Leonard Cohen, the hugely influential singer and songwriter whose work spanned nearly 50 years, died at the age of 82. Cohen’s label, Sony Music Canada, confirmed his death on the singer’s Facebook page.
“It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away,” the statement read. “We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries. A memorial will take place in Los Angeles at a later date. The family requests privacy during their time of grief.” A cause of death and exact date of death was not given.
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“My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records,” Cohen’s son Adam wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone. “He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.”
“Unmatched in his creativity, insight and crippling candor, Leonard Cohen was a true visionary whose voice will be sorely missed,” his manager Robert Kory wrote in a statement. “I was blessed to call him a friend, and for me to serve that bold artistic spirit firsthand, was a privilege and great gift. He leaves behind a legacy of work that will bring insight, inspiration and healing for generations to come.”
Cohen was the dark eminence among a small pantheon of extremely influential singer-songwriters to emerge in the Sixties and early Seventies. Only Bob Dylan exerted a more profound influence upon his generation, and perhaps only Paul Simon and fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell equaled him as a song poet.
Cohen’s haunting bass voice, nylon-stringed guitar patterns and Greek-chorus backing vocals shaped evocative songs that dealt with love and hate, sex and spirituality, war and peace, ecstasy and depression. He was also the rare artist of his generation to enjoy artistic success into his Eighties, releasing his final album, You Want It Darker, earlier this year.
“I never had the sense that there was an end,” he said in 1992. “That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.”
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 the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964) and the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966).
Frustrated by poor book sales, and tired of working in Montreal’s garment industry, 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,” on her album In My Life. His New York milieu included Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground, and, most importantly, the haunting German singer Nico, whose despondent delivery he may have emulated on his exquisite 1967 album Songs of Leonard Cohen.
The best from iconic singer-songwriter behind “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah”
Cohen quickly became the songwriter’s songwriter of choice for artists like Collins, James Taylor, Willie Nelson and many others. His black-and-white album photos offered an arresting image to go with his stark yet lovely songs. His next two albums, Songs From a Room (1969) and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), benefited from the spare production of Bob Johnston, along with a group of seasoned session musicians that included Charlie Daniels.
During the Seventies, Cohen set out on the first of the many long, intense tours he would reprise toward the end of his career. “One of the reasons I’m on tour is to meet people,” he told Rolling Stone in 1971. “I consider it a reconnaissance. You know, I consider myself like in a military operation. I don’t feel like a citizen.” His time on tour inspired the live sound producer John Lissauer brought to his 1974 masterpiece, New Skin for the Old Ceremony. However, he risked a production catastrophe by hiring wall-of-sound maximalist Phil Spector to work on his next album, Death of a Ladies Man, whose adversarial creation resulted in a Rolling Stone review titled “Leonard Cohen’s Doo-Wop Nightmare.”
Cohen’s relationship with Suzanne Elrod during most of the Seventies resulted in two children, the photographer Lorca Cohen and Adam Cohen, who leads the group Low Millions. Cohen was well known for his wandering ways, and his most stable relationships were with backing singers Laura Branigan, Sharon Robinson, Anjani Thomas, and, most notably, Jennifer Warnes, who he wrote with and produced (Warnes frequently performed Cohen’s music). After indulging in a variety of international styles on Recent Songs (1979), Cohen accorded Warnes full co-vocal credit on 1984’s Various Positions.
Various Positions included “Hallelujah,” a meditation on love, sex and music that would become Cohen’s best-known composition thanks to Jeff Buckley’s incandescent 1994 reinterpretation. Its greatness wasn’t recognized by Cohen’s label, however. By way of informing him that Columbia Records would not be releasing Various Positions, label head Walter Yetnikoff reportedly told Cohen, “Look, Leonard; we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” Cohen returned to the label in 1988 with I’m Your Man, an album of sly humor and social commentary that launched the synths-and-gravitas style he continued on The Future (1992).
