First, Leonard Cohen belonged to us, only later did the rest of the world claim him. As he wrote of his book of poems, the Spice Box of Earth:
“I shouldn’t be in Canada at all. Winter is all wrong for me. I belong beside the Mediterranean. My ancestors made a terrible mistake. But I have to keep coming back to Montreal to renew my neurotic affiliations.”
That was 1961 and for those of us coming of age at the time, finding our way as the sun was beginning to shine on that amazing era of cultural revolution known as the 1960s, Leonard was a beacon through the fog of 1950s conformity.
He was 27 then, his fame was spreading as the most prominent and talented member of the Montreal school of poets: Louis Dudek, the poet and literature professor, had knighted him in the halls of the McGill arts buildings as a member of the aristocracy of poetry, upon publication of his first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies. And poet/iconoclast Irving Layton, then a teacher at Herzliah High School, was Cohen’s mentor and comrade.
Because I found myself part of the concentric circles of Montrealers who had surrounded Cohen the man and Cohen the artist, and loved his work, I joined hundreds last month at Parc du Portugal across from the Cohen house on Vallières St., just off St. Laurent, to commune with him, and weep, even as others sang and celebrated his legacy.
“It’s a celebration, he’s going to heaven,” said a writer friend, part of the vigil, in an attempt to put another spin on the gathering.
I wept because Cohen’s passing reminded me of all that had been back then in that golden era of exploration and liberation amid the stark reality of a cruel and painful world and the gathering storm clouds of the Trump counter-revolution.
Cohen’s slow emergence as a major figure in contemporary music began with the song Suzanne, which I first heard when a group called the Stormy Clovers first performed it in 1966. I heard the group at the Venus de Milo room, above Dunn’s Delicatessen, then on Ste. Catherine W., and was struck by its poetic beauty and imagery.
The group’s charismatic singer, Susan Jains, sparkled and almost seemed to make Suzanne appear on stage. The group broke up, but Jains became a friend and later formed the group A Rosewood Daydream with Ottawa folk guitarist Peter Hodgson.
With me then was the poet Henry Moscovitch, whom Cohen admired, then and always, until his death in 2004. In the winter of 1966, we went to a party at Cohen’s then apartment on Aylmer St. It was a hootenanny and there were about 20 people there, including his sister Esther, most sitting on the floor of his modest abode. In spite of my expectations of a wild and crazy party, it was a slow, tame evening of song and quiet talk.
Moscovitch later began to develop mental illness but Cohen never faltered in his friendship and admiration. In his dedication to Moscovitch’s last book of poetry, Cohen reveals a lot about his own mindset at the time, as he suffered from depression.
“I don’t know where I’m going anymore.
I find myself a table and a chair.
I wait. I don’t know what I’m waiting for.
I change the room, the country. I compare
My clattering armoured blitz to your spare
Weaponry of light, your refined address —
I know you stand where none of us would dare,
I know you kneel where none of us would guess,
well-ordered and alone, huge heart, self-pitiless.
As I stood there in Parc Portual last month listening to a mainly younger crowd singing Cohen songs, following the lyrics on their I phones, I thought back to the times we would see the bard, walking on St. Laurent. I think of the cartoons of him on the wall at the Main Delicatessen, one of his favourite haunts.
I thought of his coming to the Centaur for a fundraiser to help Irving Layton — the man he called by this original name in a poem to “my friend Lazarovitch” — who by then needed extra care.
I remembered the dashing young Leonard Cohen we would see at the Mountain Street haunt The Bistro — Chez Loulou — with its zinc bar, in the 1960s, where Pierre Trudeau would come by before he became a politician, as did a slew of French and English artists, students, professors, drunks, musicians, and dreamers.
According to filmmaker Harry Rasky, Trudeau asked to hear Leonard Cohen songs when he was ill and his days numbered.
And I can still see Cohen banding up the steps at the McGill students centre on McTavish St. with his friend, Robert Hershorn, to hear a concert, and stay in touch with students a decade his junior, soak up the scene. He was the scion of a prominent Westmount Jewish family, but resisted the expected career path of his peers, to make his own way in the creative life. We would bump into him in Chinatown, with his friend the actor and broadcaster Paul Hecht.
Leonard was a bit older than the youth generation then sprouting its wings, but the mantra to never trust anyone over 30 never seemed to include him. He was excited by the revolutionary changes in music and lifestyles, became part of them, and carved his own path with his vision and artistry. He sought to reach a wider audience than he could with his poetry and two novels, through the Tower of Song. And so he did.