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Poet and singer Leonard Cohen was born 89 years ago today
Leonard Cohen in concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, May 17, 2009
Photo by Frank Beacham
Leonard Cohen was born 89 years ago today.
A Canadian singer-songwriter, musician, poet and novelist, Cohen often explored religion, isolation, sexuality and interpersonal relationships.
The critic Bruce Eder wrote an assessment of Cohen's overall career in popular music, writing, "[Cohen is] one of the most fascinating and enigmatic. . . singer/songwriters of the late '60s. . . [and] has retained an audience across four decades of music-making. . . Second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon) [in terms of influence], he commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s who is still working at the outset of the 21st century."
The Academy of American Poets has commented more broadly on Cohen's overall career in the arts, including his work as a poet, novelist and songwriter, stating that "[Cohen's] successful blending of poetry, fiction, and music is made most clear in Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, published in 1993, which gathered more than two hundred of Cohen's poems . . . several novel excerpts, and almost sixty song lyrics. . .While it may seem to some that Leonard Cohen departed from the literary in pursuit of the musical, his fans continue to embrace him as a Renaissance man who straddles the elusive artistic borderlines."
Cohen was born in Westmount, an English-speaking area of Montreal, Quebec, into a middle-class Jewish family. His mother, Marsha (Masha) Klonitsky, was the daughter of a Talmudic writer, Rabbi Solomon Klonitsky-Kline of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry.
His paternal grandfather, whose family had emigrated from Poland, was Lyon Cohen, founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. His father, Nathan Cohen, who owned a substantial clothing store, died when Cohen was nine years old.
On the topic of his family, Cohen said "I had a very Messianic childhood." He told Richard Goldstein in 1967: "I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest."
Cohen attended Roslyn Elementary School and, from 1948, Westmount High School, where he was involved with the student council and studied music and poetry. He became especially interested in the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. As a teenager, he learned to play the guitar, and formed a country-folk group called The Buckskin Boys.
Although he initially played a regular acoustic guitar, he soon switched to playing a classical guitar after meeting a young Spanish flamenco guitar player who taught him "a few chords and some flamenco." Cohen frequented Saint-Laurent Boulevard where he went for fun, and ate at places such as the Main Deli Steak House.
According to journalist David Sax, the Main Deli was where Cohen and one of his cousins would go to "...watch the gangsters, pimps and wrestlers dance around the night."
Cohen also enjoyed visiting the previously raucous bars of Old Montreal as well as Saint Joseph's Oratory, which had the closest restaurant near Westmount where he and his friend, Mort Rosengarten, could go for coffee and a smoke. After moving out of Westmount, Cohen purchased a place in the previous working-class neighborhood of Montreal's Little Portugal on Saint-Laurent Boulevard where he read his poetry at various surrounding clubs.
It is also during his time there in the small neighborhood that he wrote the lyrics to what would become some of his most famous songs.
In 1951, Cohen enrolled at McGill University, where he became president of the McGill Debating Union and won the Chester MacNaghten Literary Competition for the poems "Sparrows" and "Thoughts of a Landsman."
Cohen published his first poems in March, 1954 in the magazine CIV/n. The issue also included poems by Cohen's poet-professors (who were also on the editorial board), Irving Layton and Louis Dudek. Cohen graduated from McGill the following year with a B.A. degree.
His literary influences during this time included William Butler Yeats, Irving Layton (who taught political science at McGill and became both Cohen's mentor and friend), Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca and Henry Miller.
His first published book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), was published by Dudek as the first book in the McGill Poetry Series the year after Cohen's graduation. The book contained "poems written largely when Cohen was between the ages of fifteen and twenty." Cohen dedicated the book to his late father. The well-known Canadian literary critic, Northrop Frye, wrote a review of the book in which he gave Cohen "restrained praise."
After completing his undergraduate degree, Cohen spent a term in McGill's law school and then a year (1956–1957) at the School of General Studies at Columbia University. Cohen described his graduate school experience as "passion without flesh, love without climax."
Consequently, Cohen left New York and returned to Montreal in 1957, working various odd jobs and focusing on the writing of fiction and poetry, including the poems for his next book, The Spice-Box of Earth (1961), which was the first book that Cohen published through the Canadian publishing company, McClelland & Stewart.
Fortunately for Cohen, his father's will provided him with a modest trust income, sufficient to allow him to pursue his literary ambitions for the time, and The Spice-Box of Earth was successful in helping to expand the audience for Cohen's poetry, helping him reach out to the poetry scene in Canada, outside the confines of McGill University. The book also helped Cohen gain critical recognition as an important new voice in Canadian poetry.
One of Cohen's biographers, Ira Nadel, stated that "reaction to the finished book was enthusiastic and admiring...the critic Robert Weaver found it powerful and declared that Cohen was 'probably the best young poet in English Canada right now.'"
