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Leonard Cohen Has Spent The Past 80 Years Being A Badass

He combined amphetamines and fasting for two eight-month stints on the Aegean Sea and stopped a riot at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970.
September 19, 2014, 9:00am

Leonard Cohen turns 80 on Sunday. This is a cause for celebration - rarely are there artists as consistent, influential, or outlasting as Leonard - and he's releasing his thirteenth album Popular Problems the next day as some sort of reverse birthday present.

But instead of jerking out some spiel about how Leonard Cohen is still relevant today - and the fact that "Chelsea Hotel #2" will always be the best song about fellatio - let's consider his vitality. The dude is 80 years old - yet he's better dressed than any of the Essex mousses at the GQ Awards, has dabbled in every drug possible ("the recreational, the obsessional and the pharmaceutical"), and continues to release albums despite the fact most people his age get breathless after walking to the fridge.

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Cohen would never blow his own horn, but we can do it for him. So, with that in mind, let's look at the interesting miscellany and marginalia from the past eight decades.

He Took a Fuckload of Drugs and Wrote The Most Revolting Book In Canadian History

Everyone's a "Renaissance Man" these days: singer, actor, producer, dreamweaver. But that's mostly out of necessity because it's impossible to afford dinner and an evening out on the weekend on one creative job alone. Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, was a poet and novelist in his own right before he even ventured into music and songwriting. He'd already published three collections of poetry (one called Flowers for Hitler) and a debut novel, when he relocated to the Greek Island of Hydra to experiment with amphetamines and writing. Spending two eight-month stints on the Aegean Sea, and combining drugs with spiritual fasting, Cohen began experiencing hallucinations. He abandoned his artistic efforts after collapsing from sunstroke, having shrunk to 116 pounds from going ten days without food.

Beautiful Losers, the novel written during this period, was published in 1966 - a year prior to Cohen's debut album release. It was dubbed both "the most revolting book ever written in Canada" and the "most interesting Canadian book of the year" by the same contemporary critic. A pretty mean feat.

He Stopped A Riot At The Isle of Wight Festival In 1970

The Isle of Wight may be a haven for PE teachers and community police officers; a safe, branded sanctuary in which the world's distinctly average can "party on down" while listening to Olly Murs. But before little Olly was born, the Isle of Wight Festival used to be one of the best in the world. Jimi Hendrix, Dylan, everyone; they've all played there. The 1970 event say almost 700,000 (mostly ticketless) punters descend on the meagre island which - compared to the fact Glastonbury only holds 135,000 and, at the time the island's own population only reached the 100k mark - gives an idea of the chaos that ensued.

By the final day of the fest, following the organisers' attempt to build a fence to keep any newcomers out, multiple riots had erupted around the site. Performers had been treated to a hostile reception for the entire festival: fire broke loose following Jimi Hendrix’s set at midnight, while both Joni Mitchell and Kris Kristofferson had been booed offstage prior to Cohen taking to the stage at around 4am.

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Having only just been awoken from a slumber in his trailer, Cohen took to the stage and - still starry-eyed - requested the audience to strike matches so he could see them and they could see each other. “I know that you know why you’re lighting them,” he added with an almost philosophical inclination, before kicking into “Bird On The Wire”. After that, the audience were putty to Cohen’s charms, and the incident has been cited to have calmed any animosity for the rest of the duration.

He Committed Career Suicide With Phil Spector

In 1977, after releasing four albums since his debut to largely commercial ambivalence, Cohen found himself at an artistic crossroad. He had rarely compromised an inch; each time a label exec told him his songs were too sad to sell, he would simply continue gazing at his own navel. But clearly there was a feeling that something had to change, with the singer agreeing to meet with Phil Spector, going through a slump of his own and with whom he shared a manager, to record what would later become Death Of A Ladies' Man. For Spector’s part, he was enticed by Cohen’s “mystery and technique”, while Cohen - not as flattering - thought Spector not a “great songwriter” but a “bold one”, somebody able to “employ the most pedestrian melodies and yet somehow make them absolutely successful”.

