The cultural fixation on Cohen reflects a man who relished being a part of the city’s literary and artistic underground. Born in 1934 to an affluent Jewish family, Cohen descended from the hills of his rarefied Westmount neighborhood to play country music in Montreal’s gritty downtown cafes when he was only a teenager. He became part of an avant-garde Montreal literary circle and would recite his poetry at jazz clubs.
While he lived part of his life in New York, London, the Greek island of Hydra and Los Angeles, Cohen observed that “I have to keep coming back to Montreal to renew my neurotic affiliations.” He kept a home near Boulevard Saint-Laurent, a vibrant immigrant street where Cohen-spotting was a favorite pastime at local delis.
Neighbors say they would see him on the porch of his handsome but unostentatious triplex in Plateau-Mont-Royal, a shabby-chic neighborhood peppered with graffiti, designer furniture shops, dive bars and pastel-painted houses; he was unfailingly polite and usually holding a notepad.
“Leonard loved the narrow streets near the harbor and the working class Montreal Jewish neighborhoods of Mordecai Richler novels,” Sylvie Simmons, who wrote a biography of Cohen, said. “He lived his whole life away but he never left.”
The city helped fuel his music and poetry, including his song “Suzanne,” about the dancer Suzanne Verdal, with whom he would stroll around Montreal’s Old Port, a romantic quarter where the sound of horse-drawn carriages clunk-clunking over cobblestones provides an urban rhythm. The lyrics, “And the sun pours down like honey/On Our Lady of the Harbor,” allude to a statue of the Virgin Mary that crowns the 18th-century Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel.
In a city consumed by culture wars over language, Cohen’s music proved a unifying elixir. Following the so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, when many Francophone Quebecers sought to break free from the Catholic Church and Anglophone domination, Cohen was nevertheless embraced across the linguistic divide.
It didn’t hurt that he sometimes sang in French and his meditations on love, the sacred and the profane found particular resonance in a libertine city deeply formed by the Catholic Church it had revolted against.
Jean-Pierre Ducharme, 68, a retired Quebecois army officer, who is featured in the Candice Breitz piece, recalled discovering Cohen at 17. He didn’t understand the lyrics, but the poetic reverie was so hypnotic that it didn’t matter. “It wasn’t about politics or ideology but because of the beauty of his music.”
The melancholy that suffused Cohen’s work also had echoes in Montreal’s endless winters, Kevin Ledo, the 39-year-old artist behind the Cohen mural in Plateau-Mont-Royal, noted. When spring finally arrives, the city bursts with color and unwrapped bodies, a transformation captured by the sensual euphoria of Cohen’s lyrics. “There is a yearning, a feeling of unrequited love in his music that is somehow very Montreal,” he said.
Cohen, a humble man, might have been embarrassed by the sometimes cultish reverence.
Edward Singer, 71, a retired businessman, wrote a novel based on “Suzanne,” and displays over his desk a photoshopped image of himself and his idol with Cohen’s arm lovingly draped around his shoulder.
“He was a one of a kind, a Jew from the Anglo community in Montreal who became beloved across the world,” he said. “Some people ask, What would Jesus do? I ask myself, What would Leonard do?”
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