Cohen continued to write poetry and fiction throughout much of the 1960s and preferred to live in quasi-reclusive circumstances after he bought a house on Hydra, a Greek island in the Saronic Gulf. While living and writing on Hydra, Cohen published the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964), and the novels, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966).
His novel, The Favourite Game, was an autobiographical bildungsroman about a young man who discovers his identity through writing. Beautiful Losers received a good deal of attention from the Canadian press and stirred up controversy because of a number of sexually graphic passages.
In 1966, Cohen also published, Parasites of Heaven, a book of poems. Both Beautiful Losers and Parasites of Heaven received mixed reviews and sold few copies. Subsequently, Cohen published less, with major gaps, concentrating more on recording songs.
In 1978, he published his first book of poetry in many years, Death of a Lady's Man (not to be confused with the album he released the previous year with the similar title, Death of a Ladies' Man).
It was not until 1984 that Cohen published his next book of poems, Book of Mercy, which won him the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for Poetry. The book contains 50 prose-poems, influenced by the Hebrew Bible and Zen writings. Cohen himself referred to the pieces as "prayers.”
In 1993, Cohen published Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, and in 2006, after 10 years of delays, additions and rewritings, Book of Longing. The Book of Longing is dedicated to the poet, Irving Layton.
Also, during the late 1990s and 2000s, many of Cohen's new poems and lyrics were first published on the fan website, The Leonard Cohen Files, including the original version of the poem "A Thousand Kisses Deep" (which Cohen later adapted for a song).
Cohen's writing process, as he told an interviewer in 1998, is "like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I'm stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it's delicious and it's horrible and I'm in it and it's not very graceful and it's very awkward and it's very painful and yet there's something inevitable about it."
In 1967, disappointed with his lack of financial success as a writer, Cohen moved to the United States to pursue a career as a folk music singer-songwriter. During the 1960s, he was a fringe figure in Andy Warhol's "Factory" crowd. Warhol speculated that Cohen had spent time listening to Nico in clubs and that this had influenced his musical style.
His song, "Suzanne," became a hit for Judy Collins and was for many years his most covered song. After performing at a few folk festivals, he came to the attention of Columbia Records representative, John H. Hammond, who signed Cohen to a record deal.
Cohen's first album was Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967). Although Hammond was originally supposed to produce the record, he was ill and was replaced by the producer, John Simon. Simon and Cohen clashed over instrumentation and mixing. Cohen wanted the album to have a spare sound, while Simon felt the songs could benefit from arrangements that included strings and horns.
According to biographer, Ira Nadel, although Cohen was able to make changes to the mix, some of Simon's additions "couldn't be removed from the four-track master tape." Nevertheless, the album became a cult favorite in the U.S., as well as in the UK, where it spent over a year on the album charts.
Several of the songs on that first album were covered by other popular folk artists, including James Taylor and Judy Collins. Cohen followed up that first album with Songs from a Room (1969) (featuring the often-recorded "Bird on the Wire") and Songs of Love and Hate (1971).
Both of these albums were produced in Nashville by Bob Johnston, who helped Cohen achieve the sparer sound that he'd been after on his first album. Johnston also joined Cohen on two subsequent live tours, playing organ and piano. In 1970, Cohen toured for the first time, with dates in the United States, Canada and Europe, and appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival.
He toured again in Europe and Israel in 1972 with some of the same band-mates, including Charlie Daniels and his producer, Bob Johnston. The band was nicknamed "The Army." Both tours were represented on the Live Songs LP. Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 was released in 2009.
The 1972 tour was also filmed by Tony Palmer under the title, Bird on a Wire, which was shown re-cut under Cohen's guidance in 1974. It was only released to the public in 2010, reconstructed according to Palmer's original version.
In 1971, the film director, Robert Altman, featured "The Stranger Song," "Winter Lady" and "Sisters of Mercy" (all from Cohen's debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen) on the soundtrack for his Western film, McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
In 1976, Cohen embarked on a new major European tour with a new band and changes in his sound and arrangements, again, in support of his The Best of Leonard Cohen release (in Europe retitled as Greatest Hits).
Laura Branigan was one of his back-up singers during the tour, and the set-list included the unreleased songs "Everybody's Child" (a.k.a. "Blessed Is the Memory") and "Storeroom" (both released as bonus tracks to 2007 reissue of Songs of Leonard Cohen), and the new song "Do I Have to Dance All Night?" (which was released as a single with the song, "The Butcher," in a single available in Europe only).
From April to July, Cohen gave 55 shows, including his first appearance at the famous Montreux Jazz Festival. After the European tour of 1976, Cohen again attempted a new change in his style and arrangements. His new 1977 record, Death of a Ladies' Man (one year later, in 1978, was released.