In 1995, Cohen halted his career, entered the Mt. Baldy Zen Center outside of Los Angeles, became an ordained Buddhist monk and took on the Dharma name Jikan (“silence”). His duties included cooking for Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the priest and longtime Cohen mentor who died in 2014 at the age of 104. Cohen broke his musical silence in 2001 with Ten New Songs, a collaboration with Sharon Robinson, and Dear Heather (2004), a relatively uplifting project with current girlfriend Anjani Thomas. While never abandoning Judaism, the Sabbath-observing songwriter attributed Buddhism to curbing the depressive episodes that had always plagued him.
Leonard Cohen, the hugely influential singer and songwriter whose work spanned five decades, died at the age of 82. Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty
The final act of Cohen’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. 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. “[Y]ou depend on a certain resilience that is not yours to command, but which is present,” he told Rolling Stone upon its release. “And if you can sense this resilience or sense this capacity to continue, it means a lot more at this age than it did when I was 30, when I took it for granted.”
When the Grand Tour ended in December 2013, Cohen largely vanished from the public eye. In October 2016, he released You Want It Darker, produced by his son Adam. Severe back issues made it difficult for Cohen to leave his home, so Adam placed a microphone on his dining room table and recorded him on a laptop. The album was met with rave reviews, though a New Yorker article timed to its release revealed that he was in very poor health. “I am ready to die,” he said. “I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
The singer-songwriter later clarified that he was “exaggerating.” “I’ve always been into self-dramatization,” Cohen said last month. “I intend to live forever.”
The Washington Post
In the early 80s, Leonard Cohen sat on the floor of a New York hotel room, wearing only his underwear, and remembered “banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song.’”
He had been working on it for years.
Cohen, who died Thursday at 82 years old, was many things: poet, writer and monk among them. But he spent most of his career as a musician, one of the most influential songwriters of the past six decades.
During that career, he wrote many gorgeous songs, which he sang in his smooth, smoky basso. But, as every obit written about the man (including The Washington Post’s) has led with, he attained fame with a singular accomplishment: the song he was attempting to write in that hotel room, the song for which he wrote more than 80 verses before trimming down to five, the song whose third line reads, ironically, “You don’t really care for music, do you?”
The song is “Hallelujah,” which appeared on his 1985 record “Various Positions.”
According to his biography “I’m Your Man,” the song eventually took Cohen five years to write, a fact that embarrassed him so much he later obscured this fact in a conversation with Bob Dylan.
Finally, all that was left to do was decide between two endings. In typical Cohen tradition, one was light, the other bleak.
Even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Cohen went with the version bursting with joyful bravado for the album, relegating the dark ending to an earlier verse. (Cohen often juxtaposed light and dark. Consider the lyrics he sang in “Anthem,” “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”)
When they finished recording the song, Cohen’s producer John Lissauer said everyone in the room was stunned.
“We were like, ‘Whoa, this is a standard. This is an important song,’” Lissauer said.
Furthermore, when he and Cohen listened to the final mix of “Various Positions,” they were thrilled.
“This is special. This is it,” Lissaur recalled thinking. “This will be the record that’s going to do it for Leonard in the States.”
That excitement took a nose-dive when Walter Yetnikoff, the head of the music division Columbia Records, Cohen’s label, heard the album and questioned Cohen’s talent.
“Leonard, we know you’re great. We just don’t know if you’re any good,” he said, according to Cohen.
Mr. Cohen in February 2009 during his first world tour in 15 years, which, he said, was driven partly by financial necessity. “I didn’t even know where the bank was,” he said at the time. Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet and novelist who abandoned a promising literary career to become one of the foremost songwriters of the contemporary era, has died, according to an announcement Thursday night on his Facebook page. He was 82.
Mr. Cohen’s record label, Sony Music, confirmed the death. No details were available on the cause. Adam Cohen, his son and producer, said: “My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.”
Over a musical career that spanned nearly five decades, Mr. Cohen wrote songs that addressed — in spare language that could be both oblique and telling — 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, initially by the folk-pop singers who were his first champions, like Judy Collins and Tim Hardin, and later by performers from across the spectrum of popular music, among them U2, Aretha Franklin, R.E.M., Jeff Buckley, Trisha Yearwood and Elton John.
