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November 18, 2016  RSS feed

Text: T T T

Leonard Cohen, whose Jewish-infused poetry and songs inspired generations, is dead at 82

By RON KAMPEAS JTA news service

Leonard Cohen in concert at London’s O2 Arena, Sept. 15, 2013. Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter whose Jewish-infused work became a soundtrack for melancholy, died Thursday, Nov. 10. He was 82.

Cohen, a Montreal native born in 1934, was playing folk guitar by the time he was 15, when he learned the resistance song “The Partisan” while working at a camp from an older friend.

“We sang together every morning, going through ‘The People’s Song Book’ from cover to cover,” he recalled in his first “Best Of” compilation in 1975. “I developed the curious notion that the Nazis were overthrown by music.”

As a student at McGill University, he became part of Montreal’s burgeoning alternative art scene, one bursting with nervous energy at a time that tensions between Quebec’s French and English speakers were coming to the fore.

His influences included Irving Layton, the seminal Canadian Jewish poet who taught at McGill and, like Cohen, grappled with the tensions between the secular world and the temptations of faith.

Cohen began to publish poetry and then novels, and was noticed by the national Canadian press. Moving to New York in the late 1960s – his song “Chelsea Hotel” is about his stay in that notorious refuge for the inspired, the insane and the indigent – he began to put his words to music.

“Suzanne,” about the devastating platonic affair with a friend’s wife that was a factor in his leaving Montreal, was recorded by Judy Collins and became a hit, launching his career.

Cohen sang in his limited bass and wrote his songs so he could sing them. They would have been dirges but for their surprising lyrical turns and reckoning with joy in unexpected places.

Cohen embraced Buddhism but never stopped saying he was Jewish. His music more often than not dealt directly not just with his faith but with his Jewish people’s story.

His most famous song, covered hundreds of times, is “Hallelujah” – he has said its unpublished verses are endless, but in its recorded version is about the sacred anguish felt by King David as he contemplates the beauty of the forbidden Bathsheba.

Cohen, in his 70s in the late 2000s, again began to tour and record; a manager had bilked him of much of his fortune. He released his final album, “You Want It Darker,” last month.

He often toured Israel, and he expressed his love for the country – Cohen toured for troops in the 1973 Yom Kippur War – but he also expressed sadness at the militarism he encountered there. Under pressure from the boycott Israel movement to cancel a 2009 concert, he instead donated its proceeds – much needed by him – to a group that advances dialogue between Palestinians and Jews.

In August he wrote an emotional letter to his former girlfriend and muse Marianne Ihlen, who died in late July, suggesting he, too, was ready to embrace his death.

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