The Current

'I want to write songs': Leonard Cohen gave up hosting CBC TV show to be songwriter

Leonard Cohen was hailed for his intelligence, humility and curiosity. His baritone voice was once described as the musical equivalent of rotgut whiskey. But before he became a songwriter, Cohen was slated to host a CBC TV show — until he changed his mind.
Legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has died at the age of 82. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

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Leonard Cohen. Canadian icon and legend — a visionary poet, artist and songwriter — has died at 82.

Born in Montreal in 1934, he attended McGill University in the 1950s where he won his first literary award for original poetry, published his first collection of poetry and set out on a career as a writer.

But before deciding on being a songwriter, Cohen was close to hosting a CBC TV current affairs program.

The year was 1966.

Montreal's CBC TV producer Andrew Simon was producing a local current affairs program, Seven on Six, and was desperate for a new host.

Leonard Cohen who personified Montreal was top of mind.
Leonard Cohen fan, Andrew Simon. (Courtesy of Andrew Simon)

Simon met Cohen for dinner a few times at a little restaurant, Café des Artistes, to sell the idea and it worked. 

"I worried about it a little bit because it wasn't kind of orthodox current affairs stuff that he had in mind, but reading poetry ... things like that."

The contract was ready to sign, until one evening at 11 p.m. Simon got a call.

"He phoned me at home and he said 'Andrew, I just went on a trip (he of course meant a marijuana trip) ... and realized that I can't do a show."

"I decided I'm going to be a songwriter.  I want to write songs," Simon recalls Cohen saying in their conversation.

Not understanding why someone would give up being a television star, Simon was bewildered by Cohen's decision. But now, like so many, Simon marvels at the legacy of music and words Cohen has left behind.

Cohen died Nov. 7, according to Sony Music.

Some say the release of his last album, You Want It Darker,  was a harbinger of his demise, telling the New Yorker in October he wanted to finish the songs, take care of business, that would be about it for him.

"My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records," says Cohen's son Adam, in a statement.

"He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humour."

Listen to Andrew Simon's story.

This segment was produced by The Current's senior producer Cathy Simon.