Mr. Cohen’s best-known song may well be “Hallelujah,” a majestic, meditative ballad infused with both religiosity and earthiness. It was written for a 1984 album that his record company rejected as insufficiently commercial and popularized a decade later by Jeff Buckley. Since then some 200 artists, from Bob Dylan to Justin Timberlake, have sung or recorded it. A book has been written about it, and it has been featured on the soundtracks of movies and television shows and sung at the Olympics and other public events. At the 2016 Emmy Awards, Tori Kelly sang “Hallelujah” for the annual “In Memoriam” segment recognizing recent deaths.
Mr. Cohen was an unlikely and reluctant pop star, if in fact he ever was one. He was 33 when his first record was released in 1967. He sang in an increasingly gravelly baritone. He played simple chords on acoustic guitar or a cheap keyboard. And he maintained a private, sometime ascetic image at odds with the Dionysian excesses associated with rock ’n’ roll.
At some points, he was anything but prolific. He struggled for years to write some of his most celebrated songs, and he recorded just 14 studio albums in his career. Only the first qualified as a gold record in the United States for sales of 500,000 copies. But Mr. Cohen’s sophisticated, magnificently succinct lyrics, with their meditations on love sacred and profane, were widely admired by other artists and gave him a reputation as, to use the phrase his record company concocted for an advertising campaign in the early 1970s, “the master of erotic despair.”
Mr. Cohen in February 2009 during his first world tour in 15 years, which, he said, was driven partly by financial necessity. “I didn’t even know where the bank was,” he said at the time. Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Early in his career, enigmatic songs like “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire,” quickly covered by better-known performers, gave him visibility. “Suzanne” begins and ends as a portrait of a mysterious, fragile woman “wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters,” but pauses in the middle verse to offer a melancholy view of the spiritual:
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water,
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower,
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him,
He said “All men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.”
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open,
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.
In 2008, Mr. Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which described him as “one of the few artists in the realm of popular music who can truly be called poets” and praised him for having “raised the songwriting bar.” In 2010, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Grammys’ group, gave him a lifetime achievement award, praising him for “a timeless legacy that has positively affected multiple generations.”
Wearing a bolo tie and his trademark fedora, Mr. Cohen dryly made light in his acceptance speech of the fact that none of his records had ever been honored at the Grammys. “As we make our way toward the finish line that some of us have already crossed, I never thought I’d get a Grammy Award,” he said. “In fact, I was always touched by the modesty of their interest.”
Leonard Cohen, who died this week, was one of our greatest songwriters—Bob Dylan told Cohen that he considered him his nearest rival—and is a figure of almost cult-like devotion among fans. He began as a poet in the vein of Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara before releasing his first album, in 1967. Suffering from terrible anxiety, not much tamed by alcohol and drugs, he conquered his fear of performing onstage after decades of Zen practice. David Remnick sat down with Cohen this summer at his home in Los Angeles to discuss his career, spiritual influences, triumphant final tours, and preparing for his end. “I am ready to die,” Cohen said. He was already suffering from a number of health problems. “At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
Remnick’s Profile of Cohen offers a look into the introspection of the musician’s final days:
There is probably no more touring ahead. What is on Cohen’s mind now is family, friends, and the work at hand. “I’ve had a family to support, so there’s no sense of virtue attached to it,” he said. “I’ve never sold widely enough to be able to relax about money. I had two kids and their mother to support and my own life. So there was never an option of cutting out. Now it’s a habit. And there’s the element of time, which is powerful, with its incentive to finish up. Now I haven’t gotten near finishing up. I’ve finished up a few things. I don’t know how many other things I’ll be able to get to, because at this particular stage I experience deep fatigue. . . . There are times when I just have to lie down. I can’t play anymore, and my back goes fast also. Spiritual things, baruch Hashem”—thank God—“have fallen into place, for which I am deeply grateful.”
