Late last year, the world lost an immeasurably talented and influential man when musician, poet, and all around beloved artist Leonard Cohen passed away.
Cohen was championed by so many because his music explored the human condition, which is a generic phrase that basically deals with thinking and expressing the disparate and conflicting ways humans can feel over the course of an ever-changing, varied, and absurd life. Thus, his music, like the best music made, has come to have so many different meanings to different people. That, of course, can be good and bad, depending on the user and the interpretation. He was indeed inspiring, and thus attributed, referenced, and honoured in so many forms.
Much has been said about his greatness, his personal and professional explorations, as well as his journey to becoming such an icon. Here are just some of the ways in which he was embraced during his lifetime and revered in death (Brian Williams’ weird, uncomfortable allusion equating Cohen’s lyrics to bombs being dropped in the Middle East notwithstanding).
Of course we have to start here. His most popular song almost wasn’t made, and then when it was, it almost was changed. The tune wasn’t especially noticed when it was released in 1984, though it slowly gained traction when other people—more famous people—started discovering it.
Now it seems that everyone loves ‘Hallelujah,’ and of course they do — it’s a powerful, introspective, and deeply moving piece of music. It’s also great when played beneath images of people doing emotional things, as every producer, director, and writer has learned. That’s why it’s been used with so much frequency in pop culture. Shrek, Lord of War, The Watchmen, The West Wing, The O.C., and even Saturday Night Live (twice this year!) have used it to tell an emotional story. That’s to say nothing of every amateur video editor out there making montages of their deceased pet or recreational sports team championships.
And then there are the covers. It almost might be easier to offer a list of famous artists who haven’t covered the song. Jeff Buckley helped popularize it; Justin Timberlake, Willie Nelson, k.d. Lang, Rufus Wainwright, Jon Bon Jovi, Celine Dion, Paramour, and Bono all have covers, which is to say nothing of those who have covered the song during a live show. Bob Dylan is said to have been among the first.
The New York Times did a good job rounding up the many times the song has been used, and how little imagination people have for using it. When someone dies in a script, or there is a fundraiser for a disaster, you can bet the song will surface.
Still, for all its constant use, it’s almost immune to being disliked. However many people love it and use it ad nauseam, it’s still an incredible song! That’s unique.
One of the best covers of a Cohen song isn’t ‘Hallelujah,’ and it occurred this past April. Cohen was posthumously honoured at the 2017 Juno Awards in a tribute performance by Feist, which was introduced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The song was, fittingly, ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ from his 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. There was nary a dry eye in the audience.
The Hydra Party
The Greek island of Hydra in the Aegean Sea was Cohen’s home for many years in his 20s. It was a place he embraced and to which he often escaped, finding influence there both spiritually and poetically. The island’s inhabitants take great pride in the fact that Cohen loved their idyllic land, and have celebrated him for years.
Hydra’s Rolo Cafe takes credit as the locale of Cohen’s first concert. Following his death, his house on Hydra was adorned with gifts and tributes. The Leonard Cohen Fan Club, which has organized trips to the island over the last fifteen years, made another pilgrimage this year to honour the late Cohen.
Take This Waltz
Canadian writer and director Sarah Polley’s wonderful and tragic romantic drama Take This Waltz takes its title from a Cohen song. The film, about a married woman enraptured by a charming, handsome artist, earned many accolades while showcasing the city of Toronto as well as Cohen’s music. The song itself is used to great effect in the film during a heightened, sensual encounter.
Toronto Dance Collection
A performance inspired by Cohen’s music, titled Dance Me, will incorporate the late singer’s music this fall. From Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, the showcase will make its world premiere in Montreal ahead of a Toronto run as part of the Sony Centre’s Dance Collection.
Artist Kevin Ledo recently honoured Cohen’s life and work with a 9-storey mural in Montreal, featuring an image of the singer later in life, pictured in his iconic fedora. The artist says he has drawn inspiration from Cohen’s last two albums. The mural and can be found on the Cooper Building off of St-Laurent Boulevard.