songwriter’s musical and literary output spanned nearly fifty years — we hope you’ll take a look at Leonard Cohen: Under Review 1934-1977, a 90-minute documentary film which examines the first forty-plus years, and reviews the poetry, music, performances and career of one of contemporary America’s greatest artists. It’s streaming right now on Night Flight Plus.

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Cohen’s label, Sony Music Canada, confirmed his death on Cohen’s Facebook page:

“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. A memorial will take place in Los Angeles at a later date. The family requests privacy during their time of grief.”

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Cohen’s son Adam sent a note to Rolling Stone this week, acknowledging his father’s death, which said the following:

“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.”

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Here’s more from his Rolling Stone obit, written by Richard Gehr and published on their website on Thursday, November 10th:

Leonard Norman Cohen was born on September 21st, 1934, in Westmount, Quebec. He learned guitar as a teenager and formed a folk group called the Buckskin Boys. Early exposure to Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca turned him toward poetry – while a flamenco guitar teacher convinced him to trade steel strings for nylon.

After graduating from McGill University, Cohen moved to the Greek island of Hydra, where he purchased a house for $1,500 with the help of a modest trust fund established by his father, who died when Leonard was nine. While living on Hydra, Cohen published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964) and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966).

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Frustrated by poor book sales, and tired of working in Montreal’s garment industry, Cohen visited New York in 1966 to investigate the city’s robust folk-rock scene. He met folk singer Judy Collins, who later that year included two of his songs, including the early hit “Suzanne,” on her album In My Life.

His New York milieu included Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, and, most importantly, the haunting German singer Nico, whose despondent delivery he may have emulated on his exquisite 1967 album Songs of Leonard Cohen. Cohen quickly became the songwriter’s songwriter of choice for artists like Collins, James Taylor, Willie Nelson and many others. His black-and-white album photos offered an arresting image to go with his stark yet lovely songs.

His next two albums, Songs From a Room (1969) and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), benefited from the spare production of Bob Johnston, along with a group of seasoned session musicians that included Charlie Daniels.

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During the Seventies, Cohen set out on the first of the many long, intense tours he would reprise toward the end of his career.

“One of the reasons I’m on tour is to meet people,” he told Rolling Stone in 1971. “I consider it a reconnaissance. You know, I consider myself like in a military operation. I don’t feel like a citizen.”

His time on tour inspired the live sound producer John Lissauer brought to his 1974 masterpiece, New Skin for the Old Ceremony.

However, he risked a production catastrophe by hiring wall-of-sound maximalist Phil Spector to work on his next album, Death of a Ladies’ Man, whose adversarial creation resulted in a Rolling Stone review [from February 9, 1978] titled “Leonard Cohen’s Doo-Wop Nightmare.”

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Labeled “an independent critical analysis,” Leonard Cohen: Under Review 1934-1977 — released in 2007 — features commentary, criticism and insight from: Ira Nadel (official Cohen biographer); Ron Cornelius (Cohen’s regular guitarist and band leader); John Lissauer, producer of New Skin for the Old Ceremony and New Positions albums; David Gold (studio owner and engineer on Death of a Ladies’ Man); Ronee Blakley (vocalist on Death of a Ladies’ Man); John Simon (producer of Songs of Leonard Cohen); Robert Christgau, music editor from The Village Voice; Anthony DeCurtis from Rolling Stone and many more.

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Each of the talking heads appearing onscreen discusses Cohen’s considerable talents for free verse, not to mention his melodies and lyrics (others include “Bird on a Wire” and “Famous Blue Raincoat”), the meaning of some of his poems. They offer up their opinions on the work from a professional, critical standpoint; their contributions are often very astute and offer the kind of depth the work itself demands of the discerning reader and listener.

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The documentary — which features snippets of some of Cohen’s legendary live performances (“Suzanne” from the Isle of Wight film, for instance) — also takes a chronological tour through the five studio albums he made for the Columbia Records imprint between 1967 and 1977: Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, New Skin for the Old Ceremony and Death of a Ladies’ Man (produced and co-written by Phil Spector, the album was later disowned by Cohen).

Leonard Cohen: Under Review 1934-1977 — as with most of the Under Review series from the UK-based Chrome Dreams company — delves deeper into the artist’s work than most documentaries, including an investigation of the meaning behind some of his most beloved songs, including “Bird on a Wire” and “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

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We learn that Cohen initially pursued a career as a writer, and published his first book of poetry, as well as a couple of novels (the second of which, Beautiful Losers, was quite controversial), well before he made his first record.

When he did eventually begin to set his poetry to music, he was regarded more as a songwriter, per se, than as a poet. His voice — or “non-voice” as one of the interviewees describes it — wasn’t immediately accessible to the average listener, and thus his appeal was always limited.

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For the last word, we turn here to the text on the DVD back cover, which offers this colorful description and perspective on the film itself:

The man’s an enigma wrapped in a mystery, his music, an acquired taste that appeals universally, and his life one of great art, astonishing experience, and myriad circumstance. Leonard Cohen was never going to be the man on the street.

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R.I.P. Leonard Cohen.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.