Leonard Cohen was born on September the 21st 1934. In the popular imagination he was a dark, lugubrious singer-songwriter, the King of gloomy ballads. However there was so much more to his artistic legacy than the caricature. Cohen was a poet before he ventured into music. His family were observant Orthodox Jews, and conscious of their heritage as Kohens, the High Priests of ancient Israel.
Cohen developed his interest in poetry as an English literature student at McGill University in Canada. The poet who had the most profound influence on him was Federico Garcia Lorca, the rebel poet of civil war era Spain with a special affinity for the Gypsy minority. Cohen taught himself to play Spanish guitar and attempted to imitate Lorca`s style in his lyrics. After he graduated he then spent three desultory years at Law school. His real passion was writing. He published his first book of poems in 1961 called “The Spice Box of Earth”. It only had modest success at the time.
However the real change in his fortunes lay in the almost precipitous decision to spend his grandmother`s inheritance on a property on the Greek island of Hydra. During the sixties Hydra was known for its international artistic colony.
Cohen`s sojourn on Hydra meant that he forged connections with numerous musicians and writers, but his most important connection was with a Norwegian writer called Marianne Ihlen. They later fell in love and their romance became a source of inspiration. Ihlen`s beauty and intelligence had beguiled him.
She became a Muse to him. He wrote his famous song “So Long, Marianne” as a tribute to her. Their romantic relationship did not last but he would always remember her throughout his life as an important influence. Truthfully Cohen felt almost bewitched by beautiful and intelligent women and he wrote songs principally to woo them. All of his songs put the various women in his life upon a pedestal, each Muse seems an artwork in her own right. Unlike other rock and pop stars he wasn`t superficial or crude, instead his songs articulated a deep and enduring love for feminine beauty.
Marianne Ihlen was diagnosed with leukaemia in July 2016. When Cohen was given the devastating news he sent a note to her which read,
I`m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand. This old body has given up, just as yours has too. I`ve never forgotten your love and your beauty. But you know that. I don`t have to say any more. Safe travels old friend. See you down the road. Endless love and gratitude.
Marianne died aged 81 later that month, and less than four months later Leonard succumbed to the same illness and passed away. He was 82.
Leonard Cohen was a great poet and songwriter who had a unique insight into subjects like religion, love and the nature of human existence. However we cannot forget that his songs owe an immense debt to his Muse Marianne.