“Dear Uncle Leonard,” the email from the boy began. “Did anything inspire you to create ‘Hallelujah’”? Later that same winter day the reply arrived: “I wanted to stand with those who clearly see G-d’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it. You don’t always get what you want. You’re not always up for the challenge. But in this case — it was given to me. For which I am deeply grateful.”
The question came from my son, who was preparing to present the most irresistible hymn of our time to his fifth-grade class and required a clarification about its meaning. The answer came from the author of the song, who was for 25 years my precious friend and comrade of the spirit. Leonard Cohen was the most beautiful man I have ever known.
His company was quickening in every way. The elegance and the seductiveness were the least of it. The example of his poise was overwhelming, more an achievement than a disposition, and much more than an affair of style.
He lived in a weather of wisdom, which he created by seeking it rather than by finding it. He swam in beauty, because in its transience he aspired to discern a glimpse of eternity: There was always a trace of philosophy in his sensuality. He managed to combine a sense of absurdity with a sense of significance, a genuine feat. He was hospitable and strict, sweet and deep, humble and grand, probing and tender, a friend of melancholy but an enemy of gloom, a voluptuary with religion, a renegade enamored of tradition.
Leonard was, above all, in his music and in his poems and in his tone of life, the lyrical advocate of the finite and the flawed. As he wrote to my son, who was mercifully too young to understand, he was possessed by a lasting sensation of brokenness. He was broken, love was broken, the world was broken.
But “Famous Blue Raincoat” notwithstanding, this was not the usual literary abjection, or any sort of bargain-basement Baudelaireanism. Leonard’s reputation for bleakness is very imprecise. His work documents a long and successful war with despair. “I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair/ With a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere.” The shattering of love has the effect of proliferating it.
Leonard had an unusual inflection for darkness: He found in it an occasion for uplift. His work is animated by a laudatory impulse, an unexpected and profoundly moving hunger to praise the world in full view of it. His attitude of acceptance was not founded on anything as cheap as happiness.
Leonard sang always as a sinner. He refused to describe sin as a failure or a disqualification. Sin was a condition of creatureliness, and his feeling for our creatureliness was boundless. “Even though it all went wrong/ I’ll stand before the Lord of song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!”
The singer’s faults do not expel him from the divine presence. Instead they confer a mortal integrity upon his exclamation of praise. He is the inadequate man, the lowly man, the hurt man who has given hurt, insisting modestly but stubbornly (except in “I’m in Your Man,” when he merrily mocked himself) upon his right to a sacred exaltation.
Leonard wrote and sung often about God, but I am not sure what he meant by it. Whatever it was, it inspired “If It Be Your Will,” his most exquisite song. He sought recognition for his fallenness, not rescue from it. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” He once told an interviewer that those words were the closest he came to a credo. The teaching could not be more plain: fix the crack, lose the light.
All this gave Leonard’s laughter an uncommon credibility. He put punch lines into some of his most lugubrious songs. He delighted in expressing serious notions in comically homely ways. (On ephemerality, from an unreleased early version of a song: “They oughta hand the night a ticket/ for speeding. It’s a crime.”) We laughed all the time. At the small wooden table in his kitchen the jokes flew, usually as he prepared a meal. While he was genuinely in earnest about the pursuit of truth, Leonard had a supremely unsanctimonious temperament. Whether or not darkness was to be relieved by light, it was to be relieved by lightness. Before Passover, which commemorates the biblical exodus, he sent this: “Dear bro, happy Pesach. I miss Egypt! Love and blessings, Eliezer.” Before Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah in the desert, he sent this: “Dear bro, See you at Sinai. I’ll be wearing headphones! Love and blessings, Eliezer.” The laughter of the disabused was yet another of his gifts.
Eliezer was his Hebrew name. We sometimes read and studied together, Lorca and midrash and Eluard and Buddhist scriptures and Cavafy. We could get quite Talmudic, especially with wine. In Judaism there is a custom to honor the dead by pondering a text in their memory. Here, in memory of Eliezer ben Natan ha’Cohen, is a passage on frivolity by a great rabbi in Prague at the end of the 16th century. “Man was born for toil, since his perfection is always being actualized but is never actual,” he observed in an essay on frivolity. “And insofar as he attains perfection, something is missing in him.
