"I don't have a good voice. Everyone knows that," admits Leonard Cohen in the documentary "Bird on a Wire". Cohen's self-deprecating and gracious personality has contributed to his status as an icon in the music world. But it is his poetry, not his voice, that draws people to his music.
Writing was Cohen's first love. In the '60s, he produced several novels and a poetry collection. He was considered an important artist on the Canadian poetry scene at the time, but poetry doesn't pay well. Cohen had switched his focus to music by the end of the decade, but he continued to write and has produced several book-length works over the course of his music career.
The line between poetry and songwriting is an ethereal one. Cohen's song "A Thousand Kisses Deep" began its life as a poem of the same name, for instance, and most of his lyrics read a poems. But music brought Cohen's words to a mass audience. He had no illusions about his voice, and always kept his focus firmly on the words, but over the years his gravelly, growling delivery evolved and audiences today love his sound almost as much as they love his content.
Cohen's catalog of music, developed over a fifty year career, explores themes of love, sex, religion, politics, and depression. His work is informed by a complicated spirituality — Cohen is both Jewish and Zen Buddhist, and has spent time in a Buddhist monastery. How does he combine the two? Cohen addressed the issue in a 2009 Rolling Stone interview, saying "Well, for one thing, in the tradition of Zen that I've practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief."
His haunting ballad, "Hallelujah," is a confusing lyrical blend of the spiritual and the personal, a poetic song filled with tender spirituality and vulnerability. "Hallelujah" has been performed by 200 artists in a variety of languages and has sold over two million copies. The song was made famous by Jeff Buckley and the movie "Shrek", but many fans of the song have never heard of Leonard Cohen.
Cohen's fans know the song is his, though, and they'd rather hear Cohen's simple, honest delivery than anyone else's. Cohen's most recent world tour was in 2013. At the age of 78, he was still enthralling audiences and drawing rave reviews.
"…seeing Cohen live is like going to see a finished masterpiece by an Old Master. His three-hour sets are the Sistine Chapel ceiling of live performance: their exquisite beauty renders you silent, sometimes tearful but always grateful to have been able to experience such radiance and majesty." Bernadette McNulty of the Telegraph wrote this glowing review of a Cohen concert in June of 2013. Cohen still skips onstage, wearing a rakish fedora, and enchants audiences with his humble personality, honest delivery, and obvious intelligence. He can still hold an audience spellbound, engaging them with his melancholy voice, his creative vision, and his wrenching poetic expression.