A published poet and a novelist before he picked up a guitar, Cohen built his tower of song slowly. He honed his early songs on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 60s, where he met his first muse, Marianne Ihlen. In 1966, he visited New York en route to Nashville where he planned to make an album in the mould of the great traditional country singers. This fateful stopover brought him into the orbit of folkies such as Joan Baez and Judy Collins. The latter recorded Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag as straight folk ballads a year before he invested them with the required mystery on his debut solo album, the stark Songs of Leonard Cohen.
In New York, he also met Nico, singer with the Velvet Underground, with whom he became besotted – Take This Longing is a naked expression of his unrequited love. Living in the Chelsea hotel, he bedded the doomed Janis Joplin and later hymned her in the famous – and equivocal – song of the same name. His songs of love and loss were slow and haunting, even more so than the solo acoustic songs of his Canadian contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, while his deep, almost deadpan voice, as every contemporary reviewer noted, was an acquired taste in an era of often baroque musical excess.
And yet, listening now to those early albums, you hear someone who, for all his inexperience in the recording studio, his angst at what they might do to his songs, sounds remarkably self-contained. Back then, he stood outside the traditional singer-songwriter genre, and, to a degree, he has remained an outsider since, while always sounding somehow older and wiser than any of his contemporaries. “He was a man,” John Simon, who produced Songs of Leonard Cohen, said years later, “while the other rock acts I worked with were boys.”