In such a being, perfection is a shortcoming and a lack.” Leonard Cohen was the poet laureate of the lack, the psalmist of the privation, who made imperfection gorgeous.
How Leonard Cohen’s music transformed Robert Altman’s ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ into a masterpiece – and why it’s the perfect Cohen movie soundtrack. P. Ullman/Getty, Photofest
In early 1971, Leonard Cohen was still a relatively unknown singer-songwriter. Despite releasing two critically acclaimed records – 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen and 1969’s Songs From a Room – the Canadian artist, who previously plied his trade as a novelist and poet, had yet to tour the U.S. He was then living on a farm in the small town of Big East Fork, Tennessee while preparing the release of that March’s Songs of Love and Hate. “I had a house, a jeep, a carbine, a pair of cowboy boots, a girlfriend … a typewriter, a guitar,” he once recalled. “Everything I needed.”
One day, he decided to go into town and check out a movie. He eventually decided on Brewster McCloud, a bizarre comedy about a Houston kid (played by Bud Cort) who wants to fly. The movie was a commercial and critical flop; Cohen saw it twice that day. “It’s a very, very beautiful and I would say brilliant film,” he told Crawdaddy! in 1975. “Maybe I just hadn’t seen a movie in a long time, but it was really fine.”
That night, the singer-songwriter traveled to Nashville to do some studio work. While there, he got a phone call: “This is Bob Altman,” the voice on the other line said. “I’d like to use your songs in a movie I’m making.” Cohen was flattered but had no idea who this guy was: “Is there any movie you’ve done I might have seen?”
Altman mentioned his smash success M*A*S*H, which Cohen had missed. The filmmaker then said, “I also did a small movie that nobody saw — Brewster McCloud.” As Cohen later recalled to Altman biographer Mitchell Zuckoff, “I told him, ‘I just saw it this afternoon — I loved it. You can have anything you want.'”
Thus began one of the great pairings of film and soundtrack of the modern era. The movie Altman was making was McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which legendary director John Huston would later reportedly proclaim the greatest Western ever made. It’s certainly one of the most visionary, with Altman transforming Edmund Naughton’s novel into a sad, beautiful tale of the American dream playing out in Washington State at the turn of the century. A luckless schemer named John McCabe (Warren Beatty) encounters the enigmatic madam Constance Miller (Julie Christie) in burgeoning, rustic Presbyterian Church, and these two entrepreneurs’ destinies are soon to be intertwined.
In much the same way, Altman’s and Cohen’s legacies would forever be linked by McCabe. The movie is inextricably connected to Cohen’s songs. It’s impossible to imagine Altman’s masterpiece without them.
The poet-musician may not have been familiar with Altman, who died in 2006, but the director certainly knew the songwriter – the iconoclastic auteur loved Songs of Leonard Cohen when it came out. “[W]e’d put that record on so often we wore out two copies!” he once professed to film scholar David Thompson. “We’d just get stoned and play that stuff. Then I forgot all about it.” When Altman started dreaming up McCabe, he drew inspiration from Cohen’s music — without realizing he had. After shooting the film and moving to the editing stage, he happened to hear some Cohen for the first time in a while and had a revelation: “‘Shit, that’s my movie!’ … [B]ack in the cutting room we put those songs on the picture and they fitted like a glove. I think the reason they worked was because those lyrics were etched in my subconscious, so when I shot the scenes I fitted them to the songs, as if they were written for them.”
Watch Leonard Cohen Read Surreal Poem in Animated Interview
Singer-songwriter also recalls bizarre origins of folk classic “Sisters of Mercy” in “Blank on Blank” update of 1974 talk
Leonard Cohen reads a surreal original poem and recalled the origins of “Sisters of Mercy” in an animated update on a 1974 interview.
