Inside of a flame: Leonard Cohen, a complex journey

Photo: ARTV
Too many want to raise the montreal-based artist, the status of a myth, however, we forget that his career has been strewn with pitfalls, and that, from the start.

Once per month, The Duty starts to enthusiasts of history the challenge to decrypt a topical theme from a comparison with an event or a historical figure.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), the first album of the artist, a brief return is needed on the complexities of a mythical figure.

Photo: Pedro Ruiz The Duty
Chantal Ringuet is a writer and research associate at Brandeis University and Concordia University.

While there are several events to mark the first anniversary of the death of Leonard Cohen, there are many discourses that insist on the fame of the montreal-based artist, and on the value of cultural icon. This perspective introduces Leonard Cohen as an artist of international renown whose fame would have allowed him to become one of the best ambassadors of Montréal and abroad. It is often described by mentioning that he belonged to “a rich family” of Westmount, claiming that its location would have enabled him, from his youth, to devote himself entirely to his art from this point Of view, the journey of Leonard Cohen would be built in line with its belonging to a middle-income.


It is true that, as of the publication of his first collection, in 1956, the young graduate in English studies from McGill University, has asserted itself very early on as a poet gifted, a figure promising of his generation. For all that, this does it mean that its huge success was assured ? According to some widespread beliefs, the young Leonard Norman Cohen was predestined to a career as a world star, thanks to songs flagship of its beginnings, such as Suzanne, So Long, Marianne and Sisters of Mercy who opened the door to the suite.




Too much try to bring it to the level of myth, however, we forget that his career has been strewn with pitfalls, and that, from the start. The death of his father, which occurred when Leonard was nine years old, plunged in grief immeasurable, from which he draws a sense of deep gravity, which color his entire life. By doing this, it gives rise to its first act of a poet, when he registered a word in a bowtie of the deceased, that he then buries it in the yard.


Of course, the young Cohen has been able to devote himself to his art, thanks in part to his family heritage. But we should not under-estimate the difficulties which he encountered by refusing to walk in the footsteps of his father and in those of his grand-father, both leaders of the family business, the Freedman Company, specializing in the field of fashion.

Moreover, if he was from a wealthy family, was not wealthy. The family’s residence, located at 599 avenue Belmont, was a semi-detached that stands out of exclusive residences in her neighborhood ; the chauffeur-driven car was a Plymouth and not a Cadillac, unlike the family of his childhood friend, the sculptor Death Rosentgarten, as well as the stresses Sylvie Simmons in the biography I’m Your Man. The life of Leonard Cohen (Editorial, 2017).


In this regard, his second novel, Beautiful Losers (1966), has a title very eloquent. Considered very provocative, the experimental, where meet the three founding peoples of Canada — Indians, French-Canadians (Quebecois) and English Canadians — and that makes beautiful erotica hits the sensitivities of the fringe English descent, protestant.


Ironically, while the publisher McClelland and Stewart had been announced as a future best-seller for several weeks before its release, the book will prove to be a fiasco commercial. In Canada, the novel led to few sales and caused controversy. The critic Robert Fulford called him both “book the most shocking ever written in Canada” and the book ” canadian without a doubt, the most interesting of the year 1966 “. Highly disappointed with this shared hosting, the poet realizes that he can aspire, from the outset, to become a novelist to success on the literary scene anglo-canadian.


A turning point operates in the artistic career of Leonard Cohen. It boils down to two things : first, Cohen waives the literature to embrace the career of singer-songwriter, to which he is dreaming since his teens ; then, he leaves Montreal to the United States.


Reference is often made, rightly, to the love that Cohen was in Montreal, his hometown. As he had already expressed jokingly, quebec’s metropolis was the only place where he felt he had to reconnect with his ” affiliations neurotic “. But the reality, again, is more complex than it seems. Retrospectively, it is clear that, to accomplish as an artist, Cohen has had to, in advance, and bid adieu to Montreal as a permanent place of residence. What he did in 1966.


First album


The following year, when he was already 33-year-old Cohen released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. Five years after he discovered Bob Dylan, the producer John Hammond signed the montreal musician his first contract with Columbia Records. Preferring the simplicity, it refuses to add the drum sound on some songs, so the melodies and the musical arrangements are placed at the service of his voice.


Romanticism, melancholy, humour and despair mixed in this disc, too tinged with eroticism and spirituality. His style and the elegance of its lyrics are already a musician unique that will be cherished by many admirers, especially in Europe. Today, the album is regarded as an object iconic of the music of that period, or even as ” the absolute must-have classic “, as well as the presents an article of a british journalist from the BBC.


If he knows a great critical success since its publication, its commercial success is not flaming. For example, the song Suzanne inspired by Suzanne Verdal, the then girlfriend of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, has mostly been made famous by the interpretation that was made by Judy Collins in 1966. It will be the same for her tube the most well-known, Hallelujah, which has been a triumph in the world, after that some artists were offered their own interpretation, including Jeff Buckley.


Moreover, if the first album of Cohen is well-received in Britain and in France, he was, however, a modest success in the United States. And this trend, far from disappearing, will assert itself as a constant during the major part of the musical career of Leonard Cohen : our neighbours to the south will never get as much attention as do the French, the English and the Scandinavians. They prefer ” real Americans “, such as the musicians Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, associated with the folk revival.




On the cover of his first album, Cohen sets the objective : his collar of a white shirt and his gait a little sage to give the impression that he is a musician rather tidy. In reality, the artist struggled then against severe depression, as he admitted at the end of his life. The contrast between this image and the one that appears on the back cover is also striking.


On the other side, a female figure with long hair and brown, in chains and in flames, participates in an imagination of the woman associated with the forbidden and to hell. This link between clarity and darkness, between beauty and violence, between wisdom and eroticism, Cohen has not stopped the stage in his poetry, his novels, his music and his drawings.


In this context, his famous formula, ” There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in “, from the song Anthem (1992), deserves to be put into context. More than a mere quip, it synthesizes a turning point that was to be initiated in the mind of the artist fifteen years ago, with the release of the album Death of a Ladies Man (1977), co-produced by Phil Spector and follow-up of a collection of poems with the same title (1978).


As of this period, he began to develop the idea that light — and the joy — penetrates through the cracks of the soul. This thought in counterpoint, the vector of its existence footprint of both gravity and lightness, will assert itself until the end, through a quest fatal beauty, which combines continuously the sacred and the profane. In his last album, You Want It Darker (2016), we find a powerful echo in the line ” We killed the flame “, in which one sees an allusion to the biblical story : if God has created the beauty of the world, men have tried to kill her.


Admittedly, the artist was a huge success on the international stage, and it often presents, with pride, as the ” Montreal’s best-known abroad “. However, one should not forget that, behind the star and its international recognition, Leonard Cohen was above all a modest man. Its global triumph won not in spite of a series of failures, but through those failures that have shaped her journey just as much as her singing. His voice, more and more serious over time, contributes just as much. And it is here that one recognizes the expression of his grace, his style, his signature.


No doubt this is due to this reason, also, that his poems and his songs accompany us with as much force, and for a long time : he has sung of the hope and beauty of the world learning to dance above the abyss. In search of sparkles and glimmers, never claim to abolish the darkness of all human life, Leonard Cohen embodies with brio a verse of the famous Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who exerted a major influence on him : “the One who dances, walks on the water and the inside of a flame. “


To propose a text or to make comments and suggestions, write to Dave Christmas :

Share Button