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The life and legacy of unlikely music icon Leonard Cohen

November 11, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST
Tributes seen on the steps of the home owned by Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in Montreal, November 11, 2016.  REUTERS/Christinne Muschi - RTX2T8YP
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally: Last night, the world lost a great artist.

We remember Leonard Cohen, poet and novelist, a musical cult figure who became an enormously influential songwriting star. Jeffrey Brown has our look at the man and his work.

JEFFREY BROWN: Leonard Cohen was an unlikely musical icon, not a great singer, a reluctant performer, the opposite of a glitzy pop star.

What he could do was write and deliver songs of simple chords and hauntingly beautiful lyrics that touched generations of fans. In 2006, Cohen told me how he drew on his own life, and more.

LEONARD COHEN: You know, autobiographical takes in a lot.

You know, it also includes the imagination. You know, your imagination also has a history. It also, you know, is born, grows old, suffers decay and old age, and dies. So, the imagination is part of the whole autobiography.

JEFFREY BROWN: Other singer-songwriters were his first champions. One was Judy Collins, who earlier this year told me of her first meeting with Cohen in 1966.

JUDY COLLINS: So, I opened the door, and he said — he came in. He said: “I can’t sing. I can’t play the piano or play the guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song.”

And then he sang me three songs. He sang me “Suzanne.” He sang me “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” and he sang me a song called “The Stranger Song.” And I recorded two of them. But I fell in love with them immediately.

JEFFREY BROWN: That love from his peers was on display at Cohen’s 2006 induction to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

LEONARD COHEN: If I knew where the good songs came from, I would go there more often.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Leonard Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal to a well-to-do Jewish family that ran a clothing store. He didn’t record his first album until he was 33, and his touring and recording was sporadic, 14 albums over five decades, the most recent, “You Want It Darker,” released just in October.

The ballad “Hallelujah” recorded in 1994 by Jeff Buckley and then by scores of other singers helped gain Cohen a larger audience in later life.

Cohen’s faith was important to him, and often a theme in his music. But he also practiced Zen Buddhism, and, in 1994, withdrew into a monastery near Los Angeles, where he spent five years.

He later discovered that much of his money had been stolen by his management and, in his 70s, was forced back on tour. But he seemed to relish the newfound appreciation.

For all the fame of his music, though, Cohen was perhaps first and foremost a writer and poet.

When he and I spoke 10 years ago, he had just released a poetry collection called “Book of Longing.”

LEONARD COHEN: You know, you scribble away for one reason or another. You’re touched by something that you read. You want to number yourself among these illustrious spirits for one advantage or another, some social, some spiritual.

It’s just ambition that tricks you into the enterprise, and then you discover whether you have any actual aptitude for it or not. I always thought of myself as a competent minor poet. I know who I’m up against.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know who you’re up against?

LEONARD COHEN: Yes, you’re up against Dante and Shakespeare, Isaiah, King David, Homer, you know? So, I have always thought that I, you know, do my job OK.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things I have always noted in your work is the mix of the sensuous and the spiritual, I guess the body and the soul.

LEONARD COHEN: We do have these feelings that, you know, run from coarse to elevated and refined. Everybody’s got them, you know? And then we’re stuck with this body, you know that — I mean, we’re all dying of this incurable disease called age.

JEFFREY BROWN: One poem summing it up is titled “Mission.”

LEONARD COHEN: “Beloved, I’m yours, as I have always been, from marrow to pore, from longing to skin. Now that my mission has come to its end, I pray I’m forgiven the life that I have led. The body I chased, it chased me as well. My longing’s a place, my dying’s a sail.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Cohen died at his home in Los Angeles. He was 82 years old.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what a gift he was.

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