Monday, March 10, 2008


Ladies and Gentlemen, to induct Leonard Cohen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, please welcome Lou Reed

You know I first met Mr. Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel and at a place called Max's. Outside the Chelsea we were talking and he said-which I thought was really sweet-he said you wrote a song called "I'll Be Your Mirror" and it made me want to continue being a songwriter. Then we were sitting at Max's Kansas City. In the back room there you had to know somebody. So people weren't paying attention to Leonard. I said, this is Leonard Cohen, he wrote Beautiful Losers. So speaking of Beautiful Losers, which I never got a chance to tell Leonard this, and I was in the part of the tour "I'm Your Man" that wasn't filmed, so nobody got to see me except in Dublin, unless you flew there. You get to really appreciate someone's songs when you sing them, when you sing them out loud. That's when you can really hear it, but anyway. Beautiful Losers, Naked Lunch, I started thinking, Burroughs, Leonard, Allen Ginsberg, (those three), Hubert Selby, (maybe four), but Naked Lunch and Beautiful Losers were out more or less kind of the same time, but one got a lot more attention. I was always very surprised by that. We are so lucky to be alive at the same time Leonard Cohen is. Ladies and gentleman I very much want to welcome Leonard Cohen.

The Leonard Cohen Acceptance Speech

Oh thank you so much friends, and Lou thank you so much for reminding me that I wrote a couple of good lines. I inducted you into my own ghostly hall of fame many many years ago. You flourished there from then until this very day. Thank you so much. This is a very unlikely occassion for me. It is not a distinction that I coveted or even to dare dream about. So I am reminded of the prophetic statement of Jon Landau in the early '70s. He said, "I have seen the future of Rock and Roll and it is not Leonard Cohen." So very pleased to be here. Such an unlikely event. To stand here among the inductees tonight is a great privilege and a great honor. Thank you friends.

The Biography

Inductee: Leonard Cohen
(vocals, guitar; born September 21, 1934)
Induction Year: 2008; Induction Category: Performer

With the 1966 release of In My Life by Judy Collins, containing Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” Leonard Cohen became a folk rock icon of the singer/songwriter movement. Already an acclaimed poet and novelist in his native Canada, Leonard Cohen moved to New York in 1967 and released his classic album Songs of Leonard Cohen on Columbia Records. Its music launched Leonard Cohen into the highest and most influential echelon of songwriters. Leonard Cohen’s elegiac work is widely used in film and covered by artists from Jeff Buckley to Bono to Bob Dylan to R.E.M. As Kurt Cobain said, “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally.”

There are few artists in the realm of popular music who can truly be called poets, in the classical, arts-and-letters sense of the word. Among them are Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs. Leonard Cohen heads this elite class. In fact, Leonard Cohen was already an established poet and novelist before he turned his attention to songwriting. His academic training in poetry and literature, and his pursuit of them as livelihood for much of the Fifties and Sixties, gave him an extraordinary advantage over his pop peers when it came to setting language to music. Along with other folk-steeped musical literati, Leonard Cohen raised the songwriting bar.

Leonard Cohen’s recording career spans 40 years, commencing with the 1967 release of his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. He was in his early thirties and seven years older than Bob Dylan, and his age set him apart from the young musicians who dominated the rock and folk worlds. Leonard Cohen was born and raised in the city of Montreal, a city whose rich history and thriving culture served to train his writer’s muse on three fundamental preoccupations: romance, religion and politics. His first musical group, the Buckskin Boys, played traditional music at square dances. He studied poetry at Montreal’s McGill University and published his first collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, as part of the McGill Poetry Series. His favorite literary figures included the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, the Canadian poet Irving Layton, and Beat Generation figurehead Jack Kerouac.

