Voice in a million: Hallelujah and farewell to Leonard Cohen

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IN HIS trademark grey striped suit and Fedora hat, he looked, some said, less like a rock star than an ageing Mafia lawyer. His raspy, gravelly voice, would have been at home as much on a construction site as a recording studio.

Yet his poetry and lyrics cut right to the soul of a generation. And with the passing of Leonard Cohen, the soundtrack to their lives skipped a groove.

His death, at 82, came just a few weeks after he finished work on what would be his last album, You Want It Darker. As he did so, he told an interviewer he was ready to go.

Today it was Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Cohen’s native Canada, who summed him up best. He was, he said, as relevant today as he had been in the 1960s, one of the most influential and enduring musicians ever.

The PM then tweeted lyrics to Cohen’s masterpiece, the haunting anthem, Hallelujah: “There’s a blaze of light In every word, It doesn’t matter which you heard, The holy or the broken Hallelujah.”

During a career spanning six decades, Cohen had earned a unique place in music and popular culture, his work combining spirituality and sexuality in songs such as Suzanne and Bird On A Wire.

Bob Dylan was among his fans, telling the New Yorker magazine just last month that Cohen’s best work was deep and truthful, multidimensional and “surprisingly melodic”.

It was in the same article that Cohen himself said: “I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”

He later recanted, telling another interviewer: “I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatisation. I intend to live for ever.”

Born to a Jewish family in an English-speaking, middle-class district of Montreal, Cohen considered himself both a Jew and a Buddhist, and from 1994 to 1999 lived as a disciple of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a Zen Buddhist monk he met at university.

Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen.

He had been in show business since his teens, when he formed a country music group called the Buckskin Boys. He went on to attend McGill University where in 1956 he published his first, acclaimed book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies.

His first album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, came in 1967, the same year as So Long Marianne, written for his former lover and muse Marianne Ihlen, who also inspired his song Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.

Ihlen died four months ago, aged 81, and in a letter reportedly read to her on her deathbed, Cohen wrote: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

Cohen never married but had two children with the Los Angeles artist, Suzanne Elrod. It was his son, Adam, also a singer-songwriter, who announced the news of his death.

“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 said.

Cohen had returned to public life a decade ago, after discovering that more than $5m had vanished from his bank accounts. Despite a law suit against his former manager, the money remained lost.

As he returned to the road, his music - and especially Hallelujah - was beginning to resonate with a new generation. He had released the song in 1984, on the album, Various Positions, and it had been covered by Jeff Buckley.

Yet his record label, Columbia, hated it, recalled its producer, John Lissauer.

“They said it was unreleasable in fact, and they didn’t release it,” Mr Lissauer said. “We thought we had hit his high point, we thought this was the greatest thing that he had done and it was really going to be an important song and it was just ignored by Columbia. They just didn’t see it.”

Today, however, Hallelujah was one of the most tweeted words in the world, as admirers sent their respects.

Jennifer Hudson wrote: “Thank you for you dedication to music, and writing one of my favourite songs to sing, Hallelujah”.

Rock star Ezra Koenig, of the band Vampire Weekend, added: “Leonard Cohen, what a guy - first album at 33 - dropped ‘Hallelujah’ at 50 - first arena shows in his 70s. He did it ‘til the end.”