When Montreal’s best-loved son turns 80 this Sunday, millions of fans around the world will mark the occasion in their own ways. Irish writer Kevin Barry (his novel City of Bohane won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2013) is one of them. Barry lived in Montreal with his wife over the winter of 2013-14 and hopes to come back soon; talking to him, it’s clear he knows his Cohen lore, speaking in the kind of terms a visitor to Ireland might reserve for Joyce or Yeats.
“I think what a great artist does for a city he has lived in is he leaves a kind of shimmer behind in the streets and places he has written about,” said Barry. “In Montreal we get a sense of Mr. Cohen’s shimmer, especially up around the Main and Parc du Portugal, given his long connection with the neighbourhood there. But there are whole swaths of Montreal you can’t walk around without thinking of Leonard Cohen. We all dream of being fed tea and oranges when we’re down by the river, don’t we?”
Indeed we do. I was first exposed to Cohen at the tender age of 10 when I heard three of his songs — The Stranger Song, Sisters of Mercy and Winter Lady — in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a movie I had furtively stayed up past bedtime to see. A lifelong semi-obsession was thus sparked by hearing lyrics I was too young to understand in a movie I was too young to be watching. Somehow, those stately cadences and that dolorous tone exerted a deep pull, sending their smoke signal to a suburban prairie kid from a distant shore of glamour and adulthood.
Here, I could sense, was a state to aspire to, to grow into. A little later the bond was cemented when I purchased Cohen’s Best Of album and learned, on reading the capsule song notes provided by the artist, that Sisters of Mercy was written in a hotel room in — gasp! — Edmonton. From that moment, the shimmer was on my hometown. If only in this small way, we could stand proudly next to New York — where another song on that album, Chelsea Hotel #2, was written about an experience in another hotel room — and next to Montreal, the city to which I finally moved in my mid-30s, having internalized all things Cohen — the albums, the two Montreal-steeped novels, the poetry — in the meantime.
I’m not going to say I came here because of Leonard Cohen. But I’m not going to deny it, either.
Such is the power of the Cohen effect that it can transcend, even bypass, direct artistic influence. Guillaume Morissette, whose Main-centric New Tab is one of the best Canadian novels of 2014, can testify.
“It’s funny, as a Montreal writer, I’ve never felt particularly close or connected to Leonard Cohen’s work, but as I am aging, I am surprised by how much meaning and wisdom I am able to find in his life and career,” said the 27-year-old, a francophone who writes in English. “Just reading about his battle with depression — ‘a kind of mist, a kind of distress over everything’ — his thoughts on voluntary simplicity, his pursuit of Zen Buddhism or the lengths to which he went to write a novel like Beautiful Losers, can be, I feel, very inspiring and intellectually stimulating.”
He did it, moreover, at a time when youth reigned supreme in pop culture. For a comparison point, when Songs of Leonard Cohen was released in late 1967, Cohen was 33; the gold-standard singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan, who had already reset the parameters of songwriting at least twice, was a ripe old 26. It’s a lovely irony, then, that an artist first viewed as a kind of urbane older brother to the original hippies should have outlasted them all — literally in many cases, and as an artistic force in almost every case.
What’s more, unlike so many of his still-active contemporaries, Cohen isn’t competing against his younger self. Mick Jagger fights a noble but inevitably losing battle every time he takes a stage and tries to dance like it’s 1972; Cohen has never been in that invidious position because from the start he had a style that lent itself to graceful aging.
And in a bonus that not many could have foreseen, the man once dubbed Laughing Lenny in ironic reference to his perceived dourness has evolved into one of the more droll presences on the cultural landscape. Tower of Song’s “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” is only the best-known example — since the mid-career reinvention of I’m Your Man (an album whose cover achieved the miracle of making the eating of a banana look drop-dead cool), there’s hardly been a Cohen song, even counting the weightiest and most spiritually anguished of them, that doesn’t pack at least one zinger.
One of the many things to celebrate on Sunday is that Cohen isn’t just crossing the 80 line — he’s breaking the tape in spectacular fashion, entering his ninth decade as a thoroughly contemporary artist, one whose imminent new album, Popular Problems — a work that on early listening reveals itself as a dazzling, rhythm-and-blues-laced meditation on the Big Questions — will be crashing sales charts worldwide when it’s released on Monday.