Cohen also released a volume of poetry with the coyly revised title, Death of a Lady's Man), was co-written and produced by Phil Spector, known as the inventor of the "Wall of Sound" technique, which backs up pop music with many layers of instrumentation, an approach very different from Cohen's usually minimalist instrumentation.
The recording of the album was fraught with difficulty — Spector reportedly mixed the album in secret studio sessions, and Cohen said Spector once threatened him with a crossbow. Cohen thought the end result "grotesque," but also "semi-virtuous."
The record was released by Spector's label, Warner, and was returned to Columbia's Cohen catalog in the late 1980s. Cohen did not take part in the album's promotion, but in his tours of 1979, 1980 and 1985, he performed two songs from the album, "Memories" and "Iodine." However, Cohen chose not to include any of the album's songs on his later compilations, More Best of Leonard Cohen and The Essential Leonard Cohen.
"Hallelujah" was first released on Cohen's studio album Various Positions in 1984. The song had limited initial success, but found greater popularity through a 1991 cover by John Cale which formed the basis for a later cover by Jeff Buckley. "Hallelujah" has been performed by almost 200 artists in various languages.
The use of the album track, "Everybody Knows," from I'm Your Man in the 1990 film, Pump Up the Volume, helped expose Cohen's music to a younger audience. The song also featured prominently in fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan's 1994 film, Exotica.
In 1992, Cohen released The Future, which urges (often in terms of biblical prophecy) perseverance, reformation and hope in the face of grim prospects. Three tracks from the album – "Waiting for the Miracle," "The Future" and "Anthem" – were featured in the movie, Natural Born Killers, which also promoted Cohen's work to a new generation of U.S. listeners.
In 1994, Cohen retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles, beginning what became five years of seclusion at the center. In 1996, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name Jikan, meaning "silence." He served as personal assistant to Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
Although around 2000 there was a public impression that Cohen would not resume recording or publishing, he returned to Los Angeles in May, 1999. But there was trouble ahead.
Sylvie Simmons explains, in her 2012 biography on Cohen that Kelley Lynch, Cohen's longtime manager, "took care of Leonard's business affairs … [and was] not simply his manager but a close friend, almost part of the family."
However, Simmons notes that in late 2004, Cohen's daughter Lorca began to suspect Lynch of financial impropriety, and when Cohen checked his bank accounts, he noticed that he had unknowingly paid a credit card bill of Lynch's for $75,000 and also found that most of the money in his accounts was gone (including money from his retirement accounts and charitable trust funds).
Cohen would discover that this theft had actually begun as early as 1996 when Lynch started selling Cohen's music publishing rights despite the fact that Cohen had no financial incentive to do so at the time.
On October 8, 2005, Cohen sued Kelley Lynch, alleging that she had misappropriated over $5 million from Cohen's retirement fund leaving only $150,000. Cohen was sued in turn by other former business associates. These events placed him in the public spotlight, including a cover feature on him with the headline, "Devastated!," in Canada's Maclean's magazine.
In March, 2006, Cohen won a civil suit and was awarded $9 million by a Los Angeles County superior court. Lynch, however, ignored the suit and did not respond to a subpoena issued for her financial records. As a result it has been widely reported that Cohen never was able to collect the awarded amount.
In 2007, U.S. District Judge Lewis T. Babcock dismissed a claim by Cohen for more than $4.5 million against Colorado investment firm Agile Group, and in 2008 he dismissed a defamation suit that Agile Group filed against Cohen. Cohen has been under new management since April, 2005.
On March 1, 2012, Kelley Lynch was arrested in Los Angeles for violating a permanent protective order that forbade her from contacting Cohen, which she had ignored repeatedly. On April 13, the jury found her guilty on all charges. On April 18, she was sentenced to eighteen months in prison and five years probation.
Cohen told that court, "It gives me no pleasure to see my onetime friend shackled to a chair in a court of law, her considerable gifts bent to the services of darkness, deceit and revenge. It is my prayer that Ms. Lynch will take refuge in the wisdom of her religion, that a spirit of understanding will convert her heart from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform."
To replenish his bank accounts, Cohen went back on tour — his first in 15 years. It began on May 11, 2008 in Fredericton, New Brunswick to wide critical acclaim, and was extended until Winter of 2010. The schedule of the first leg in Summer of 2008 encompassed Canada and Europe, including performances at The Big Chill, the Montreal Jazz Festival and on the Pyramid Stage at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival.
Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82 at his home in Los Angeles. Cancer was a contributing cause. According to his manager, Cohen's death was the result of a fall at his home on the night of November 7, and he subsequently died in his sleep. His death was announced on November 10.
Here, Leonard Cohen performs “Tower of Song.”