Their first meeting - dinner at Spector’s home - resulted in a theme that would continue for much of the recording sessions. Angering their host by rising to leave the evening’s meal prematurely, Spector proceeded to lock Cohen and wife in his house until morning. As you can imagine, recording with a volatile character such as Spector was equally as chaotic. By this point, three years on from a life-changing car crash that nearly killed him, Spector was heavily-medicated, perpetually-armed and brought his bodyguards-come-dealers along to the studio with him. On top of this, Spector - ever the maximalist - crammed some forty musicians into the premises, including both Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, each hired for backing vocals on a single track. One anecdote sees Spector pulling a crossbow out on Cohen (even his choice of weaponry was eclectic), while another somewhat more humorous tale involves Spector greeting the singer with a bottle of kosher wine in one hand, a revolver in the other, an arm around Cohen’s shoulder and the gun pressed against his neck. “Leonard, I love you,” he said. “I hope you do, Phil,” Cohen replied.

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The resulting record sounds every bit at odds with itself as its creators undoubtedly were during its conception. Pitting two autocrats together was always going to result in a muddle, but when one’s an extrovert with a gun and the other an introvert with a pen, it’s only going to get a whole lot worse. But that's where its charms lie: Death Of A Ladies' Man remains to this day a bewildering but euphoric listen.

He Became A Scientologist Before It Was Cliche To Become A Scientologist

Cohen dabbled with Scientology long before Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Charles Manson made it really weird. He makes reference to the Church in "Famous Blue Raincoat", in which he mentions "going clear" - a key cornerstone of Scientology, in which followers rid themselves of "subconscious memories of past trauma". "I looked into a lot of things," Cohen says of the period. "Scientology was one of them… I did look into that and other things. from the Communist Party to the Republican Party, from Scientology to delusions of myself as the High Priest rebuilding the Temple." If you never try it, you'll never know.

He Used A Buddhist Retreat To Revive His Career

Cohen relocated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles between 94-99. Not quite a Gap Year retreat like one to Thailand, but Leonard sought to learn more about Zen Buddihism, ordaining under the Dharma name “Jikan” (meaning “Silent One” or the silence “at the center of things”) and serving as an aide to Japanese Rinzai teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. There Cohen would sit “cross-legged for hours and hours” with “obscure sexual fantasies going through his head and ideas for songs”. He managed to clear his mind and find peace, one that would warn off his ongoing depression. The singer returned in 2001 with the modestly-titled Ten New Songs, one of the most well-received albums of his career - especially in terms of immediate release. This was followed by Dear Heather, an LP as equally lauded. Not bad work for a time when you're meant to empty your mind of ideas, rather than fill it.

He Took A Unique Approach To The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Ahead of his 2009 concert in Tel Aviv, Cohen experienced pressure from human rights groups to boycott the country and cancel his planned Israeli show. In response, the singer decided to donate the profits raised to a Gaza peace charity, as well as announcing a gig in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Sadly the West Bank promoters eventually pulled the show, but you have to say that the thought was there.

He's Lived Through His Own Legacy With Dignity

It's strange to consider that at 80 years of age Leonard Cohen is more popular and respected now than he's ever been. It's a virtually unprecented feat, just think: Johnny Cash was only just reaching his early 70s when he recorded his career-revitalising American records. But what's most surprising is that he's not once fucked it up and done something embarrassing. Living through your own legacy is a difficult thing to manage with such dignity, these levels of idoltry can go to the head of the best of people. But would Cohen have collaborated with Metallica? Hell no. Would he have ever made a Self-Portrait or Dylan & The Dead? Nah. He's too meticulous for that. Even in a world where "Hallelujah" has become a TV talent show staple, Cohen hasn't succumbed to any lame publicity stunts - unlike Dylan who has been in several adverts for cars and perfumes. You'll never find him duetting on X-Factor.

Follow Luke on Twitter: @lkmrgnbrttn