Leonard Cohen reads his surreal poem “Two Went to Sleep” and recounts the profound origins of his 1967 classic “Sisters of Mercy” in a 1974 interview newly animated for PBS’ “Blank on Blank” series. The chat, which originally aired on WBAI 99.5 FM in New York City, is available via the Pacifica Radio archives.
Upon the request of interviewer Kathleen Kendel, Cohen delivers “Two Went to Sleep” (from his first poetry book, 1956’s Let Us Compare Mythologies) in tranquil, dulcet tones.
“Two went to sleep almost every night,” he reads. “One dreamed of mud, One dreamed of Asia. Visiting the Zeppelin. Visiting Nijinsky. Two went to sleep. One dreamed of ribs. One dreamed of senators. Two went to sleep. Two travelers. A long marriage in the dark. The sleep was old. The travelers were old. One dreamed of oranges. One dreamed of Carthage. Two friends asleep. Years locked in travel. Good night, my darling, as the dreams wave goodbye.”
He later recalls the bizarre inspiration of “Sisters of Mercy,” a folk ballad from his debut LP, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
When Leonard Cohen’s family announced last week that he had died at 82, it gave no cause. Although the poet and songwriter had been open about his failing health in recent months, fans knew little other than what The New Yorker reported in its weekly radio show, that Mr. Cohen had been battling cancer.
On Wednesday, however, Mr. Cohen’s manager, Robert B. Kory, offered more detail about his client’s death.
“Leonard Cohen died during his sleep following a fall in the middle of the night on Nov. 7,” Mr. Kory said in a statement. “The death was sudden, unexpected and peaceful.”
In the months before his death, Mr. Cohen was busy. Even as his body was growing frail and he was experiencing pains in his back, he was working diligently to bring several projects to completion, according to friends and colleagues. In addition to finishing his last album, “You Want It Darker,” which was released in October, he was working on two other musical projects and a book of poetry.
“He felt the window getting narrower,” said Patrick Leonard, a producer and songwriter who had worked closely with Mr. Cohen on his last three albums. “He wanted to use the time as productively as he could to finish the work that he was so good at and so devoted to.”
Mr. Cohen, whose working pace was slow — he took five years to write his most famous song, “Hallelujah” — had been extremely productive in recent years, touring steadily between 2008 and 2013 and releasing three studio albums since 2012. Some of that work, his collaborators say, was a matter of polishing material he had been working on for many years.
Mr. Leonard said that when Mr. Cohen died, they were at work on an album of string arrangements of his songs and another of songs that he said were inspired by old rhythm-and-blues grooves.
Describing their working method, Mr. Leonard, who has collaborated with Madonna, Pink Floyd and many other artists, said that he would sometimes get emails through the night in which Mr. Cohen tweaked lyrics. Then Mr. Cohen joked about it in further emails the next day.
“I feel really grateful that I have been able to have my email ding,” Mr. Leonard said, “and there’s a new Leonard Cohen lyric.”
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At times this year, people who wrote to Mr. Cohen — usually a dependable correspondent on email — got an automatic response. Chris Douridas, a host on the California public radio station KCRW, got a terse “Unable to read/reply,” and got a worried feeling.
“It told me that he was unplugging from the digital world,” Mr. Douridas said.
But that message was also Mr. Cohen’s way of keeping distractions at bay while he worked. In the weeks and months before his death, he appears to have engaged in as much creative activity as he could handle. Mr. Leonard said that he emailed Mr. Cohen a set of new R&B tracks the morning he died. Other friends spoke of dining with him just days before.
Last month, Mr. Cohen and his son, Adam, who produced “You Want It Darker,” were interviewed by Mr. Douridas in a promotional event for the album at the Consulate General of Canada Los Angeles. Mr. Cohen had to be helped to his seat and appeared short of breath. But he spoke with his typical mixture of spiritual wisdom and dark, self-effacing wit.
“I’ve often said that if I knew where the good songs came from I’d go there more often,” Mr. Cohen said, in his dry, deep baritone, when asked about his songwriting method.