Leonard Cohen meets Allen Ginsberg after a concert of Ginsberg’s poetry at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, 1988
Photo by Frank Beacham
Henry Butler, New York City, 2010
Photo by Frank Beacham
Henry Butler was born 75 years ago today.
A jazz pianist from New Orleans, Butler was known for his percussive piano technique and his ability to play in many styles of music.
Referred to by Dr. John as "the pride of New Orleans,” Butler was his generation's representative in the Crescent City's lineage of piano players such as Professor Longhair, James Booker, Tuts Washington and Jelly Roll Morton.
Blinded by glaucoma since birth, Butler pursued photography as a hobby. Some of his photographs were shown in galleries in New Orleans. He is a 1974 graduate of Michigan State University and received the MSU Distinguished Alumni Award in 2009.
Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Butler left New Orleans and relocated to Colorado. As of September, 2009, he moved New York City.
Butler recorded for several record labels, including Impulse, Windham Hill and Basin Street Records.
Butler died of end-stage cancer on July 2, 2018 in New York City at the age of 69.
Here, Butler performs “Let It Roll” at Mendocino College, 2009.
Henry Butler volunteers as the bartender for one night at 78 Below in Manhattan, 2012.
Being blind, he did an excellent job — pouring over the top drinks for everyone in the house.
Photo by Frank Beacham
Stephen King is 76 years old today.
King is an author of contemporary horror, suspense, science fiction and fantasy. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, and many of them have been adapted into feature films, television movies and comic books.
King has published fifty novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and five non-fiction books. He has written nearly two hundred short stories, most of which have been collected in nine collections of short fiction. Many of his stories are set in his home state of Maine.
King has received Bram Stoker Awards, World Fantasy Awards and British Fantasy Society Awards. His novella, The Way Station, was a Nebula Award novelette nominee. His short story, The Man in the Black Suit, received the O. Henry Award.
In 2003, the National Book Foundation awarded him the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
King has also received awards for his contribution to literature for his entire oeuvre, such as the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement (2004), the Canadian Booksellers Association Lifetime Achievement Award (2007) and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America (2007).
King is a fan of the Ramones, to the extent that he wrote the liner notes for the 2003 Ramones tribute album, We're a Happy Family. He is also a fan of hard rock such as AC/DC; he arranged for their album, Who Made Who, to feature as the score for the film he directed in 1986, Maximum Overdrive.
King has also stated that he likes heavy metal and has named bands like Anthrax, Judas Priest and Metallica as amongst his favorites to write to. King collaborated with Michael Jackson to create Ghosts (1996), a 40-minute musical video, and collaborated with Shooter Jennings and his band Hierophant, providing the narration for their album, Black Ribbons. King also wrote a musical play Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (2012) with John Mellencamp.
King played guitar for the rock band Rock Bottom Remainders, several of whose members are authors. Other members have included Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, James McBride, Mitch Albom, Roy Blount, Jr., Matt Groening, Kathi Kamen Goldmark, Sam Barry and Greg Iles.
King and the other band members collaborated to release an e-book called Hard Listening: The Greatest Rock Band Ever (of Authors) Tells All (June 2013).
Bill Murray is 73 years old today.
An actor and comedian, Murray first appeared on Saturday Night Live and later went on to star in comedy films, including Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981), Tootsie (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Scrooged (1988), What About Bob? (1991) and Groundhog Day (1993).
Murray got critical acclaim later in his career, starring in Lost in Translation (2003), which earned him a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award for Best Actor, as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
He also received Golden Globe nominations for his roles in Ghostbusters, Rushmore (1998), Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) and St. Vincent (2014). He appeared in Cradle Will Rock (1999), a film on which I was executive producer.
He has collaborated more than once with such notable film directors as Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Frank Oz and the Farrelly brothers.
Being very detached from the Hollywood scene, Murray does not have an agent or manager and reportedly only fields offers for scripts and roles using a personal telephone number with a voice mailbox that he checks infrequently.
This practice has the downside of sometimes preventing him from taking parts in films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Monsters, Inc., The Squid and the Whale, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Little Miss Sunshine.
When asked about this practice, however, Murray seemed content with his inaccessibility, stating, "It's not that hard. If you have a good script that's what gets you involved. People say they can't find me. Well, if you can write a good script, that's a lot harder than finding someone. I don't worry about it; it's not my problem."
H. G. Wells measures a move in a war game, 1913
Photo by Mary Evans
H.G. Wells — pioneer of science fiction — was born 157 years ago today in Bromley, England.
Wells was born near London and received a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London. After school, he worked as a draper's apprentice and bookkeeper before becoming a freelance writer. His lively treatment of scientific topics quickly brought him success as a writer.
In 1895, he published his classic novel, The Time Machine, about a man who journeys to the future. The book was a success, as were his subsequent books, The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898).
Marilyn Dead, 1962
Photo by Robert Frank