An octogenarian slugging it out with Katy Perry and Taylor Swift is simply not supposed to happen, but it is happening, and that’s a wonderful thing. You wish Kurt Cobain could be here to see it. Not long before his tragic 1994 passing, the Nirvana leader played no small part in making Cohen cool with a new generation through a famous namecheck — “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld” — in Pennyroyal Tea. Might the distinctive spelling of one of Popular Problems’ song titles — Nevermind — be a sly tip of the hat in return? It’s nice to think so.
In a career that has seen so many epic twists and turns, there are none more remarkable than the Hallelujah phenomenon. Nothing else in pop culture history can quite equal the three-decade caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation of an obscure 1984 album track into possibly the most sung song of the 21st century, a spiritual-secular anthem for all occasions. That it happened via a completely organic process — no blockbuster movie tie-in hype, no big-name guest-rap dance remix — makes it all the more satisfying. (I was working in radio when Various Positions was released, and I’ll own up: my pick to click from that album was Night Comes On. You win some, you lose some.)
A book could be written on this story alone, and indeed one has been: Alan Light’s fine The Holy and The Broken. When I interviewed Light for The Gazette on release of the book in 2012, he had this to say: “It’s very easy to be cynical about music today, and to decide that it’s been so commodified and cheapened that it’s just not as important as it used to be, that people don’t care about music the way they used to. But talking to people about Hallelujah, it’s evident that a truly great song can still be incredibly meaningful, and can still connect in a way that no other art can do.”
They had just come from a building they had determined to be Suzanne’s place by the river and were on their way to Belmont Ave. in Westmount to see the childhood home, but now they were stopping off in front of the humble house Cohen purchased in the 1970s, and where he had been periodically living recently, touring commitments and monastery stints permitting. Scanning the surroundings, they simultaneously seized on the same street sign across the park.
“Aha!,” cried Hans. “Marie-Anne! ‘So long, Marie-Anne!’ This is not coincidence! He is naming his song for this street!”
“Actually,” I said, “the name is spelled differently in the song.” And I didn’t stop there. Oh, no. I also pointed out — God, what a pedantic jerk I can be — that, regardless, the song predated Cohen’s purchase of the house by several years.
Hans and Jurgen, who had been on the point of dancing a jig in celebration of their discovery, now stopped. An awkward silence followed. I felt like an absolute heel. I wished I could take my know-it-all words back and leave these sweet-natured men happy with their innocent mistake. The moment was saved when the two friends turned toward the house. I turned with them. Jurgen, very softly at first but with growing confidence, began to sing.
“Well, I heard there was a secret chord…”
Hans joined in, in rough harmony. The curtains of the house’s windows were closed; there was no sign that anyone was home. Still, Hans and Jurgen sang as if Leonard Cohen were inside listening and just might be drawn out. They weren’t very good singers, but then, some foolish people once thought the same of the man to whom they were paying tribute. I don’t mind admitting it — before they even got to “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?”, I was already crying like a baby.
It may have struck some readers by now that most of the references in this piece have been to men. Well, it’s time to rectify that and then some, because there’s no getting around it: Leonard loves the ladies, and the ladies love Leonard right back. As interpreters, collaborators, muses, women have played an indispensable part in the Cohen story: Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Jennifer Warnes, Anjani, Sharon Robinson.
And in an irony so rich it would beggar belief in a screenplay, it was a woman, erstwhile manager Kelley Lynch, whose fleecing of most of her client’s life savings effectively forced him into the sustained burst of touring, writing and recording activity that has comprised his remarkable and ongoing late renaissance. In a twisted way, we owe Lynch thanks.
Heather O’Neill (Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night) and Kim Thuy (Ru, Man), two of Quebec’s most acclaimed contemporary novelists, would seem eminently qualified to speak on the Cohen effect as it pertains to women. “So many of my ideas about love came from listening to his songs,” said O’Neill. “He sang about love as though it were wild and dangerous. It was where all great poems and stories came from. His charismatic, aristocratic, down-and-out persona as a poet deeply affected my characters. They all have a little bit of Leonard Cohen in them. Nobody does nostalgie de la boue better. He raised us and turned us all into romantics.”
Thuy came to Quebec from Vietnam at age 10, having escaped Saigon as a refugee. She knew nothing of Leonard Cohen when she arrived here and for some time after, but that had changed plenty by the time she won the Governor General’s Award in 2010 for her debut novel, Ru. At the awards ceremony in Ottawa, she was moved to quote a line from From A Thousand Kisses Deep in her acceptance speech, with help from translator Sophie Voillot. “Par mille baisers de fond, je vous remercie grandement.”
Fans can wish Leonard Cohen a happy birthday on Sunday at www.leonardcohen.com