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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Leonard Cohen--An appreciation

Leonard Cohen at 16 Magazine offices, 1973 (Photo by Danny Fields)

For a great many, it was a fitting end to election week, the report Thursday night of the passing of Leonard Cohen.

"Leonard Cohen gone?" tweeted actress/songstress Molly Ringwald. "I didn't think this week could get any worse." It was a feeling shared by cyberpunk science fiction writer William Gibson ("Leonard Cohen has died. A different kind of sad today, bless him,"he tweeted) and Patton Oswalt ("Leonard Cohen dying is so goddamned symbolic right now. You just don't let up, do you 2016?") and Rosanne Cash ("Leonard Cohen is dead. There's a crack in everything. No light yet.")

Other representative tweets ranged from Grammy-nominated songwriter/producer Zane Lowe's ('The songwriter's songwriter.' Another brave and incredible artist passes.) to Paul Stanley's "RIP Leonard Cohen. A poet, songwriter and rogue till the end. Hallelujah," the ending alluding to Cohen's much-recorded hymn "Hallelujah."

Canadian poet/singer-songwriter Cohen died Nov. 7 at 82, though his death wasn't reported until late Thursday.

"Leonard Cohen was truly a master songwriter," music business executive Clive Davis, who ran Columbia Records when Cohen signed there in 1967, told Billboard. "No one sounded like him either vocally or lyrically. He penetrated your soul with his haunting voice and his piercing words. Leonard was absolutely one-of-a-kind, a poet and an artist who put you under his spell time and time again."

"He was gentle and witty, and of course, smarter than most human beings," recalls Danny Fields, the legendary New York music/cultural luminary and onetime manager of The Ramones, who was close with Cohen when he was a fledgling songwriter and singer in the late 1960s.

"You're humbled to be with a person like that, who deigns to talk to you! But we were buddies: He called me his Virgil!"

Fields famously worked for Elektra Records at the time.

"Leonard had just moved to New York and I took him down to the Chelsea Hotel to meet Edie Sedgwick," continues Fields. "She was putting on her makeup and there was a bunch of candles decorating her mantelpiece that she'd bought at a famous voodoo store across on Seventh Avenue, and Leonard looked at me and said, 'This is not good--an unfortunate arrangement of candles.' And I said, 'How can you know that, Leonard?' Then Edie walked in and I introduced them and Leonard told her how he was telling me that the way the candles were arranged was not a good spell. She said, 'Oh, pshaw!'

and a week later her room caught fire and she burned her hand on a doorknob and everything she had was consumed--including the kitten that Bob Dylan gave her--in a fire that Leonard Cohen told her she was courting. It was that superhuman intelligence of his."

Fields fondly remembers taking Cohen to such legendary Manhattan music haunts as Max's Kansas City.

"I took him all over—but meeting the people at Columbia terrified him!" says Fields. "He was being lionized by everyone for his Beautiful Losers [novel], but it was [his song] 'Suzanne'—and Judy Collins singing it—that really put him over the top in the music business."

Fields had worked closely with Collins at Elektra.

"Leonard was musically invented through Judy," he says. "On the back of her [1966 Elektra album] In My Life she mentioned Leonard among the new urban vagabonds and folk singers of the cities."

The album included "Suzanne" along with songs by a new generation of songwriters including Lennon-McCartney, Bob Dylan, Donovan, Richard Farina and Randy Newman.

"It wasn't [traditional] folk songs about 47 people trapped in the mine," says Fields. "One of Judy's many brilliances was to say, 'I'm going to sing songs of a new era of songwriter.' It was a mission statement, and she did 'Suzanne' and it changed people's lives. Leonard became a great performer: In terms of net, I think, he was the No. 1 box office draw in the world. He enjoyed a spectacular performing career and turned into a great singer and minstrel."

But it wasn't that way at the beginning, relates Fields.

"We were at the Newport Viking Hotel at the Newport Folk Festival in 1968. I was passed out on the floor from an acid trip, and Leonard and Judy were rehearsing his 'Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye'—and I emerged from my trip on that shag rug and can you imagine? I heard this beautiful song, and Judy looked at me and said, 'I think Danny needs to be taken for a walk!' She was going to do a Central Park concert that week, and Leonard was so wonderful and nervous about being a singer—and didn't want to be one. He thought he was just a poet and novelist, but I guess he started to enjoy singing because Judy called him up on stage to sing with her."

Collins had previously "pushed" Cohen onstage at a big New York benefit concert in 1967.

"He wouldn't sing in public when I met him," she says. "He was so terribly shy and didn't know about performing—other than reading poetry. I said to him, 'Leonard. You're a singer. You can do it.' And he said, 'No. No. No.' By now 'Suzanne' was a hit: Everybody knew it, and everybody knew it was written by Leonard and wanted to hear him. I told him, 'You'll be very welcome,' and he stared singing 'Suzanne' and stopped in the middle, terrified,and walked off the stage and said, 'I'm not going back,' and I said, 'Yes, you are--and I'll go with you,' and we went out on stage and sang 'Suzanne.'"

A board member of the Newport Folk Festival, Collins "cajoled them—which was hard because they were old school 'let's be traditional'" into organizing a singer-songwriter workshop with Cohen and Joni Mitchell, whom Collins had likewise helpled intorduce via her hit recording of Mitchell's "Both Sides, Now."

"By now Leonard was wonderful singing on stage and then on television shows like Midnight Special," she says. "But he was incredibly shy when he first came to my apartment to sing me those songs, and I was totally over-the-moon about him and them, and was very lucky he decided to come to me!"

Cohen, notes Collins, was "soulful and thoughtful and absolutely authentic to his toes. Nothing about him was phony or cooked-up or forced. He was doing what he loved and 'occasionally getting paid for it,' as he would say. But he wrote what was in his soul, and he was a very deep and conscientious thinker and an extraordinary and lucid writer. He often did take years to finish a song, and he was never afraid to go over the edge in saying things others might not say. He was an amazing artist—private, unique and irreplaceable."

Cohen, who released his final album You Want It Darker just last month, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.

"Leonard Cohen's induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame was a magic moment," says the organization's president/CEO Linda Moran. "k.d. lang phenomenally performed 'Hallelujah.' Judy Collins did the same with 'Suzanne' and told how she first met him and encouraged him to move on from poetry writing to songwriting. Cohen did a verse from 'Hallelujah' that most people are not familiar with, walked to the podium, took off his hat, said a few brilliant remarks, put his hat back on and walked off the stage linking arms with Judy and k.d., who carried his award. Everyone rose to their feet with an emotional and rousing ovation. He was thrilled to be inducted and was stunned when I told him that a lot of the honorees and performers, including a few superstars, had all asked me to please make sure they got a photo taken with him."

"He was charming, modest and gracious, and took a ton of pictures!" adds Moran. "I don't think he ever realized he was a true icon."



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