The poet and singer who once said he was 'not interested
in posterity' is now woven into the landscape of his hometown.
The news of Leonard Cohen’s death broke on the evening of Nov. 10, 2016. Within minutes, the pilgrimage began. Alone and in couples, walking hand in hand, people gathered at the doorstep of Cohen’s Plateau-Mont-Royal home.
Some lit candles. Others carried bouquets and personal notes and placed them on the doorstep where he used to sit, reading. A local artist cut out the letters of Hallelujah and hung them on a string across his door.
Cohen was a poet and a novelist, a songwriter and singer, aloof yet approachable, a star who remained modest.
He was a Buddhist who stayed true to his Judaism and who was fascinated by the Catholicism that defined the Montreal of his childhood.
He was full of contradictions, much like his city.
Leonard Cohen grew up in Montreal’s upper-crust enclave of Westmount, born to a father in the garment industry and a family deeply rooted in Judaism.
His lifelong friend Morton Rosengarten met him at summer camp when they were both eight.
“Leonard had a very sheltered childhood, with a nanny who took him everywhere,” Rosengarten says.
One place where the nanny took him and his older sister was right behind his house — Murray Hill Park, a source of inspiration in his early writing.
Just down the road from the park is the Cohen family’s synagogue, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, on Kensington Avenue.
Its cornerstone was laid by Cohen’s grandfather, Lyon, who was the president of the synagogue at the time.
Lyon’s own father, Lazarus, served as the synagogue’s president in a former location.
Along with their portraits, Cohen’s Juno award for his 2016 album, You Want it Darker, is proudly displayed in the foyer — a gift from the singer’s son, Adam.
Towards the end of his life, Cohen renewed his relationship with the synagogue of his childhood, asking the congregation's choir members to work on what would be his final album.
“At the beginning, we received rough tracks with his voice,” says choral director Roï Azoulay.
“We didn’t know what to do with it, what to expect. Or what they wanted.”
They began writing and recording options for Cohen.
Cohen’s son Adam produced the record and was with the choir in studio when the vocals were recorded.
Cantor Gideon Zelermyer says the congregation is happy to be part of Cohen’s legacy.
"It’s really touching for us and touching for our community," he says.
"There are many people who come here on a weekly basis who grew up with him, who went to school with him, who remember him from their childhood."
Cohen spent most of his time in Los Angeles toward the end of his life but was still considered an active member of the synagogue.
Cohen’s lifelong friend Rosengarten says it was around that time the teen was itching to break out of his sheltered Westmount life and experience Montreal’s exotic underbelly.
“By the time he was 16, he was starved to know what was going on on the other side of town. He loved to hang out on Ste-Catherine Street,” Rosengarten says.
Some of those vivid youthful experiences of Montreal in the 1950s would find their way into Cohen’s first novel, The Favourite Game.
Cohen swore the events were fictional, even though many considered them autobiographical.
“I made it up, out of my little head,” he argued on CBC when the novel was published in 1963.
He cheerfully admitted he’d been beaten up downtown for reading his work.
Cohen called it “a warming experience” which reaffirmed people’s dislike for him.
“Recognition and a sense of belonging” are toxic for a writer, he said.
A constant sense of alienation is one of the things he appreciated about Montreal.
“We’re alienated from the French, the French from the Jews, Quebec from Canada, Westmount from Snowdon, Saint-Henri from Côte Saint-Luc," Cohen said.
"The point is there are wonderful, alienated feelings thriving in this country. Everybody’s unhappy, or if they’re not unhappy, they’re dull."
For a time, Cohen found both recognition and a sense of belonging at McGill University.
He was president of both the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and the McGill Debating Union.
He was a close friend of poets Irving Layton and Louis Dudek, who were part of the second wave of Canadian modernist poetry.
Cohen said he honed his writing with the help of these two well-known poets.
Dudek began the McGill Poetry Series, chapbooks by McGill students, publishing Cohen’s first collection of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, when Cohen was 22.
The hardcover book was distributed on campus for $1 a copy.
But it wasn’t all business between the three poets.
Rosengarten remembers how he’d close the bars with Cohen at 3 a.m., then they’d head to Layton’s home to find “all these drunk people reciting poetry.”
Cohen, Layton and Dudek also ran a distillery in the basement of the Zeta Beta Tau, according to fellow fraternity member Stanley Hartt, a lawyer who much later became Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff.
“I was given the assignment to go down to the basement and say to Canada’s three most famous poets, ‘I'm sorry, but you have to dismantle this still and leave the fraternity house.’”
Despite dropping out of law school after one year because he failed Latin, Cohen maintained good relations with the university.
He is seen in archival footage in the National Film Board of Canada's 1965 Ladies and Gentlemen ... Mr. Leonard Cohen reciting monologues and poetry on campus long after he abandoned his studies.
Cohen's connection to McGill University lives on.
Sophie Zhao, an undergraduate and organizing member of the McGill Students Spoken Word Associated Youth, learned about Cohen after his death, when the university commemorated him on campus.
“I’m fascinated by how he’s able to turn raw emotions into beauty and poetry,” she says.
“Although I don’t know as much about Leonard Cohen as I hope to, this is very much a journey and a discovery for me.”
