Cohen released a new album this year, Old Ideas, and performed several songs from it during the concert, which ran three hours, including an intermission.
“Mr. Cohen places his songs between the earthbound and the sublime,” wrote The New York Times, “and his performance embodied that contrast in the vocals: his grave voice, a baritone that has lately been plunging toward bass but will still carry a tune, and the weightless near-whispers of his female backup singers.”
Cohen was born in 1934 in the English-speaking area of Montreal, Quebec, into a middle-class Jewish family. His mother, Marsha (Masha) Klonitsky, was the daughter of a Talmudic writer, Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline, who was of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. His paternal grandfather, whose family had emigrated from Poland, was Lyon Cohen, founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. His father, Nathan Cohen, who owned a clothing store, died when Cohen was nine years old.
After performing at a few folk festivals in the 1960s, Cohen came to the attention of Columbia Records representative John H. Hammond, who signed Cohen to a record deal. His first album was titled Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967). He followed that up with Songs from a Room in 1969 and Songs of Love and Hate in 1970.
He recorded the soundtrack for Robert Altman’s 1971 revisionist western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The film starred Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, and Cohen’s melodic, lyrical songs and music were integral to the film’s narrative.
In 1973, Cohen traveled to Jerusalem to sign up on the Israeli side in the Yom Kippur War, but instead was assigned to a USO-style entertainer tour of front-line tank emplacements in the Sinai Desert where he came under fire.
Cohen describes himself as an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath even while on tour. But he also practices Buddhism, something he has been involved with since the 1970s. In 1996, he was ordained a Buddhist monk, however, he is still religiously Jewish. “I’m not looking for a new religion,” he has said. “I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.”
Cohen has been inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is also a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In 2011, Cohen, who is also a poet and novelist, received the Prince of Asturias Award for literature.
“I hope that we’ll be on the road for a few more years at least,” Cohen said during his recent concert. And from the approval of his audience, that is something his fans hope too.