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Not giving up is a theme of Leonard Cohen’s life, says U of T expert

Leonard Cohen performing in Ottawa in 2012 (photo by rparson86 via Flickr)

When SNL's Kate McKinnon put on her Hillary Clinton outfit last week and performed Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, video of the TV show went viral. 

The unusually sombre note seemed to resonate with people at the end of a week that saw both the conclusion of an embittered election with Donald Trump as the next U.S. president-elect and the death of a literary and music icon. 

Since Cohen's death Nov. 7, fans around the world have joined celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Alanis Morissette, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and many others in sharing their condolences online.  

Cohen’s legacy continues here at U of T where boxes of his correspondence and works are archived and available for the public at U of T’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. 

Read more about Fisher's collection of Leonard Cohen's letters, manuscripts

U of T News talked with music and technology expert Catherine Moore, an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Music, about Cohen’s influence on music, culture and society. 

How did Cohen’s approach to songwriting set him apart? 

Leonard Cohen would speak about how much he laboured over his lyrics. Every word mattered and he revised and revised. Songs didn't flow from him effortlessly. Because Cohen was a strong poet and novelist before he became a musician, he had the writer’s perseverance and skill to battle through the songwriting work when lesser artists would have given up.

Not giving up is a theme through Cohen's life. He had plenty of business rejections (most notably in 1984 when his record label rejected Various Positions, the album that contains Hallelujah), and didn't really "fit" into the music trends around him. That gave his songs autonomy and strength to stand on their own.

How did Cohen’s relationships with his contemporaries influence his work, and the work of other artists? 

There are countless stories of Cohen’s work-, love- and accomplice-relationships with so many musicians of his generation. 

His songs, too, have their own relationships with the vast number of performers – many of whom are accomplished songwriters themselves who sing them. Those interpretations have spread Cohen's music far wider than even his own recordings and live shows.

Leonard Cohen's legacy is a mix of humour, spirituality, light through darkness, graciousness, and deep consciousness of what really matters in life. Can others copy that? Hard to say for sure, but it's pretty unlikely. However, if we but aspire to all those things, we will benefit from Cohen's life-giving energy.

How did Cohen enjoy longevity in an increasingly competitive music industry?

Due to today’s easy digital access to tens of millions of songs online, people of all ages explore more music styles than ever before. 

This means that for Cohen's recent concert tour, tens of thousands of people who were far too young to have remembered Cohen in the 1960s and 1970s could easily get to know Cohen's music before seeing him perform live. That in turn is one reason why – in the fifth decade of his performing career – Leonard Cohen could sell out a big international tour and perform new songs.

His most recent tours were anything but the "farewell & greatest hits" shows that are common today from veteran artists. But others aren't like him. They don't keep trying to write new songs. Leonard Cohen worked to create new songs, we read in the news this week, until his very last days on earth. 

Your favourite Leonard Cohen song? 

I'm certainly not alone in this, but it's Hallelujah for me. I've heard it in so many contexts and languages, by so many different artists in huge public settings like the 2010 Vancouver Olympics (K.D. Lang), and in intimate clubs by performers just starting out. 

I've seen how Jeff Buckley's recording is for a couple of generations of students the first time they hear any song written by Cohen. 

The song is different every time I hear it because the lyrics have so many interpretations, and I enjoy second-guessing myself about their meaning. Finally, I relish the story that Cohen wrote as many as 80 verses for Hallelujah, and allowed other artists to pick and choose the ones that meant the most to them.