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Leonard Cohen Dies At 82, Ending 50-Year Songwriting Career

Nov 10, 2016
Originally published on November 11, 2016 12:46 pm
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has died. He was 82.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah...

CORNISH: Cohen was known for his deep voice and deeply personal music. He also published works of poetry and drawings. Joining us to talk about Cohen and his legacy is Sylvie Simmons. She's the author of a biography of Leonard Cohen called "I'm Your Man." Welcome to the program.

SYLVIE SIMMONS: Hello.

CORNISH: I can tell by the sound of your voice that this is a very difficult moment. Can you tell us a little bit about Leonard Cohen's background, where he came from?

SIMMONS: He was born in Montreal where he started out in a very well-to-do Jewish family and was also brought up loving Jesus, believe it or not. He had both of these things that he carried with him in his poetry and his songs.

He came to Los Angeles where he lives now or was living up until today or throughout the (unintelligible). I'm sorry. If you can tell, I'm rather thrown by this news and so maybe not as articulate as I'd like to be. And so he was a person who was a poet who became a songwriter who became the great man that we all know and love.

CORNISH: And he was still working right up until the last moment. His new album came out just a few weeks ago. I want to play a little bit of the title track, "You Want It Darker."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WANT IT DARKER")

COHEN: (Singing) If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game. If you are the healer, that means I'm broken and lame. If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame. You want it darker. We kill the flame.

CORNISH: Sylvie Simmons, we can hear the spirituality that you were talking about even in this work.

SIMMONS: Yeah. That's definitely there, and it's amazing that he actually went out with his boots on how really or with his suit on. It would have been the nearest equivalent. His last album was given five stars by myself and pretty much anybody who reviewed it.

It was quite a masterpiece - very complex and, in a way, one that sang him back home because in that title track, there's actually the cantor and the choir from the synagogue that his great grandfather founded in Montreal. And when he was growing up, he went to that very church, that very synagogue.

CORNISH: He worked in so many different art forms, in poetry, in music. What do you see as his greatest contribution?

SIMMONS: Well, I think the way that he fused poetry and music was extremely special. When he - he was - he grew up in school with all the English poets but kind of abandoned them when he heard the poetry or read the poetry of Locker. And he said that when he read that poetry, what he heard was the music of the synagogue. That same year he was 15. He took up the guitar.

So there's always been music somewhere in the back of his head when he (unintelligible) it and vice versa. And when he was living for five and a half years as a Buddhist monk on Mount Baldy, he started getting quite interested in design and drawing and painting, mostly digital with his old Macintosh that he had up at the - in his hut.

CORNISH: Many people know his work from cover songs. And before you leave us, can you just talk about his legacy - the piece - kind of what his influence was to those singers behind him?

SIMMONS: Oh, he's just - he was such a serious writer. I mean he was somebody who actually had a very, very funny sense of humor considering how dark a lot of his material seemed to be. But he really just seemed to believe that there was no great borderline between music and words.

He's also a very kind of deep, profound man, somebody who studied very deeply right to the end of his life, be it scriptures or anything else. And you know, he was - he would just take all these strands and put them together into something that was so mysterious that we keep getting drawn back to it, you know? He's - his songwriting is just so perfect in the way that he's very carefully and with great torture from being a...

CORNISH: Yes.

SIMMONS: ...Perfectionist managed to marry music and words.

CORNISH: That's Sylvie Simmons, the biographer of Leonard Cohen. He has died at the age of 82. Thank you so much.

SIMMONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.