10 Things You Never Knew About… Leonard Cohen

Poet, lover and libertine

Poet, lover and libertine. Clash celebrates some near eighty years of the ‘Bard Of Bedsits’. Hallelujah!

1. Always giving off a calm exterior, in the 1990s Cohen moved to the Mount Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for five years. He was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996 and took on the unique name Jikan, before leaving the Zen Center in 1999.

2. Phil Spector’s love of waving guns around didn’t just stay in the domestic arena. Recording 1977’s ‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man’, Spector approached Cohen bearing “a bottle of kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other”. Shoving the revolver into his neck he said, “Leonard, I love you.”

3. Cohen was thirty-two-years-old and an established poet and novelist before finally deciding that songwriting might pay the bills better. When he first touted his songs around New York, many agents said to him, “Aren’t you a little old for this game?” Oh the fickle world of pop.

4. Often criticised for his reliably morose subject matter, Cohen has actually battled manic depression all his life. Asked about the subject of drugs, he has said: “The recreational, the obsessional and the pharmaceutical – I’ve tried them all. I would be enthusiastically promoting any one of them if they worked.”

5. Cohen’s described his signature tune ‘Suzanne’ as “journalism”, as the details were drawn from life in Montreal. Friend Suzanne Verdal really did serve him tea and oranges in her loft by the river. The line “I touched your perfect body with my mind” was written because she was married to a pal.

6. His hero is the acclaimed Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca. Cohen named his daughter after him: “She’s a lovely creature, and very inventive. She really deserves the name.” He translated a poem of Lorca’s into the song ‘Take This Waltz’, which took him a mammoth hundred and fifty hours. Dedication.

7. One woman who resisted his infamous charms was Nico, whom he met at Andy Warhol’s club in 1966. “The most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.” However, she said she preferred younger men, but introduced him to Lou Reed, who had some of Cohen’s books. “We told each other how good we were.”

8. In 1995 Cohen’s former manager, Kelley Lynch, put together ‘Tower Of Song’, a set of his compositions sung by bigger stars including Sting and U2’s Bono. She asked Phil Collins, who turned her down. Cohen himself sent Collins a fax, saying: “Would Beethoven refuse the invitation of Mozart?” Classy.

9. Cohen is always rewriting. In 1988 he was full of youthful enthusiasm for a song he was writing called ‘My Secret Life’, but it took him another thirteen years to get it right. “I can’t discard a verse until I’ve written it as carefully as the one I would keep.”

10. When he wrote classic ‘Bird On A Wire’, Cohen felt he hadn’t “finished the carpentry”, but songwriter Kris Kristofferson said the first three lines would be his epitaph: “Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free”.

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