The popular image of Leonard Cohen, who died at age 82 in November 2016, is that of the bard with the brooding baritone voice plucking away at a guitar.
For Toronto-based music lecturer Mike Daley, that deep, sometimes-morose voice has concealed the richness and variety of Cohen’s musical and lyrical abilities.
“In checking out his whole body of work… his songwriting style is much more varied than I thought,” Daley says from Innis College, where he teaches a course on The Beatles for seniors.
“There were periods in [Cohen’s] life where he was much angrier than we are accustomed to hearing from him, and much more abrasive both in his poetic style and his musical style.”
Daley has his mind on the great Canadian artist, as the musicologist is about to return to the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema for a six-week Curious Minds lecture series about Cohen.
It will be the musician and lecturer’s third series at the cinema, after leading well-attended sessions about Bob Dylan and The Beatles in 2017.
“I THINK HE TOOK SERIOUSLY THAT HE WAS A ‘KOHEN’.”
The six-part course will cover the spectrum of Cohen’s career chronologically, starting with his upbringing and nascent years of literary success in Montreal and culminating with his final album, You Want It Darker, released a few weeks before his death.
Cohen’s ascent in the Canadian music scene was quite unusual, Daley says, explaining that entering the music business in his 30s – after a successful early career as an author and poet – was unconventional.
Interestingly, Cohen reached some of his biggest audiences during the last decade of his life, much of which was spent touring.
The Canadian musician also earned Juno awards for his final three albums, including two posthumous honours for You Want It Darker – an album Daley says resonates with him deeply.
“It just haunts me,” he says after reciting some of the lyrics to Treaty.
Meanwhile, the singer’s Judaism will be a frequent theme throughout the series, Daley says.
“I think he took seriously that he was a ‘Kohen,’ that he was of a teacher sect,” he says. “I think of him as a teacher, as somebody who, sometimes at great personal expense, explored what it means to be human and worked very hard to try to articulate what he learned for all of us.”
Throughout our interview, Daley refers to Cohen’s style of singing as a sermon. It’s an appropriate term, considering that members of Cohen’s family were prominent in Montreal’s Jewish community, and were among the past presidents of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue there.
The foregrounding of Cohen’s voice in many of his songs suggested that Cohen wanted people to pay close attention to what he was saying, Daley adds.
“What hooked me actually was not him singing,” he admits. “It was Jennifer Warren, who did an album called Famous Blue Raincoat, all covers of Leonard Cohen songs. I really liked that album.”
Daley says that he is also thinking about doing a tour in Montreal that is connected to Cohen’s life and music. This will add to a growing repertoire of music tours he runs with his wife, musician Jill Daley, in cities enshrined in rock and roll history, such as London, Memphis, and New Orleans.
Although he isn’t Jewish, Daley says he now has more insight into Judaism as a result of researching Cohen’s life and spirituality.
“I feel great affinity with [Jewish] culture,” he says.
The weekly series, which already has 400 people registered, begins on Jan. 25 and runs until March 8. (There is no session on Feb. 15.)