Songwriter Leonard Cohen has won the 2011 Prince of Asturias Award for Letters for a body of work which has “influenced three generations around the world”.
One of eight 50,000 Euro prizes given in different fields by the Asturias Foundation each year, it will be presented at a ceremony in Oviedo, Spain, in October 2011. Prize winners will also receive a sculpture designed by the Catalan artist Joan Miró. The prize jury cited Cohen’s “creation of emotional imagery in which poetry and music are fused in an oeuvre of immutable merit. The passing of time, sentimental relationships, the mystical traditions of the East and the West and life sung as an unending ballad make up a body of work associated with certain moments of decisive change at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century.”
My own introduction to Leonard Cohen came in the form of “Bird on a Wire” (1968), the unforgettable song that seems to revel in despair and wry exhilaration. And twenty years later “Take This Waltz” became another of my favourites.
In the 1960s, Cohen lived on the Greek island of Hydra with his girlfriend Marianne (the woman depicted on the back cover of his album Songs from a Room and the subject of “So Long, Marianne”.) She has told how she once helped him out of a depression by handing him his guitar, whereupon he began composing “Bird on a Wire” – inspired, needless to say, by a bird sitting on one of Hydra’s recently installed telephone wires. He completed it in a Hollywood motel, describing it as a simple country song.
Cohen was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1934 into a family of Jewish emigrants. Interested in literature from childhood, he graduated from McGill University in 1955. He first came into contact with music at this time, joining The Buckskin Boys, an amateur country-folk group. He later moved to New York on a scholarship that allowed him to study at Columbia Graduate School.
With a grant from the Canada Council in 1956 he published his first book of poems, entitled Let us Compare Mythologies and inspired by Federico García Lorca, for whom he has always expressed great admiration. It is a compilation of poems written between 1949 and 1954, in which Cohen reflects on themes that recur throughout his later work, such as the persecution of the Jews, personal relationships, and religion.
In 1967 he produced his first record, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which included “Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy”. That album was followed by Songs from a Room (1969), including “Bird on a Wire”, and Songs of Love and Hate (1971), which confirmed him as one of the most outstanding songwriters of his time. Cohen is an Officer and Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest-ranking civilian order, and a Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec. In 2008, he entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was distinguished with the Grammy lifetime award in 2010. He was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize in 2011.
Despite a lifetime of ups and downs, his artistry, his gravelly voice, and his credo have remained unimpaired:
Like a bird on the wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.
Like a worm on a hook,
like a knight from some old-fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons for thee.
If I, if I have been unkind,
I hope that you can just let it go by.
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you.