In 1958, Leonard Cohen lived in New York, where he briefly attended Columbia University. He received a grant for his writing that allowed him to travel the world and make the Greek island of Hydra his on-and-off home for a fertile seven-year period. Leonard Cohen relocated to the States in 1966 and tried his hand at songwriting, largely as a reaction to having experienced the starving lot of the poet and novelist. By then he’d published four books of poetry and two novels (including the celebrated Beautiful Losers). “But I found it was very difficult to pay my grocery bill,” Leonard Cohen said in 1971. “I’ve got beautiful reviews for all my books, and I’m very well thought of in the tiny circles that know me, but…I’m really starving.”

Beyond the promise of better income, his entrĂ©e into the music world greatly increased the audience for his poetry. Leonard Cohen has always been adamant about the power of words to change individual lives and even entire societies for the better. “I always feel that the world was created through words, through speech in our tradition, and I’ve always seen the enormous light in charged speech,” Leonard Cohen told interviewer Robert Sward. “That’s what I’ve tried to get to [and] that is where I squarely stand.”

Leonard Cohen found an early supporter and sponsor in Judy Collins, who introduced his songs to the world via her recordings of “Suzanne” (still his best-known song) and “Dress Rehearsal Rag” on her 1966 album In My Life. Legendary A&R man John Hammond signed Leonard Cohen to Columbia Records, and his first three albums for the label – Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate - represent the fruitful first phase in an episodic recording career. The hallmarks of Leonard Cohen’s style were his plainspoken vocals, spare arrangements, deep but accessible lyrics, and an abiding preoccupation with the feminine mystique. Leonard Cohen’s tightly constructed verses served the rhyming and meter demands of pop-song form without sacrificing the higher ends of poetry.

As a songwriter, Leonard Cohen seemed somewhat less comfortable in the Seventies than he had been in the Sixties, recording only four albums of new material – Songs of Love and Hate (1971), New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977) and Recent Songs (1979) – in that decade. The first and last of these were marked by strong songwriting and sympathetic production, whereas Death of a Ladies’ Man was marked by difficulties with producer Phil Spector.

Leonard Cohen’s output was lesser still in the Eighties, but the pair of albums he did release – Various Positions (1984) and I’m Your Man (1988) – are indisputable classics. The first of these found Leonard Cohen writing about spirituality; one of its songs (“Hallelujah”) is among his best-loved and most-recorded, having been covered by Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and Allison Krauss. The release of Various Positions was accompanied by the publication of Book of Mercy, a self-described “book of prayer.” I’m Your Man was arguably Leonard Cohen’s greatest set of songs since his 1967 debut, containing such classics as “Tower of Song,” “Everybody Knows” and “First We Take Manhattan.” In 1992, some of rock’s most respected acts, including R.E.M., the Pixies, and Nick Cave, contributed to the Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan. Another Leonard Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1995), included cover versions from more mainstream artists, including Don Henley, Billy Joel and Elton John.

Leonard Cohen’s most disenchanted and apocalyptic work, The Future, appeared in 1992. In the title track, he sang, “Get ready for the future, it is murder.” Not surprisingly, Leonard Cohen retreated to a mountaintop monastery in Southern California for five years, during which he studied with and served his Zen master, Joshu Sasaki-Roshi. “It was one of the many attempts I’ve made in the past 30 or 40 years to address acute clinical depression,” he acknowledged in a 2001 interview. That year, he released Ten New Songs, his first studio album in nearly a decade. He has since issued Dear Heather (2004) and produced Blue Alert (2006), an album by backup singer Anjani Thomas. Between their releases came the documentary I’m Your Man, which featured live performances of Leonard Cohen’s songs from U2, Beth Orton and others.

On his ties to Columbia Records, similar in mutual loyalty and longevity to the careers of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen told writer William Ruhlmann: “I never sold enough records to make them dependent on my next record or to make them anxious about it. On the other hand, I never lost them any money. [The records] seem to sell themselves in modest quantities with very little money necessary for promotion.”