Mr. Douridas said that after the event, he asked Adam Cohen whether fans could expect another album. “He genuinely seemed to not know the answer to that question,” Mr. Douridas said.
Through a representative, Adam Cohen declined to comment for this article, but in a Facebook post last week announcing his father’s burial, he wrote: “As I write this I’m thinking of my father’s unique blend of self-deprecation and dignity, his approachable elegance, his charisma without audacity, his old-world gentlemanliness and the hand-forged tower of his work.”
Even near death, Mr. Cohen’s debonair charm was intact. Sharon Robinson, a singer and songwriter who has been a longtime collaborator of his, said she was sitting in the front row at the Canadian consulate event, and she gave Mr. Cohen a hug as he stepped down from his seat. “He said into my ear, ‘You look beautiful, darling,’” Ms. Robinson recalled.
She had last seen Mr. Cohen in August, just before she left for a concert tour. He invited her to his house, and after first offering her “chocolate, ice cream and sandwiches,” played her the new album on a boombox.
As the songs played, he closed his eyes and recited the words quietly to himself, she said, a ritual she had witnessed many times before. But this time he was working against the clock.
“He was dealing with the ultimate challenge, I suppose,” Ms. Robinson said, “and wanted to make sure that he got everything out that he wanted to say.”
In the summer of ’65, Leonard Cohen, the great poet-singer who died last week, spent many happy hours in a warehouse by the St Lawrence River in his hometown, Montreal. As he watched the boats go by, his friend, a young bohemian dancer named Suzanne Verdal, whose warehouse it was, served him tea and oranges that came all the way from China.
Or so he famously sang in his 1967 debut single, “Suzanne.” The haunting ballad would launch Cohen’s musical career, taking him from a minor poet and novelist to one of the great songwriters of our time. Tinctured with melancholy, the song touches on love, longing, redemption and faith. It has a mystical quality, but Cohen insisted it was pure journalism. He had simply reported what had happened in that warehouse and set it to music.
So did Suzanne really serve tea and oranges? In more than one interview, Cohen was asked what exactly was meant by those fragrant lines:
“and she feeds you tea and oranges
that come all the way from China”
His answer never varied: “She fed me a tea called Constant Comment, which has small pieces of orange rind in it, which gave birth to the image.”
He was in fact referring to a store-bought tea manufactured by the Connecticut firm, Bigelow Tea Co. All Cohen had done was deconstruct it into its component parts and whimsically garnish it with a China connection.
Disappointingly prosaic? It might have been, except that Constant Comment has an origin story infused with all the romance of the American entrepreneurial spirit. A child of the Great Depression, this tea would be the founding product of what is one of America’s leading specialty tea companies today.
It was created by Ruth Campbell Bigelow, the grandmother of the company’s current CEO, Cindi Bigelow. Ruth was a successful interior designer till the Great Depression dealt a body blow to her business.
Constant Comment creator Ruth Campbell Bigelow with her husband David. She developed the formula in the kitchen of her New York brownstone.
Courtesy of Bigelow Tea
“My grandparents literally had no money,” says Bigelow. “They had to move to an inn for some time. Those years were very hard.”
In 1945, Ruth chanced upon an old colonial tea recipe to make tea in stone containers, flavored with orange peel and sweet spices. She disappeared into the kitchen of her New York brownstone on 50th Street — they’d bought the dilapidated apartment cheap — and began experimenting. She worked at it for weeks. Finally, when she served it to her friends, she was so pleasantly taken aback by the flood of warm comments, she decided to call it Constant Comment.
At the time, America had only black tea and green tea. Ruth would pioneer the concept of specialty teas. However, despite the glowing reviews from her friends, establishing her new orange tea in the market proved to be an uphill slog.
It was first sold in squat tins wrapped in gold foil to specialty stores and boutiques. Since the family couldn’t afford a colored label, Ruth’s husband and son, David Sr. and David Jr., sat up every night painstakingly hand-painting the green background and red dresses of the two ladies on the label shown drinking tea. In the morning, the tins were loaded into the family station wagon and sold store by store.
