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Last Updated: Friday, 16 July, 2004, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
Leonard Cohen's downbeat success
Singer Leonard Cohen is marking his 70th birthday in September by recording a new album. BBC News Online looks at the veteran performer's life and career.

Leonard Cohen
Cohen became a Zen monk in 1996
Leonard Cohen's songs of longing and despair have ensured his name has become a shorthand for music which evokes misery and depression - despite the black humour evident in much of his work.

But it was as a poet and novelist that the Canadian artist first made his name.

Born in 1934 to a wealthy family in Montreal, Cohen was deeply affected by the death of his father when he was nine - an event which clouded much of the rest of his life.

He formed his first band at 17, the Buckskin Boys, and published a book of poetry dedicated to his father in 1956.

In 1959, he was given a $2,000 arts scholarship which he used to travel around Europe, settling on the Greek island of Hydra.


Early success was fitful. His first book, The Favourite Game, had difficulty securing distribution in Canada after its London publication in 1963.

The follow-up, Beautiful Losers - about a love triangle - caused outrage at home. "This is the most revolting book ever written in Canada," one review raged, while another damned it as "verbal masturbation".

Despite support from other quarters - dubbing him a latter-day James Joyce - Cohen was having difficulty paying his way as a novelist.

I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors.
Leonard Cohen

He left Greece for Nashville, and at the end of 1967, his debut album, The Songs Of Leonard Cohen, was released.

Its bleak subject matter found favour with a cult audience worldwide, tapping into folk music's new-found popularity.

Folk singer Judy Collins coaxed a nervous Cohen into appearing on stage with her in New York. He suffered stage fright, and walked off stage, underscoring his reputation as a deeply sensitive performer.

Follow-up Songs From A Room, released in 1971, featured Story of Isaac and Bird On The Wire - a track covered numerous times by many artists.

Waning appeal

But his output waned during the 1970s - along with his appeal.

This did not prevent him from releasing some of his finest work, though. Tracks like Famous Blue Raincoat, from the album Songs of Love and Hate.

Chelsea Hotel - featuring on New Skin For The Old Ceremony - was an account of a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin, a memory from his days at the centre of New York's late-60s culture.

It helped seal his reputation as a womaniser, he recently said: "I never discuss my mistresses or my tailors."

Leonard Cohen and Governor General Adrienne Clarkson
Cohen was made a Companion to the Order of Canada last year
In 1977, a collaboration with Phil Spector resulted in Death of A Ladies' Man - which Cohen later disowned.

His career looked set to remain in relative obscurity until 1987 when Jennifer Warnes released Famous Blue Raincoat, a collection of Cohen's tracks covered by the former backing singer.

That, and a BBC documentary which followed, focused attention on his album I'm Your Man - which kicked off with one of his most famous tracks, First We Take Manhattan.

The more sophisticated sound won him new fans and saw his older work reappraised.

But after 1993's The Future, Cohen disappeared from the scene.


In 1996, he was ordained as a Zen monk at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre, on a mountain-top overlooking San Bernadino, California.

Cohen, who was given the name of Jikan - "silent one" - had been living in the centre for the past two years, following an interest in Buddhism which began in the early 1970s.

By the end of the 1990s Cohen began to reappraise his life, and he found his depression was lifting.

"I saw the sunlight that shines on the chrome fenders of cars, and thought, 'Gee, that's pretty.'

"I said to myself, 'Wow, this must be like everybody feels.' The background of self-analysis I had lived with disappeared," he told The Observer newspaper in 2001.

A new album, Ten New Songs, was released to acclaim in 2001.

To mark his 70th birthday, a new album, Dear Heather, will be released, featuring 12 new tracks.

It was previewed to fans in at a Cohen fan convention in New York last month - which offered tours of Cohen landmarks in the city, among other events.

Despite the ups and downs of his career, Cohen's fanbase has remained committed - and ensures there will always be an audience for his take on life's darker side.


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