Leonard Cohen has earned a better living as a singer/songwriter than he would have as a poet and novelist alone. Yet he’s enjoyed the poet’s advantage of not having to compromise his dignity by indulging in the often-distasteful rituals of pop celebrity. In other words, he’s drawn the best from both worlds, forging a wholly unique and remarkable niche for himself. There’s no denying that Leonard Cohen’s voice has deepened and coarsened over the years, but there’s still a marvelous musicality to his phrasing and poetical lilt to his lyrics that attests to an unquenchable spirit.

In his notes for The Essential Leonard Cohen, writer Pico Iyer noted, “The changeless is what he’s been about since the beginning…Some of the other great pilgrims of song pass through philosophies and selves as if through the stations of the cross. With Leonard Cohen, one feels he knew who he was and where he was going from the beginning, and only digs deeper, deeper, deeper.”

Leonard Cohen’s artistic outlook might best be expressed in his own words with this lyric from “Anthem”: On Anthem (1992), he wrote: “There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” He remarked, “That’s the closest thing I could describe to a credo. That idea is one of the fundamental positions behind a lot of the songs.”

"I always experience myself as falling apart, and I'm taking emergency measures," Leonard Cohen said fifteen years ago. "It's coming apart at every moment. I try Prozac. I try love. I try drugs. I try Zen meditation. I try the monastery. I try forgetting about all those strategies and going straight. And the place where the evaluation happens is where I write the songs, when I get to that place where I can't be dishonest about what I've been doing."

For four decades, Leonard Cohen has been a model of gut-wrenching emotional honesty. He is, without question, one of the most important and influential songwriters of our time, a figure whose body of work achieves greater depths of mystery and meaning as time goes on. His songs have set a virtually unmatched standard in their seriousness and range. Sex, spirituality, religion, power – he has relentlessly examined the largest issues in human lives, always with a full appreciation of how elusive answers can be to the vexing questions he raises. But those questions, and the journey he has traveled in seeking to address them, are the ever-shifting substance of his work, as well as the reasons why his songs never lose their overwhelming emotional force.

His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), announced him as an undeniable major talent. All quietness, restraint, and poetic intensity, its appearance amid the psychedelic frenzy of that year could not have made a starker point. It includes such songs as "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy," "So Long, Marianne," and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye," all now longstanding classics. If Leonard Cohen had never recorded another album, his daunting reputation would have been assured by this one alone. However, the two extraordinary albums that followed, Songs From a Room (1969), which includes his classic song "Bird on the Wire," and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), provided whatever proof anyone may have required that the greatness of his debut was not a fluke.

Part of the reason why Leonard Cohen's early work revealed such a high degree of achievement is that he was an accomplished literary figure before he ever began to record. His collections of poetry, including Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) and Flowers for Hitler (1964), and his novels, including Beautiful Losers (1966), had already brought him considerable recognition in his native Canada. His dual careers in music and literature have continued to feed each other over the decades – his songs revealing a literary quality rare in the world of popular music, and his poetry and prose informed by a rich musicality.

One of the most revered figures of the singer/songwriter movement of the late sixties and early seventies, Leonard Cohen soon developed a desire to move beyond the folk trappings of that genre. By temperament and approach, he had always been closer to the European art song – he once termed his work the "European blues." Add to that a fondness for country music, an ear for R&B-styled female background vocals, a sly appreciation for cabaret jazz, and a regard for rhythm not often encountered in singer/songwriters, and the extent of Leonard Cohen's musical palette becomes clear. Each of Leonard Cohen's albums reflects not simply the issues that are on his mind as a writer but the sonic landscape he wishes to explore, as well. The through-lines in his work, of course, his voice ("I was born with the gift of a golden voice," he has sung) and lyrics (he has described himself as "the little Jew who wrote the Bible"), are as distinctive as any in the world of music.

