Leonard Cohen had an unconventional start to his life as a singer. The imperious songwriter began his career in the limelight as a poet and novelist—and a widely-revered one at that. At the age of 33, unconvinced about the potency of his message within the written word, Cohen made a leap of faith, left his unstoppable pursuit of literature behind and, instead, began focusing on music and the art of songwriting.
For all successful artists, there is a lightbulb moment when a creative epiphany happens and suddenly, everything makes sense. For some songwriters, those moments come in a dream, like Paul McCartney’s ‘Let It Be’, for example. For others, it’s the moment they witness a band or hear a song which pushes them towards music wholeheartedly. For Leonard Cohen, perhaps typically, the moment came as he watched two strangers make love.
In 1965, the landscape for Leonard Cohen was a pleasing one. An acclaimed writer, Cohen had begun to live out the bohemian lifestyle he had always admired. Astute and eloquent Cohen’s work would soon find favour with his peers and even acquired him a grant to explore the world and write for a living. It would be a path that would lead him to London, Hydra and halfway around the world until eventually landing as an icon of music.
It seems fitting that Montreal should be the setting of his first novel, however, 1963’sThe Favourite Game is now a key piece of his home city’s history. At a time when writing a book was rarely self-financed and the written word was held in the highest esteem, most books weren’t set in rather normal cities like Montreal. Paris, London, New York, but not very often Montreal. It would be a testament to Cohen’s belief in the beauty of normality. It was a tone he would take into his songs too, often offering up a view of the world a little too honest to bear. Fittingly, it was in his native Canada that the decision to finally take a leap toward becoming a singer finally set in. And it was, as they say, a eureka moment.
Staying at Toronto’s King Edward Hotel, according to a 1978 Macleans article, that the moment of inspiration came for Cohen when he was playing the harmonica, trying to make a few melodies. In an adjoining bedroom, which so happened to have the door ajar, two strangers were having sex, and as Cohen perceived, moving to the rhythm of his tune. He began to read his poems to the couple’s rhythm and was encouraged by the reaction he assumed he was receiving from the moans emitting from the bedroom.
In his own room, and things were going a little bit differently. “I think I’m going to record myself singing my poems,” Cohen allegedly said to his friend. After a few runs of Cohen’s iconic drawl, she replied simply: “Please don’t”. Thankfully, this would be enough to spark a serious fire within Cohen and he pretty quickly turned is hand away from literature and towards lyrics, creating one of the most poignant and rich careers in modern music as he did.
Cohen would release Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967 and, featuring songs such as ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ it gained critical acclaim but lacked commercial clout. A facet of Cohen’s career which would initially upset him, especially the success ‘Suzanne’ had seen with another singer at the helm in Judy Collins, Cohen eventually made peace with his cult icon status and instead became the archetypal outsider. Forever remembered as the poet peering into society from his perch as the observer, many won’t know just how literal that sometimes was.