Leonard Cohen's dark but compelling blend of heady eroticism and brooding despair earned him a devoted following as a singer, songwriter, poet, and novelist, and if the dour nature of his writing and the deep, craggy qualities of his voice defined him as an acquired taste, enough people have come to develop an appreciation for his work that he gained a worldwide reputation as one of the leading musical and literary figures of his generation.
Leonard Cohen was born in 1934 to a well-to-do family in Canada; his father, who ran a successful clothing company, died when Leonard was only nine years of age. Encouraged by his mother to express himself creatively, Cohen began writing poetry in his early teens, and developed an interest in music (initially, he's said, because singing seemed a good way to impress girls). Cohen began writing and performing his own songs by the age of 15, and while a student at Montreal's McGill University, he formed a country & western combo called the Buckskin Boys. Cohen also began publishing his poetry while studying at McGill, and in 1956, a year after he graduated, Cohen published his first collection of verse, Let Us Compare Mythologies. While his first book was well-received but sold poorly, his second effort, 1961's The Spice Box of Earth, became an international success, and Cohen soon moved on to writing fiction, publishing two acclaimed novels, The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966). Cohen became something of a literary celebrity, and was the subject of a 1965 documentary, Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Leonard Cohen, which examined Cohen as an artist, ladies' man, and free-thinker as he moved between homes in Montreal, New York, and the Greek island of Hydra.
By the mid-60's, Cohen had rekindled his interest in music, and after Judy Collins arranged for Cohen to perform at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival, he was signed by Columbia Records and released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1968. The album was enthusiastically received in folk circles, and in time earned a gold record, while Noel Harrison's cover of "Suzanne," perhaps Cohen's best-known song, became a top-ten hit. While Cohen always attracted a zealously loyal following, their numbers seemed to ebb and flow with time, especially in the mid-'70's, as Cohen began experimenting with more polished arrangements and production techniques (most infamously on an ill-conceived collaboration with Phil Spector, Death of a Ladies' Man). However, Cohen's musical career enjoyed a resurgence in 1987, when Jennifer Warnes released Famous Blue Raincoat, an album in which she covered nine of Cohen's songs; it was a critical and commercial success, and reminded audiences of the strength of his work, just in time for Cohen's outstanding 1988 album I'm Your Man. In 1992, Cohen returned with another successful album The Future, but Cohen spent most of the decade in self-imposed semi-retirement, studying Zen practices with a group of Buddhist monks at a monastery in California. He returned to recording in 2001, releasing an album called Ten New Songs.
While Leonard Cohen appeared in several concert films (such as Dynamite Chicken and Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival), participated in a handful of experimental films inspired by his music or verse (including Angel and Poen), and written lyrics for songs used in Lewis Furey's Night Magic, his most significant contribution to the cinema has been the use of his songs in a number of important films. Among the first examples of Cohen's music being used on screen (and certainly the most notable) came when several tracks from Songs of Leonard Cohen were used to superb effect by Robert Altman as the score for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Since then, Cohen's songs have appeared in the soundtracks of several well-known films. Bird on a Wire borrowed its title from one of his best-known songs (with Aaron Neville singing it on the soundtrack), and the same tune was warbled in character by Margaret Ladd in A Wedding, while Natural Born Killers, Wonder Boys, Breaking the Waves and When Night Is Falling all featured performances by Cohen in their soundtracks. In addition to Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, there have been several other documentaries about Cohen, including The Song of Leonard Cohen, Songs From the Life of Leonard Cohen, and Leonard Cohen: Spring 1996. Cohen also made a rare appearance as an actor on a 1986 episode of the television series Miami Vice. He died in 2016, at age 82.