Leonard Cohen's 1974 album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which includes "Chelsea Hotel #2," a pointedly unsentimental account of his early years in New York City that included a tryst with Janis Joplin, found him making bolder use of orchestration, a contrast to the more stripped-down sound he had earlier preferred. Death of a Ladies' Man, his 1977 collaboration with Phil Spector, constitutes his most extreme experiment. Phil Spector's monumental "Wall of Sound" – the producer, Leonard Cohen once quipped, "was in his Wagnerian phase, when I hoped to find him in his Debussy phase" – proved an uncomfortable setting for Leonard Cohen's typically elliptical and almost painfully intimate lyrics (terms that, admittedly, would not apply to "Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On," on which Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg provide backing vocals. Over the years, Leonard Cohen has bitterly complained about Phil Spector's high-handed – and gun-wielding-ways, while occasionally expressing a kind of grudging affection for the album's uncharacteristic excesses. He has summed it up as "a grotesque, eccentric little moment."

Recent Songs (1979) and Various Positions (1984) returned Leonard Cohen to more recognizable sonic terrain, though the latter album is a perhaps misguided nod to the trend at the time of its release, prominently incorporated synthesizers. The objections didn't particularly bother Leonard Cohen. "People are always inviting me to return to a former purity I was never able to claim," he has said. Though not initially released in the States, Various Positions includes "Hallelujah," which has since become one of Leonard Cohen's best-known, best-loved, and most frequently covered songs, (Versions by Jeff Buckley and John Cale are especially notable.)

As the eighties and their garishness began to wane, Leonard Cohen's star began to rise again. The listeners who had grown up with him had reached an age at which they wanted to reexamine the music of their past, and a new generation of artists and fans discovered him, attracted by the dignity, ambition, and sheer quality of his songs. It is remarkable to this day how often Leonard Cohen's name comes up when young songwriters discuss their inspirations. Indeed, his work often seems to reside in that realm of the human heart that exists outside of time. Hence, it is timeless and always ripe for discovery and rediscovery.

Leonard Cohen rose to the opportunity that his new audience provided by releasing two consecutive albums, I'm Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992), that not only rank among the finest of his career but perfectly capture the texture of particularly complicated times. Leonard Cohen had long documented the high rate of casualties in the love wars, so the profound anxieties generated by the AIDS crisis were no news to him. Songs like "Ain't No Cure For Love," the wryly titled "I'm Your Man," and, most explicitly, "Everybody Knows" ("Everybody knows that the Plague is coming/Everybody knows that it's moving fast/Everybody knows that the naked man and woman are just a shining artifact of the past") depict Leonard Cohen surveying the contemporary erotic battleground and reporting on it with characteristic perspective, insight, wryness, and wisdom.

Similarly, in the title track of The Future, his immersion in Jewish culture, obsession with Christian imagery, and deep commitment to Buddhist detachment rendered him an ideal commentator on the approaching millennium and the apocalyptic fears it generated. Along with the album's title track, "Waiting for the Miracle," "Closing Time," "Anthem," and "Democracy" limned a cultural landscape rippling with dread but yearning for hope, "There is a crack in everything," Leonard Cohen sings in "Anthem," "That's how the light gets in." Our human imperfections, he seems to be saying, are finally what will bring us whatever transcendence we can attain.

In a 1993 Rolling Stone profile, Leonard Cohen described writing the songs on The Future and revealed a good deal about his notoriously painstaking process of composition. "The song will yield if you stick with it long enough," he explained. "But long enough is way beyond any reasonable idea you might have of what long enough is. It takes that long to peel the bullshit off. Every one of those songs began as a song that was easier to write. A lot of them were recorded with easier arrangements and easier lyrics...'The Future' began as a song called "If You Could See What's Coming Next." That point of view was a deflected point of view. I didn't have the guts to say, "I've seen the future, baby/It is murder."

Since then, Leonard Cohen has released Ten New Songs (2001) and Dear Heather (2004), as well as Blue Alert (2006), a collaboration on which Leonard Cohen produced and co-wrote songs with his partner and former background singer Anjani Thomas, who provides the vocals. All three albums have only solidified his place in the pantheon of contemporary songwriters. At seventy-three, Leonard Cohen continues to produce compelling work, while enjoying the honors that deservedly come to artists who have achieved legendary status. Documentaries, awards, tribute albums, the ongoing march of artists eager to record his songs, and, finally, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame all acknowledge the peerless contribution Leonard Cohen has made to what one of his titles aptly calls "The Tower of Song."

