With Leonard Cohen’s new album, Old Ideas, dropping this week, the planet’s most beloved black-humored troubadour is bound to receive an avalanche of attention in the media (as opposed to the more existential “Avalanche” he sang of back in 1971), reiterating the same small string of facts fans have read a million times before and long since assimilated into their collective memory. On his 1988 comeback album, I’m Your Man, Cohen spent an entire song enumerating the many things that “Everybody Knows,” so as an antidote to the tired trunk of tropes that will almost certainly be unloaded via Cohen reviews and articles in the days to come, here are a few fresh facts you might not be familiar with about the self-proclaimed “grocer of despair.”
1. Phil Spector endangered Leonard’s life
Phil Spector is currently rotting in jail for the murder of Lana Clarkson, but if things had played out a little differently back in the ‘70s, the legendary producer and notorious psycho could have been doing time for making the title of Leonard Cohen’s 1977 album, Death of a Ladies’ Man, a literal one. Spector’s penchant for waving guns around is well known, but when Cohen entered into an ill-conceived partnership with him for Ladies’ Man, the producer displayed what Cohen later called “megalomania and insanity and a devotion to armaments that was really intolerable.” The nadir came when Spector approached Cohen bearing “a bottle of kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder and shoved the revolver into my neck and said ‘Leonard, I love you.’ I said, ‘I hope you do, Phil.’” Apparently, he loved Cohen so much he employed armed guards to keep him from finishing his vocal tracks, locking the singer out of the studio so he could complete the album on his own, using Cohen’s scratch vocal takes.
2. Joni Mitchell Was a Leonard Lady
Through the decades, Cohen has been known for affairs with female artists several years his junior. His romance with Rebecca De Mornay and his fling with Janis Joplin (the latter chronicled in Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”) are well known, as is his more recent relationship with singer/songwriter Anjani Thomas. Less widely circulated is the love story of two great Canadian songpoets – Cohen and Joni Mitchell. They first met at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival, becoming an item not long after; alas, their coupling lasted only a matter of weeks, from 1967 into ’68, before heartbreaker Lenny either ended or instigated the end of the affair, depending on which account you believe, but Mitchell seemingly got some good songs out of it. Her “Rainy Night House,” “That Song About the Midway,” and “The Gallery” are all alleged to be about her onetime boyfriend. The most comprehensive account of this ‘60s folk fling can be found here.
3. He had no time for hippies
Sure, Cohen may have gotten a little scruffy around the edges for a little while in the early ‘70s, but for most of his life he’s been a nattily attired, carefully groomed sophisticate, favoring Italian suits and expensive haircuts over t-shirts and jeans. Don’t forget, before entering into music, he was a star of academia as a renowned poet and novelist in Canada, and by the time the Summer of Love rolled around, he was already comfortably ensconced in his thirties. So even though he quickly became something of a counterculture cult hero, it shouldn’t be shocking that even in the Age of Aquarius, Cohen expressed distaste for hippiedom. Before beginning his set at the famous 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, he looked out at the huddled hippie masses that made up the audience and remarked of the blossoming love generation, “It’s a large nation but it’s still weak, still very weak. It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to land.” In an interview many years later, Cohen tellingly mused on the march of time and the end of the hippie era, paraphrasing British author and Anglican priest William Inge, “He who marries the spirit of his own generation is a widower in the next.”
4. He was Charlie Daniels’ boss
You might not think there’d be much common ground between down-home fiddlemeister Charlie Daniels, famed for swamp stomp “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and the moody Montrealite with a passion for adapting Lorca poems into song. You’d be wrong. In fact, just before he started getting his solo career off the ground, Daniels was in Cohen’s first real backing band, a batch of Nashville cats ironically dubbed The Army. He played guitar, bass, and fiddle for the rising folk phenomenon, appearing on 1969’s Songs From a Room and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate, and touring Europe with Cohen – he can be seen on the DVD of Cohen’s set at the aforementioned Isle of Wight fest. During that tribulation-fraught tour, a seemingly more pacific Daniels than the one who scored a hit in 1980 with the jingoistic anthem “In America” is quoted as saying “I didn’t come over here to fight no war — I’m just a guitar player!”
5. Cohen was a country boy
Ever since I’m Your Man, we’ve become used to the idea of Cohen as a musical postmodernist whose albums are populated by minimalist synth lines. Even before that, he earned an image as an urbane architect of genteel art songs. But if you look back at his beginnings, Cohen is a country boy at heart. Not only did some of his best early works employ the talents of Nashville pickers, as mentioned above, but his very first foray into the music world was as a member of country crew the Buckskin Boys. In his late teens, Cohen was quite literally playing “Turkey in the Straw” at square dances in Montreal, in a group he says earned its name because “Curiously enough, we found we all had buckskin jackets.” The country feeling must have stuck with him to some extent — decades later he was singing about Hank Williams occupying a place “a hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song.”