By John Scally
Leonard Cohen’s death in 2016 was mourned across the world, but perhaps particularly in Ireland. His loss was so keenly felt because of the depth of his connection with this country.
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 three books of poetry.
Early in his career, Leonard’s novel Beautiful Losers (1966) caused The Boston Globe to declare that ‘James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen.’ Yet Cohen was determined to establish himself as a songwriter. Frustrated by poor book sales 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. Later Cohen would reflect: ‘I had little to bring. I worked with what I’d got. Simple chords on my guitar, which I wished I could play better. A finger or two on a keyboard. I was a singer in the lesser choirs, ordained to raise my voice so high and no higher; though certainly low and, after decades of Marlboro Lights, yet lower.
‘When I turned to music and I was scheduled to go on stage I told myself: I can’t sing. I wouldn’t know what to do out there. I am not a performer. I was terrified the first time Judy Collins brought me onstage to sing with her, in 1967.‘I am this. I’m not even a novelist. I’m not even a poet. I’m a songwriter. You realise you’re not going to be doing anything else. You’re not going to be leading the social movement. You’re not going to be the light of your generation. You’re this guy sitting in front of the table in the good parts of the day and crawling around on the carpet in the bad parts.’
Over a musical career that spanned nearly five decades, Cohen wrote songs that addressed themes of love and faith, despair and exaltation, solitude and connection, war and politics. More than 2,000 recordings of his songs have been made by such giants of music as U2, Aretha Franklin, R.E.M., Jeff Buckley, Trisha Yearwood and Elton John.
Leonard’s connection with Ireland began at an early age: “As a kid, I had an Irish nanny, so even though I came from a proudly Jewish family, I have been brought up partly as an Irish Catholic.” As his music career took off Leonard became a frequent visitor to Ireland. In the 1970s and 1980s, Dublin’s National Stadium was Cohen’s venue of choice. Best known these days for its boxing connections, the Stadium hosted many music events before venues such as Vicar Street or the Point were opened. Cohen opened his 1972 European tour in the venue on the South Circular Road. He returned to the National Stadium for shows in May 1976, December 1979, March 1985 and June 1988.
Once he started touring Cohen felt the pull of Ireland: “One of the reasons I’m on tour in Ireland is to meet people. I consider it a reconnaissance. You know, I consider myself like in a military operation. I don’t feel like a citizen. I am a spiritual soldier seeking an army to join and Ireland is one of my favourite places to tour and visit because of the sense of spiritual. “I’ve never thought of myself as a religious person.
I don’t have any spiritual strategy. I kind of limp along like so many of us do in these realms. Occasionally I’ve felt the grace of another presence in my life. But I can’t develop any kind of spiritual structure on that. So I feel that this is a vocabulary that I grew up with. This biblical landscape is very familiar to me, and it’s natural that I use those landmarks as references.
Once they were universal references, and everybody understood and knew them. That’s no longer the case today, but it is still my landscape. I try to make those references. I try to make sure they’re not too obscure. But outside of that, I can’t — I dare not — claim anything in the spiritual realm for my own. I love coming to Ireland though because there is always a sense of spirituality in the ether.
“The other reason I love to perform in Ireland is that the crowds are always so amazing. They always sing and they know my songs so well. I think they appreciate my lyrics. When I think of Ireland I think immediately of words and language as well as spirituality. That is why I loved to come to Dublin and sing for an Irish audience. When I was recording my live album – there could only be one venue – Dublin. When we were recording the DVD of me performing live in concert – there was no discussion about the venue. It had to be Dublin. That is the complete truth. I am not just engaging in cheap flattery.”
The final act of Leonard’s career began in 2005, when Lorca Cohen began to suspect her father’s longtime manager, Kelley Lynch, of embezzling funds from his retirement account. In fact, Lynch had robbed Cohen of more than $5 million leaving him with about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars to his name. In 2005 he sued, and the court found in his favor. He never collected anything.
Kelley Lynch left Cohen near-broke, and started a campaign of harassment, calling and threatening Cohen many times a day. Lynch was eventually sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2012. To replenish the fund, Cohen undertook an epic world tour during which he would perform 387 shows from 2008 to 2013. He continued to record as well, releasing Old Ideas (2012) and Popular Problems, which hit U.S. shops a day after his eightieth birthday.
He joked that between 2008 and 2013 he felt that he had taken up permanent residence at the Gresham Hotel, his lodgings of choice in Dublin. In those five years, Cohen performed 12 shows between venues in Dublin, Belfast and Sligo. His final Irish shows were at Dublin’s O2 Arena in September 2013 and recordings from those shows became Live in Dublin, an album released the following year.
He took a keen interest in Irish history and although he had plenty of original songs of his own in 1972 he covered the song Kevin Barry because he felt that the song had a universal message. He believed it captured the ultimate devastation and the human cost of war.
Leonard had an Irish hero: ‘I have to say though that one of my all time favourite shows was at Sligo’s Lissadell House, an engagement that came with a special energy because of the venue’s many connections to my hero WB Yeats. I recited lines from Yeats about Lissadell during the show, referenced Yeats during Hallelujah and spoke about being ‘so pleased’ and ‘privileged’ to be performing ‘in the shadow of the great house where the great master poet walked and fell in love and broke his heart”’.
Ireland carved a special place on Leonard Cohen’s heart. “I feel a citizen of the world but I hold a special place in my heart for Ireland. It is a land of poets and mystics. Somebody told me once that I had become an honorary Irish man and I think that it is a lovely tribute.”