Constant Comment was first sold in tins wrapped in gold foil. The family could only afford single color labels for the first tea tins. So David Sr. and his son, David Jr., would hand-paint the red ladies on the labels.
Courtesy of Bigelow Tea
One night, a dejected David Sr. said, “Son, don’t tell your mother, but I don’t think this company is ever going anywhere.”
But then the Bigelows received an invaluable piece of feedback. One grocer reported that a customer had opened a tin, got a whiff of the heady orange fragrance, and was captivated. Realizing that the zestful aroma was the product’s defining feature, the inventive Ruth supplied every shopkeeper with a “whiffing jar.” Labeled “Open and Whiff,” it was placed by the cash register in the way that perfume-testing bottles are available today at cosmetic counters.
Soon Constant Comment was being sold at Bergdorf’s and Bloomingdales. But even then, says Cindi Bigelow, sales did not leap. “It was a very slow, gentle rise. The major jump took place in the 1970s,” she says, “when we put our teabags in a folding box instead of a tin — now it became more presentable. And sales took off.”
Bigelow is “very, very proud” of the Cohen connection. “When I first heard the song years and years ago, a friend pointed it out to me, and said, did you know he’s talking about Constant Comment?” she says. “It was a real surprise, but we’re thrilled to have that association.”
So did the tea and oranges come all the way from China?
“No, they did not,” laughs Bigelow. “The tea my grandmother used — and which we continue to use — is handpicked from the top of a mountain in Sri Lanka. We continue to buy from the same tea gardens even today.”
And the oranges? “Not China, not even close,” she says. “I can’t tell you which country our oranges are from because that would be giving away too much, but it’s from the same source that my grandmother used.”
Interestingly, Suzanne Verdal remembers the “tea and oranges” a little differently. In 1998 she told BBC Radio, “We had tea together many times and mandarin oranges … I would always light a candle and serve tea and it would be quiet for several minutes, then we would speak. And I would speak about life and poetry and we’d share ideas.”
“I believe Cohen’s version,” says Bigelow. “Because he was registering everything.”
But where Suzanne Verdal and the Bigelow Tea Co. are in perfect accord is in their common devotion to the environment. Suzanne was an early recycler. Cohen’s song describes her wearing “rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters,” an aesthetic shaped by her commitment to repurposing old clothes. Bigelow, which tags itself as a “Zero Waste to Landfill” company, is big on recycling.
“It’s part of the DNA of the employees,” says Bigelow. “Corrugated boxes are shredded for packaging, tea dust is used on farms for compost, all our cafeterias use compostable components. There are 900 solar panels on the roof of our Fairfield plant, which gives us 15 percent of the energy we use. We are proud of being a family-run, inclusive company that believes in kindness. All our teabags are made in America.”
The Bigelow website has several complaints from Constant Comment connoisseurs about missing the old taste. So has the formula of their founding tea changed? The question appalls Bigelow.
“Absolutely not,” she says. “People drink with their eyes — and because the design on the box has changed, they assume the taste has changed. It hasn’t. Till today, the only two people who know the formula are my parents. They put on their lab coats, go into a room and do the mixing — six minutes of this and 12 minutes of that. What we can’t help is the variability in the crop of oranges from year to year, but we would never ever change the original recipe. My father hasn’t read those comments, and if he did, he would be so insulted and so hurt — his whole view of mankind would change. I’m not joking.”
Ruth Bigelow died before seeing her company prosper or knowing that her tea would make its way into one of the most beautiful love songs of the age. She died in 1966, the same year that “Suzanne” was made famous by Judy Collins.
“My grandmother was a very generous woman, the sort who would give the shirt off her back,” says Bigelow. “But more than anything, she was tenacious. For a woman to be running a business in the 1940s was not an easy thing at all, but she persevered. Because of her, we are where we are today.”
That’s why the family has resisted suggestions from canny advertising agencies to change the name of the tea. Constant Comment doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. “It’s the name my grandmother gave,” says Bigelow, “and we’re not changing it.”