POP Montreal's Leonard Cohen Tribute Was as Human as He Was

Montreal musicians and writers pulled from Cohen's vast catalogue of work to celebrate his imperfectly perfect life.

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Dec 19 2016, 4:24pm

Photo by author

When word broke that Leonard Cohen died, fans in his hometown of Montreal gathered outside his house, expressing their heartache through a makeshift memorial — a growing array of photos, notes, records, flowers and candles, a boom box playing Cohen songs. For days people continued making their personal pilgrimage, paying their respects, shedding tears, mourning and celebrating their beloved Leonard.

Cohen, who passed away on November 7th at age 82, was known around the world primarily as a singer-songwriter. A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he also published nine volumes of poetry and two novels, becoming part of the Canadian literary canon.  Montrealers—both Francophone and Anglophone—consider Cohen one of their own, taking pride in their hometown hero. "That's the thing about Cohen fans: we all feel like he's ours," says local country-roots singer Li'l Andy. "But here in Montreal, he's ours more than anywhere else in the world."

This pride—together with a profound sense of loss and a need to celebrate Cohen in an artistic way that would honor his legacy—culminated in God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot: A Montreal Tribute to Leonard Cohen staged by POP Montreal International Music Festival. The event, held on December 15th at the Rialto Theatre, featured Montreal musicians and writers performing Cohen's songs and reciting his texts.

Photo by Randy Cole

The idea for the concert came about during a chance encounter the night Cohen's death was announced. "I found out he had died an hour before a show," recalls Li'l Andy (Andrew McClelland), the event's musical director. Walking up to Cohen's house, where people had already gathered, he met POP Montreal co-founder Dan Seligman, and discussed doing a Cohen tribute. "This is a show we've been preparing for in our hearts since we first heard or read Cohen and felt a kinship to him," he said. The concert sold out shortly after it was announced. Proceeds benefited the women's shelter Le Chaînon. "We thought it would be good to support a local charity that helps people in need," said Seligman. "I'd read in an interview that Leonard once asked to make a donation to a local food bank, so we thought it would be a good Montreal charity that Leonard would approve of."

Cohen had a powerful impact on musicians from Roberta Flack to R.E.M, Nina Simone, Tori Amos, Jeff Buckley, Lana Del Ray and Joe Cocker, whether through interpretations of his songs, the style and spirit of his music, or the political and social themes that infuse his work. "Cohen resonates so deeply, regardless of nationality, mainly because he speaks with such unusual honesty about the human condition," Montreal author Will McClelland said via email. "The ugly truths of being human, the dark mutterings of the heart, an inescapable sense of the total bloodshed wrought by humanity, all have as much a place in his writing as anything sweetly romantic. I think millions find his relentless, even brutal determination to try to tell the truth refreshing."

Photo by the author

Cohen grew up in the Montreal neighborhood of Westmount, his childhood home steeped in Jewish tradition: Sabbath prayers, regular attendance at the Sha'ar Hashamayim (Heaven's Gate) synagogue, presided over by his paternal grandfather and great-grandfather before him. The choir was "what made compulsory synagogue attendance enjoyable." It's not surprising then that cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the congregation's choir were asked to contribute to Cohen's final album, You Want It Darker (released in October), returning to the sounds of his childhood. Zelermyer and the choir performed two songs at the tribute concert: the album's title song, and "If It Be Your Will" (from Various Positions.)

Other artists included Emilie & Ogden—the poignant vocals of Emilie Kahn and her harp with a performance of "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye"; indie-folk singer-songwriter Basia Bulat  ("Ain't No Cure for Love"); Mozambican-Canadian artist Samito ("The Future"); Jake Smith of Lakes of Canada ("Suzanne"); Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers ("Tower of Song"); Marie-Pierre Arthur ("So Long, Marianne"); Daniel Isaiah ("Don't Go Home with Your Hard-On"); Les Hay Babies' Laura Sauvage ("Chelsea Hotel") and Li'l Andy ("I'm Your Man" & "Everybody Knows"). NEeMA sung and played "Avalanche," her finger-picking taught by Leonard himself. The backing band included members of Esmerine, Thus Owls and Shtreiml.

Musical offerings were interspersed with recordings of Cohen's unmistakable voice reciting his work, as well as readings of his texts by Montreal poets and writers. Will McClelland read from the epilogue to Beautiful Losers. "I hope the passage was a revelation to anyone in the audience still unfamiliar with Cohen's most radical book," he said in our interview, noting that appreciation of Cohen's music generally surpassed recognition of his writing. "But for me, the printed page is where he really whispers in your ear." Philip Tétrault, who maintained a relationship with Cohen for decades, played panpipes and recited his "Gypsy Fire; Lebanese Montrealer Rawi Hage read from Cohen's first novel, The Favorite Game; and Kathryn Jezer -Morton delivered "French and English," a satirical commentary on language, culture and politics in Canada. Noting the breadth of Cohen's work—which spanned poetry, prose and avant-garde forms of writing such as Dada—poet Kaie Kellough embodied Cohen's experimentations with language delivering a rapid-fire reading of a particularly psychedelic passage from Beautiful Losers.

Closing the concert, the performers all joined onstage for a final "Hallelujah" and Li'l Andy thanked the audience for coming to "this celebration of imperfection."

Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. You can read her past work here.