Leonard Cohen got a late start for the music biz, with his first album, 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, coming out when he was already 33. (To put this in perspective, neither John nor Paul had reached 30 when the Beatles broke up.) Cohen stuck with it, though, releasing his 14th album, You Want It Darker, shortly before his death at 82.
Impressively, it can be argued that Cohen hit his peak in these final years, releasing albums in 2012 (Old Ideas), 2014 (Popular Problems) and, of course, this year’s offering. All were critically acclaimed—as are most things Cohen did, with the possible exception of his Phil Spector collaboration, Death of a Ladies’ Man—but there were two qualities that set this run apart…
1. They came quickly. This was not the case for much of his career—nearly nine years passed between 1992’s The Future and 2001’s Ten New Songs.
2. They rocketed up the charts. While commercial concerns were hardly a driving force in Cohen’s creative process, there must have been some pleasure in knowing that, after 50 years in the record biz, his final three albums were by far his most successful in his native land of Canada (all three went to #1) and his adopted home of the U.S. (charting at #3, #15, and #10—before this run, he had gone 40 years without cracking the top 100).
Arguably, none of this would have happened if not for a horrific discovery. Pushing age 70, he learned in 2004 that his manager/former lover—Cohen had many former lovers—had taken nearly his entire fortune of $5 million, largely from royalties for his much-covered song “Hallelujah” (yes, it was in Shrek). At an age most people are already retired, he suddenly was bankrupt.
The result: Cohen again embraced touring and recording to a degree he probably would never have if his finances had been on solid ground, all the while maintaining a surprisingly generous outlook on life. At the sentencing of his manager he said, “It is my prayer that Ms. Lynch will take refuge in the wisdom of her religion, that a spirit of understanding will convert her heart from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform.”
Quite simply, the life of Leonard Cohen is a reminder that we do not need to let even the most brutal events break us, and that even as death approaches, there are still glorious moments to be seized.
As Cohen put it: “I am an old scholar, better-looking now than when I was young. That’s what sitting on your ass does to your face.”
Below, listen to the Poet Laureate of Pessimism perform “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”