Five in 5: Dr. Brian Fauteux on the Legacy of Leonard Cohen
March 7, 2017
Poet, songwriter, novelist, ladies man: Leonard Cohen was many things to many people.
Since his warm embrace by Montreal’s literary scene in the 1950s, Cohen’s singular voice propelled him to the fore of Canadian arts and culture. In 1967, he released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and quickly found an expanded audience. Cohen’s masterful lyricism and ability to interweave themes of love, sex, death and faith garnered countless awards and a lifelong career as a recording and performing artist. His final album, You Want it Darker, was released three weeks prior to his death to critical acclaim.
Yet Cohen was never satisfied by worldly success—his life was marked by long periods of solitude and a lifelong quest for spirituality. Religious and spiritual themes were ever-present in his work, and followed him from his early days as a young writer to his ordinance as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996. As Cohen’s life progressed, his search for meaning intensified and found expression in religion, the recording studio, onstage, and on the page.
We spoke with UAlberta professor and musicologist Dr. Brian Fauteux to learn more about Leonard Cohen’s fascinating and multifaceted story.
Sound Studies Initiative: Leonard Cohen was publishing poetry for nearly a decade before he released his first recording as a singer-songwriter in 1967. What do you think fueled this artistic transition?
Brian Fauteux: A distinctive aspect of Cohen’s musical career is that he released his first album in his early-30s, emerging as a songwriter who was notably older than many of the rock and folk musicians who were popular at the time. It has been said that he finally decided to pursue a recording career for economic reasons. His written works were not selling as well as he had hoped and music seemed to be a way to generate a decent living. He also wanted to be able to reach more people with his words and his voice and music helped him to do this. However, while he was publishing poetry, he often performed with a guitar and his written work was shaped by the instrument. Cohen also played the guitar when he was young and at summer camp and played in a band in the early 1950s while a student at McGill University. He felt that there was little difference between writing a poem and writing a song. So, there is a longer relationship with music that preceded the official start of his recording career.
SSI: Cohen was linked to several prominent artists early in his career: Lou Reed, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg. Which of these contemporaries had the greatest impact on his writing and/or musical style?
BF: Judy Collins was a major champion of Cohen while he was beginning his career as a songwriter. Collins featured him as part of a singer-songwriter workshop at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967 and had a hit with Cohen’s “Suzanne” on her In My Life (1966) before he released his first album (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967). This, of course, helped to build an audience for his songs and to support his transition from the written word to song. I’m tempted to say that Dylan might have had the biggest influence on Cohen’s actual style, however. If we think of Dylan’s releases in 1965, Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, these albums were released just a few years before Cohen became a recording artist and they were very influential in terms of demonstrating how words and lyrics could have a poetic quality within popular song. Cohen was a big fan of these albums and I’m guessing he found, in Dylan’s work, a model for how he could combine his poetry with song. Although it was less substantial than the folk scene New York City, Montreal also had a vibrant scene in the 1960s. Both artists spoke their lyrics at times, Dylan was cited frequently in reviews of Songs of Leonard Cohen, and both artists have been used to debate whether or not pop lyrics should be considered poetry.
SSI: Some of Cohen’s written works were criticized in the 1960s for being too racy. How was his music pushing the envelope at the time? Did it stand out from other folk music being released?
BF: I’m not extremely familiar with Cohen’s written works but I do recall that Beautiful Losers generated a mixed response from critics. Robert Fulford, in the Toronto Star, I believe, called it revolting but also the Canadian book of the year. Lou Reed expressed appreciation for Cohen’s written works around the time Cohen turned to music. I think this speaks to the fact that music in the late 1960s was a platform for dealing with some of the more serious or racy themes that Cohen was drawn to. Rock and folk were musical genres that were being taken seriously in the late 1960s, due in part to the fact that they dealt with themes of sex, war, and spirituality, often with introspective lyrics, but there is something about Cohen’s music at that time that sounds even more dense and serious. His first album was released at the end of 1967, just after the Summer of Love, but he sounds much darker than some of his contemporaries, communicating a sense of loneliness a little bit of self-pity as well. The sound of his early folk music is a little more simplistic too.
SSI: Cohen’s music was secular but consistently drew upon sacred themes and archetypes. It seems that many artists are not able to blend these themes so easily or successfully – what made his work different?
BF: Cohen excelled at blending themes of romance with sacred themes and archetypes. This was evident on early songs like “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne,” but also incredibly present on one of his most well-known hits, “Hallelujah.” The song has been called a “secular hymn” and Maclean’s described it as the closest thing in pop music to a sacred text. Obviously, a major contribution of Cohen’s artistic output is that it demonstrates that people can have significant spiritual connections to secular popular music. I can’t say for sure why Cohen was so effective at blending the secular and the sacred. Perhaps this is due to the amount of time and thought that went into his writing. “Hallelujah” took five years to write! He has also said that he wanted to be a songwriter to please both women and God. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he grew up as a Jewish boy in Anglophone Westmount (a wealthy neighbourhood west of downtown Montreal) where Jews and Protestants were grouped together by virtue of not being French or Catholic. Montreal is a city full of sacred symbolism (for instance, the giant illuminated cross atop Mount Royal that overlooks the city) but it’s also very much a secular urban space.
SSI: If there was a universal message that one could glean from Cohen’s artistic output, what might it be?
BF: This is a tough one because I feel as though music means different things to different people. Cohen’s career is also very multifaceted. However, there is an admirable aspect of persistence to Cohen’s artistic output. His musical career spans 50 years (1967 to 2016) and he didn’t really find immediate widespread success with his first albums. His early albums were better received in Europe and the U.K. than the U.S. and some of his biggest successes came later, with songs like 1984’s “Hallelujah” (especially after it had been covered by John Cale and Jeff Buckley) and albums like 1988’s I’m Your Man. Although he was in and out of relationships and moved between different cities and places – Montreal, New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, Hydra, Mumbai – he always returned to music and continued to write songs about universal feelings and themes such as romance, religion, war, and social justice. And he did so with sounds and styles that changed and evolved. I’m thinking especially of his move from the guitar to writings songs with a Casio keyboard and synthesizers, developing a dark/synthpop sound that is distinct from his earlier minimalist/folk sound. Because of this, his music has reached many people across generations and his songs have been covered by countless artists from a wide variety of genres. The tribute album, I’m Your Fan from 1991, featured covers by a new generation of artists such as The Pixies and R.E.M. Kurt Cobain famously acknowledged Cohen in his lyrics for “Pennyroyal Tea.” His persistence has left us with such a commendable body of work that has evidently touched many listeners and other artists in important ways.
Join Dr. Brian Fauteux and other UAlberta professors in appreciating another folk music artist and luminary at next week’s “Let’s Celebrate the 2016 Nobel Prize: Bob Dylan”. This event will celebrate Dylan’s songs in various languages, feature an exhibition and round table discussion, and include a keynote speech by Dr. Fauteux, titled: “Bob Dylan, Storytelling, and the ‘Authentic Celebrity’”.
The event takes place this Tuesday March 14th, 2017 at Convocation Hall from 5 – 7:00PM. All are welcome, and refreshments will be served! For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This event has been sponsored by KIAS, Faculty of Arts, Canadian Center for Ethnomusicology, Sound Studies Initiative, the Department of Modern Languages and SCultural Studies, and the Music Department at the University of Alberta.