“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded…
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
Everybody knows that the war is over…
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight was fixed…
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
That’s how it goes.”
Leonard Cohen is a modern day renaissance man. His catalog of recordings and songwriting credits is one of the most substantial in popular music. In addition, he is a noted author and visual artist, hailed in most literary circles as a writer of historical importance. Whatever the creative forum, Cohen always approaches the themes of religion and sexuality with an objective and critical mind. His songs are best known through their many cover versions, but his lyrics must be heard in his own soulful baritone voice to appreciate the lyrical nature of his poetry. Delivery is the key to understanding why his songs work on more than just a literary level. The fine line between the written word and the emotional connection between singer and listener is what separates Leonard Cohen from other writers. He understands that in addition to expressing his mind, he must also express his heart.
Raised in Montreal, Canada, his early years were spent honing his writing talent due to financial security enabled by his father’s untimely death and his mother’s literary and intellectual influence. He spent his college years travelling the world, publishing the occasional book of poetry (1956’s “Let Us Compare Mythologies” being the first of a string of poetry collections and novels) and gaining literary accolades from The Boston Globe and New York Times. His success as a writer continued to support his artistic endeavors, refraining from performing music until his thirties. Judy Collins, quite a popular performer in the mid sixties, recorded several Cohen songs, most notably the ballad ‘Suzanne’. This sudden notoriety led to an appearance at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival and a recording contract with Columbia Records, signed by the legendary John Hammond. His debut, “The Songs of Leonard Cohen” was a hit and sold over a million albums on the strength of the spare production and expert delivery of the written material. This album was a sign of the times, a folk album written for a cerebral audience of liberal thinkers. Several releases followed, to great attention and affection from the folk community. Cohen appeared throughout the early seventies as a performer with one foot in the music world and one in the literary world, as he continued to publish novels, as well as perform his music to appreciative audiences.
The turn in his recorded work came with the Phil Spector produced “Death of a Ladies Man” in 1977. A departure from his often stark production values, Spector created an album that took Cohen out of his comfort zone with lush arrangements and overdubbed vocal backings. A critical failure, the album signified a willingness to move his music towards a more pop and R&B influenced musical palette. 1984’s “Various Positions” and 1988’s “I’m Your Man” contained some of Cohen’s signature songs and most covered compositions, continuing his venture into new musical territory. ‘Everybody Knows’ appeared on the latter and was a wry comment on sexuality and relationships in the modern world. Like other songs from this period, the backing music is a sultry blues, giving the listener a taste of the author’s humor and wit. At the time of release, they were well received and gave his musical inheritors a new set of standards to pursue. In addition to ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Tower of Song’ and ‘I’m Your Man’, from the same period, this song has become Cohen’s latter day trademark.
The nineties were another decade of personal expansion for Leonard Cohen, with religious expeditions and personal writing occupying his mind. It wasn’t until 2001’s “Ten New Songs” that he emerged with a renewed interest in his musical career, also issuing the 2004 album “Dear Heather” and touring for the first time in decades in the late 2000s. His songs were becoming hits during this period as well, with cover versions of ‘Hallelujah’ topping sales charts and exposing his writing to another generation of music lovers. Most performers spend their twilight years reflecting on mortality, but Cohen seems to be in the same mindset that he always has been: working through personal issues of faith and redemption as a man more interested in the journey than the destination.