“Leonard Cohen – he knew things about life, and if you listened you could learn”
Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen was a writer and guitarist from an early age. By the mid-1960s, Cohen began to compose and release folk-rock and pop songs, leading to his most popular songs Hallelujah in 1984.
Origin and inspiration
Leonard Cohen was born on September 21, 1934, in a suburb of Montreal, Canada. Part of an intellectual, middle-class Jewish family, he was encouraged by his parents to pursue his interests in poetry and music and was also thoroughly immersed in Jewish theology and the stories of the Old Testament.
In the following songs, we can see how Jewish culture influenced Cohen’s lyrics, and how many biblical references can be found in his work.
And who by fire, who by water
who in the sunshine, who in the night time
who by high ordeal, who by common trial
who in your merry, merry month of May
who by very slow decay
and who shall I say is calling?
What did Cohen sing about?
Cohen was just as lost as many of us are, and as I’ve read somewhere “used songwriting as a way to make sense of a bewildering world”.
His work explored many important and super sensitive subjects. He sang about religion, politics, isolation, depression, sexuality, loss, death and romantic relationships.
For me, Chelsea hotel is one of Cohen’s most eloquent and emotional writings. And the story behind it makes it even more so. I apologise in advance for dedicating a big part of this for this story, but it feels important.
On a lonely spring night in 1968, inside the Chelsea Hotel, Cohen was joined by a woman with wild hair and even wilder clothes. You guessed it, Janis Joplin.
Cohen was suddenly less lonely and very intrigued. The elevator’s sluggish pace bought him time to strike up a conversation, which he’d recreate repeatedly in concerts for years to come.
In 1971, not long after Janis’s death, that Cohen was shaken and saddened by, he was seated at the bar of a Polynesian restaurant in Miami nursing a “particularly lethal and sinister coconut drink.” His thoughts turned towards his fallen friend, and soon words began to fill his cocktail napkin.
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel You were talking so brave and so free Giving me head on the unmade bed While the limousines wait in the street (from: rollingstone.com)
Many agree Leonard wrote this preparing for death. It’s an element that hangs heavy over the rest of the album as well. He’s alluding to quite a few Jewish and Christian concepts relating to death, sacrifice, and salvation. Most striking is his use of “hineni” a Hebrew word that essentially means “behold” but is often used as a marker of personal willingness as in “here I am”
he recorded it shortly before his death makes it that much more meaningful.
Cohen carved out his own unique place in music, and I believe one of the main reasons for that is the perfect mix of poetic lyrics and Cohen’s baritone voice, that is portrayed beautifully in his music.