And he is still laboring hard in the tower. "I think as long as you can crawl into the workshop, you should do the work" he has said. "I always saw those old guys coming down to work, whatever job I happened to be in. Something about that always got to me. I'd like to be one of those old guys going to work."


September 21, 1934: Leonard Cohen is born in Montreal, Canada.

1956: Let Us Compare Mythologies, Leonard Cohen’s first book of poetry, is published in Canada as part of the McGill Poetry Series.

1966: Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen’s second novel, is published.

July 16, 1967: Leonard Cohen's Newport Folk Festival debut with Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and Columbia Records' John Hammond.

December 1967: Songs of Leonard Cohen, the poet/novelist’s debut as a singer/songwriter, is released. It contains “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy,” among his best-known songs.

April 1969: Songs from a Room, Leonard Cohen’s second album, is issued. From it comes “Bird on the Wire” and other favorites.

March 1971: Songs of Love and Hate, Leonard Cohen’s third album, is released. It is highlighted by “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc.”

November 1974: New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Leonard Cohen’s fourth album of original material, is released. Its original cover is banned in the U.S.

November 1977: Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man – a Phil Spector production – is released. It will be followed by Leonard Cohen’s book Death of a Lady’s Man.

September 1979: Leonard Cohen’s Recent Songs, is released. The Songs of Leonard Cohen, a documentary, is filmed in Canada and Europe the same year.

December 1984: Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions is released abroad. PVC Records issues it in the U.S. two months later after his label, Columbia Records, passes on it.

January 1987: Jennifer Warnes, who has sung backup with Leonard Cohen as Jennifer Warren, issues Famous Blue Raincoat, an album of covers from Leonard Cohen’s songbook.

April 19, 1988: I’m Your Man, by Leonard Cohen, is released. Arguably the poet-singer’s best album since his first, it includes “Tower of Song” and “Everybody Knows.”

November 10, 1989: Songs of Leonard Cohen, the singer/poet’s 1967 debut, is certified gold by the RIAA.

November 26, 1991: The Leonard Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan is released. It includes cover versions by R.E.M., the Pixies and other indie-rock acts.

November 24, 1992: Leonard Cohen releases The Future, a dyspeptic album reflecting a mental state that inspires a five-year retreat.

November 2, 1993: Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, by Leonard Cohen, is published by Pantheon Books. The 432-page collection was assembled by the poet/singer himself.

September 26, 1995: Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen is released. Contributors include Don Henley, Billy Joel, Peter Gabriel, Elton John, and other stars.

October 9, 2001: Leonard Cohen releases Ten New Songs, his tenth studio album, his first new album in nine years, and his first to chart in the U.S. since 1973’s Live Songs.

October 22, 2002: The Essential Leonard Cohen, a double-disc retrospective compiled by the artist, is released.

August 31, 2004: Judy Collins, whose recordings of Leonard Cohen’s songs introduced the world to the singer/poet in the late Sixties, releases Democracy: Judy Collins Sings Leonard Cohen.

October 26, 2004: Dear Heather, Leonard Cohen’s second studio album of the new millennium and the 11th of his career, is released shortly after the artist turns 70.

September 2005: Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man, premieres at the Toronto Film Festival. The documentary includes tribute-concert footage from Sydney, Australia.

April 24, 2007: Leonard Cohen’s first three albums – Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room and Songs of Love and Hate – are reissued in expanded editions to mark his 40th anniversary as a recording artist.

December 11, 2007: Composer Philip Glass’ Book of Longing – a double-disc song cycle based on the poetry and images of Leonard Cohen – is released on the Orange Mountain Music label.

March 10, 2008: Leonard Cohen is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the 23rd annual induction ceremony and dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Lou Reed is the presenter. Damien Rice performs "Hallelujah."