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Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriter of love, death and philosophical longing, dies at 82

Leonard Cohen, a Canadian-born poet, songwriter and singer, whose intensely personal lyrics exploring themes of love, faith, death and philosophical longing made him the ultimate cult artist, and whose enigmatic song “Hallelujah” became a celebratory anthem recorded by hundreds of artists, died Nov. 7. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by his biographer, Sylvie Simmons. Other details were not immediately available.

Mr. Cohen began his career as a well-regarded poet and novelist before stepping onto the stage as a performer in the 1960s. With his broodingly handsome looks and a deep, weathered voice that grew rougher and more expressive with the years, he cultivated an air of spiritual yearning mixed with smoldering eroticism.

Mr. Cohen never had a song in the Top 40, yet “Hallelujah” and several of his others, including “Suzanne,” “First We Take Manhattan” and “Bird on the Wire,” were recorded by performers as disparate as Nina Simone, R.E.M. and Johnny Cash. His lyrics were written with such grace and emotional depth that his songwriting was regarded as almost on the same level as that of Bob Dylan — including by Dylan himself.

Mr. Cohen was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, but his incantatory, half-spoken songs were more in the tradition of the European troubadour than the rock star. Lyrics were paramount to Mr. Cohen, but whether he was composing songs, poetry or fiction, there was always an underlying musical pulse.

“All of my writing has guitars behind it,” he said, “even the novels.”

A character in Mr. Cohen’s 1963 novel “The Favorite Game” said, “I want to touch people like a magician, to change them or hurt them, leave my brand, make them beautiful.” In 1966, he published another novel, “Beautiful Losers,” that became a best seller.

The same year, after an informal audition at New York’s Chelsea Hotel, Mr. Cohen was signed as a singer-songwriter to Columbia Records by John Hammond, the talent scout who had promoted the careers of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen.

At first Mr. Cohen was a reluctant performer. He often needed alcohol or drugs to go on stage early in his career. He labored over his songs, refining them as if he were polishing gems. He spent five years on “Hallelujah,” which appeared on his 1984 album “Various Positions” and is generally acknowledged as his masterpiece. Like much of his music, it took years to gain a popular foothold.

A 1994 recording by Jeff Buckley found a niche, and over time it was recorded by at least 300 artists. K.D. Lang's performance of "Hallelujah" formed the centerpiece of the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

It was difficult for critics to explain exactly what made Mr. Cohen’s music so memorable and moving. The lyrics were poetic, of course, but his musical settings were ingenious, with shifting chords and deceptively simple melodies.

His music “was very intimate and personal,” singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega told the New Yorker. “Leonard’s songs were a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery, like prayers or spells.”

His first song to pierce the public consciousness was "Suzanne," which became a minor hit for Judy Collins in 1966 and was later performed by Simone and others. The song, written about one of Mr. Cohen's many girlfriends, is on one level a simple love song:

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind

And you know that she will trust you

For you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

But Mr. Cohen broadens the lyrics to included references to Jesus walking on water before referring to the hidden heroes in life:

There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning

They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever

While Suzanne holds her mirror

In one of Mr. Cohen's most direct songs, "I'm Your Man," he issued a direct plea, saying he was willing to do anything he could to win a woman's love. The song appeared in the late 1980s, but it gained added poignance in his later years, when an aging Mr. Cohen delivered the lyrics in a deep croak that was vulnerable, yet strangely compelling:

If you want a lover

I’ll do anything you ask me to

And if you want another kind of love

I’ll wear a mask for you

If you want a partner, take my hand, or

If you want to strike me down in anger

Here I stand

I’m your man

Perhaps no song encapsulated so many of Mr. Cohen’s characteristic strengths as a songwriter as “Hallelujah.” The tune’s rising melodic line even figures in the lyrics as “the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift.”

The lyrics have been subject to endless interpretation over the years, as they weave through religious references, sexuality and personal confession:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya

She tied you

To a kitchen chair

She broke your throne, and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

In the 1980s, Dylan often performed “Hallelujah” in concert. In the New Yorker last month, Dylan, who recently was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, explained he found Mr. Cohen’s songs so powerful.

“His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres,” Dylan told New Yorker editor David Remnick. “ ‘Hallelujah’ has resonance for me. There again, it’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. . . . These are all great songs, deep and truthful as ever and multidimensional, surprisingly melodic, and they make you think and feel.”

Leonard Norman Cohen was born Sept. 21, 1934, in Montreal. His family was prominent in the city’s Jewish community, founding a synagogue and owning several clothing and manufacturing businesses. He was 9 when his father died.

“I have a deep tribal sense,” Mr. Cohen told the New Yorker magazine last month. “I grew up in a synagogue that my ancestors built. I sat in the third row.”

He undertook various religious studies and spiritual pursuits throughout his life, but he remained grounded in the Jewish tradition, sometimes using Hebrew phrases and traditional melodies in his music.

As a teenager, Mr. Cohen admired blues music and the French-language singers Jacques Brel and Edit Piaf. He was a member of a country-and-Western band in Montreal, but his interests were primarily literary. He graduated from Montreal’s McGill University in 1955, with a bachelor’s degree in English. He won a writing prize in college and published his first volume of poetry in 1956. He later moved to New York, where he studied briefly at Columbia University and read his poetry in coffee shops.

He often found himself in odd places at odd times. In 1961, he was in Cuba during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. He wrote a poem about the experience, called “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward.”

He lived in London before impulsively traveling to Greece in 1960 and ended up buying a house on the island of Hydra. It was there that he met and fell in love with a married Norwegian woman named Marianne Ihlen.

She divorced her husband, and they lived together for several years. Ihlen, who was often described as Mr. Cohen’s muse during the 1960s, died in August.

Mr. Cohen also had well-known relationships with Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and actress Rebecca De Mornay.

“My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke,” he said. “It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone.”

In the 1970s, he had two children with his common-law wife, Suzanne Elrod. Survivors include Adam Cohen and Lorca Cohen, both of Los Angeles, and three grandchildren.

Mr. Cohen spent years at a Zen Buddhist monastery in California and did little performing during the 1990s. He lived off his royalties until discovering in 2004 that his business manager and onetime lover, Kelly Lynch, had made off with millions of dollars.

During a subsequent trial, Mr. Cohen testified that Lynch was stalking him with repeated phone calls and messages, despite a restraining order. She was later sentenced to 18 months in prison, but Mr. Cohen did not recoup his lost money.

As a result, he was forced to embark on concert tours and new recordings, which marked a remarkable late-career renaissance. He released nine albums after turning 70, most with newly written material. In 2008, he began a tour with a full band and backup singers that took him all over the world. Dapper and dignified, he wore a dark suit and a hat — “I was born in a suit,” he said — and performed for as long as four hours at a time, leaving audiences enchanted.

Mr. Cohen carried a notebook in his pocket to write down lyrics and sometimes used his smartphone to record musical ideas. He sometimes drew inspiration from unlikely sources. A story he read about Holocaust victims performing music in concentration camps led to the heart-wrenching song "Dance Me to the End of Love":

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin

Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in

Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove

Dance me to the end of love

A documentary about his life, “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” was released in 2005. His last concert performance came in 2013, but he continued to write and record songs at a home studio in Los Angeles until shortly before his death. A new album, “You Want It Darker,” appeared last month.

“I did my best, it wasn’t much,” he sang in “Hallelujah”:

I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch

I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you

And even though

It all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

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