A Rock’n’Roll Hall of Famer who came to prominence as a songwriter in New York’s Sixties folk scene being considered a major literary figure?

That debate is so last week.

What only the most churlish could question about Leonard Cohen, peer and friend of Bob Dylan, are his credentials as a poet.

He has written volumes of published poetry. He is as well-travelled as any of the Romantics. He has lived in Montreal, London, New York, Mumbai and currently in Los Angeles as well as two or three month spells cleaning toilets at a Zen monastery in Mount Baldy, the highest point of LA County. In his youth, he lived on the Greek island of Hydra, with the recently deceased Marianne Ihlan, inspiration for Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, Bird on the Wire and of course, So Long, Marianne.

Like countless poets, Cohen has spent a large portion of his career broke. Ex-manager Kelly Lynch ran off with more than five million dollars of his money.

His career, like many poets, has been prone to bouts of depression, spiritual introspection and long periods in the career wilderness.

All biographical material of Cohen suggests a Byronic appeal to women.
Like whisky, olives and subtitled films, and pretty much most poetry, the appeal of Cohen’s work tends to be lost on the very young.

His lyrics cover all the things you’re not supposed to discuss at a polite dinner party, including sex, religion, politics and mortality. One of his superficially most upbeat songs, Dance Me To The Edge of Love, composed on a Casio keyboard, was inspired by the WWII death camps.

There are a fair few parallels with Dylan. Both found their wry, cutting songwriting take bloom in Manhattan, even though they hail from elsewhere (Dylan from Minnesota, Cohen from Montreal). At the Chelsea Hotel, immortalised in song by Cohen, Dylan wrote Visions of Johanna, Sara and Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Cohen played at the same hotel for John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive who discovered Dylan and then signed him. Both Jewish, they have dabbled in other religions – Dylan in Christianity, Cohen in Zen Buddhism.

The two have also spent their careers dealing with the accusation that others sing their songs better than they do. They’ve also enjoyed the dubious honour of Simon Cowell choosing their songs for the X Factor winner’s single. (Dylan’s Forever Young for Louisa Johnson last year, Cohen’s Hallelujah for Alexandra Burke in 2008).

There are differences.

Dylan never played a French secret service agent in an episode of Miami Vice. There has never been a documentary called A Day in the Life of Zen Monk Bob Dylan.

Even in the lean years, Dylan’s touring remained Never Ending as have his record releases – 37 studio albums at last count.

Cohen took longer on his craft. One of his greatest songs, Anthem (from 1992’s The Future) took ten years to write – just over half the time Edmund Spenser took to finish the Faerie Queen. For a pop song, Hallelujah would have had Coleridge snipping. It famously took five years and sixty drafts to finish. When John Cale asked its author about extra verses for a version he was planning, Cohen faxed over 15 pages of lyrics.

Cohen has waited until 82 to enjoy the most productive point of his career with 2012’s Old Ideas, 2014’s Popular Problems and, released today, his 14th studio album, You Want It Darker.

The excitement around the latest release didn’t always exist. I’m Your Man, arguably his greatest album, was released four years after 1984’s Various Positions was released in Canada.

Walter Yetnikoff, the then president of CBS Records, was enjoying the success of Thriller and Born In The USA. Cohen, approaching fifty, was unlikely to be a priority.

According to producer John Lissauer in Alan Light’s engrossing book about Hallelujah, The Holy or The Broken, Yetnikoff said: “What is this? This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. It’s a disaster.”

Various Positions, eventually released quietly in 1985, wasn’t a disaster but it wasn’t a smash either. Rolling Stone magazine’s review didn’t even mention Hallelujah. It took John Cale’s cover version in 1992, and then Jeff Buckley’s on Grace two years later, for the song to become a 21st century talent show standard, surface in Shrek, E.R. and The West Wing and turn into something of a millstone for Cohen. There were 300 cover versions from artists as diverse as Justin Timberlake, Willie Nelson, Rufus Wainwright and Susan Boyle. For years, no one had noticed the song’s potent Biblical imagery, anthemic chorus, unusual time signature and chord progressions, its power.

Correction – nearly, no one. One artist picked up on the song’s potential in 1988, and played it live at his concerts in Montreal and LA. Bob Dylan.