McGill Prof. Brian Trehearne, who teaches a course on Cohen’s writing, says about half his students know The Favourite Game and came to Montreal to study because of it.
“Another half probably know Hallelujah. They know that sweet old guy on stage from, say, 2008 and after,” Trehearne says.
He says students often aren’t prepared for some of the shocking work Cohen put forward as a young writer and some leave his class liking him less than when they enrolled.
“I think he was desperate for attention,” Trehearne says.
“More on the plus side of the ledger, I think it was important to Cohen to do something new with each major work. This is not someone who was content to spin his wheels.”
Cohen admitted on CBC in 1963 that he was happy his first novel was doing “its bit to spread chaos and trouble.”
His second novel, Beautiful Losers, released in 1966, was more problematic — its themes too jarring for many booksellers and critics alike.
Trehearne says the novel is “arguably, at times, both racist and misogynist. I don’t personally think Cohen was racist or misogynist. The novel has all kinds of people in it who are.”
(McClelland & Stewart)
Critics were less generous.The Globe and Mail newspaper called it "verbal masturbation.”
Journalist Robert Fulford called it "the most revolting book ever written in Canada," but "an important failure ... probably the most interesting Canadian book of the year."
At the time, it was a commercial flop.
Cohen turned to music to supplement his income — a move that, even in the 1960s, wasn’t a particularly realistic financial strategy.
But the inroads he’d made as a high-profile counterculture writer in Canada served him well when he arrived in New York City.
Thanks in part to Lou Reed’s love of Beautiful Losers, Cohen found himself welcomed into art epicentres of the day, such as Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd.
Lou Reed on stage. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
“I always thought of myself as a singer who kind of got sidetracked into literature,” he told CBC in 1966, as he laid the groundwork for his transition into music.
His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released the following year.
By the early 1970s, he was an international star and, with some financial means at last, he bought a duplex in Montreal’s still-working-class Plateau-Mont-Royal.
In the years that followed, he became known and loved on the Plateau as a prized neighbour.
The city’s indifference towards success — which frustrated Cohen so much in his youth — provided shelter from stardom.
The building on Vallières Street across from Parc du Portugal is just steps off the Main — St-Laurent Boulevard, the line that historically divides anglophone and francophone parts of the city.
Quebec writer and scholar Chantal Ringuet calls Cohen a bridge-builder between the two linguistic communities.
In 1963, in the early years of the Quiet Revolution, Cohen said that French Canadians were “an awakening people,” and he came back to Canada from his home in Greece to witness the revolution.
“I would like to tap the energy of this change of mind happening in my province,” Cohen told CBC.
Ringuet says Cohen served as a cultural mediator, straddling Quebec’s language divide.
“So this street, the Main, was the line that divided English- and French-speaking sides of the city,” Ringuet says.
“It’s a line along which Leonard Cohen danced.”
Cohen's physical presence is still on the Main, thanks to the large mural of him that Kevin Ledo painted on a building on Napoleon Street in June 2017.
As the mural took shape over three weeks, Ledo remarked on how people would stop and share their Cohen stories.
Simon Rawson, one of the owners of Bagel Etc, a restaurant on St-Laurent Boulevard just a stone’s throw from Cohen’s home, isn’t surprised by how much people adore Cohen.
He says tourists come into his restaurant asking to know where Cohen sat and then happily take pictures of the counter.
Rawson got to know Cohen when he started working at the restaurant in 2001.
He didn’t know much about Cohen’s work but held him in high regard as a person.
“The thing that impressed me is when he left he would never just walk out the door,” Rawson says.
“He would always go back to every single person that came up to him and shake their hand, or put his hand on their shoulder say, ‘Thank you, friend. Have a great day.’”
“Just a sweet man. A sweet, sweet man.”
Rawson would often look out the windows of Bagel Etc in the morning to see Cohen sitting on the stoop of his home, plugging away on his laptop.
He would wave for Cohen to come over, and they would chat over coffee before the restaurant opened.
Sometimes Cohen would stop in with his own plate asking for breakfast to carry back the few steps to his home.
For Cohen, who spent so much of his life in hotel rooms, the more simply he lived, the better.
According to his childhood friend, Rosengarten, he never even renovated.
“He would just live in the place, respect it,” Rosengarten says.
“Someone came to visit him and couldn’t believe he was still listening to music on a $20 ghetto blaster. That’s the kind of equipment he had. Incredibly modest, in life, always.”
Montreal’s appreciation has been less than modest since Cohen's death on Nov. 7, 2016.
A year later, the city inaugurated a nine-storey-high mural on Crescent Street, in the heart of downtown.
It's just a few blocks from Cohen’s first apartment on Stanley Street.
The mural, which faces Mount Royal, is based on a portrait taken by his daughter, Lorca.
In 1966, Cohen told a young CBC host named Adrienne Clarkson that he was “not interested in posterity.”
“I’d like the stuff I do to have that kind of horizontal immediacy, rather than the stuff that’s going to be around for a long time,” Cohen said.
It’s out of his hands now. Cohen is in Montreal to stay.
If you're in Montreal, download the Detour app and follow the instructions to walk Leonard Cohen's Montreal.
Writer and producer