Leonard Cohen fans take Montreal

The first anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s death saw international fans joining Montrealers in celebrating his legacy and the very personal impact he had on each of them.

‘Cohen week’ offered international visitors and locals alike a chance to meet and celebrate the icon

Mariana Redondo and Eliot Skene arrived at Cohen's Plateau home to put down flowers on Nov. 7, the anniversary of his death. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

The first anniversary of Leonard Cohen's death saw fans meeting in Montreal to celebrate his legacy and share the very personal impact he had on each of them.

Monday, the star-studded tribute concert, Tower of Song, made Montreal the centre of the musical world with artists including Sting, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang and fan-favourite of the evening, Damien Rice, delivering covers to a packed Bell Centre.

The week of Cohen events continued with the inauguration of a giant mural downtown, an expansive museum exhibition opening and even a public karaoke night in one of Montreal's Metro stations.

Cohen was sometimes called the poet of sorrow, and early in his career, his albums gained the tongue-in-cheek reputation among critics as "music to slit your wrists to."

Those labels conjure up images of a similarly dark and gloomy fan base — but upon meeting scores of those fans, they are, in fact, just the opposite. 

The Cohen fans in Montreal this week were a markedly upbeat and sociable bunch whose energy seemed suited for an Abba revival tour more than a final farewell to their idol.

But here they were, meeting each other and sharing stories of how his music helped them through dark periods of their lives.

Field Commander Cohen, Quebec's ambassador

On the anniversary of Cohen's death, Nov. 7, people lingered near his Plateau duplex off Parc du Portugal.

There were no big crowds singing So Long, Marianne, as there had been the night his death was announced a year ago.

People arrived one by one to stand in front of his door and contemplate for a moment.

A young woman arrived at the doorstep with roses — Mariana Redondo from Spain, named after Cohen's Marianne.

Her parents were devoted fans, she said.

For the two months she's living in Montreal, of course she chose an apartment near Parc du Portugal.

With her was Quebecer Eliot Skene, who said he's benefited from Cohen's ambassadorship during his travels.

Skene lived on the Greek island of Kalymnos for three years in the 1990s and said, "Everyone knows Quebec because of him."

Cohen owned a home in Hydra, Greece, which he bought in 1960.

About half a dozen people loitering within earshot of our Cohen conversation moved closer to listen in.

Nexus of Cohen fans

Cohen's Plateau home has become a popular draw for Cohen aficionados throughout the year.

When Anita Parmar moved to Montreal to study at McGill University 21 year ago, she moved into the area.

The exact location of Cohen's home was only a rumour to her, but she would sit in Parc du Portugal hoping to see him.

She received scholarships to study close to home in Ontario but disappointed her parents and came to Montreal instead, because of her love for Cohen.

"[I came] to study at the same school as Leonard Cohen. But more importantly, to live in the same city that Leonard Cohen grew up in and to experience the romance that he writes about," Parmar said.

Anita Parmar came to Montreal and McGill University because of Cohen and has recently helped to open a collaborative space for students, B21. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

She did graduate studies in the U.S. and then came back to Montreal with her Ph.D. in physics to open the innovation and collaboration space B21 at McGill University, where groups such as the university's student poetry club now meet.

Florida sun on a dark Montreal afternoon

On the eve of the Cohen tribute concert, a group of international Cohen fans boarded two buses, Tower of Song #1 and #2, on Peel Street.

The itinerary included Cohen landmarks such as his family synagogue, childhood home, Plateau duplex and the restaurant on the Main that he used to frequent, Moishes.

Eagerly sitting at the front of Tower of Song #2 was Elizabeth "Lizzie" Bacon-Smith.

She was so happy about being in Montreal that the misery of the cold day was lost on her — she only saw it as a nice change from her routine Florida heat.

"You're such a happy person. It's hard to believe you're a Cohen fan, his music is so heavy," I said, as we both got rained on at a stop in Westmount.

Elizabeth Bacon-Smith was one of about 100 fans on a Sunday bus tour of Cohen's Montreal. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

She disagreed vehemently with that calculation.

"It goes deep inside. We all have that angst. That's where he goes, to heal that," she said.

Later, we lost track of time talking about Cohen inside Saint-Viateur Bagel.

The rest of the group was nowhere to be seen as we walked back to Parc Avenue where, luckily, one of the buses was still waiting.

She started to run down the street, and I yelled goodbye — she stopped, wanting to run back for a picture together.

A feeling of long-lost family marked the connection between the ardent Cohen fans riding those buses.

Singing through stage fright

A motley crew of singers assembled later in the week at Montreal's Place-des-Arts Metro station to sing Cohen songs.

Anyone was free to sign up and serenade the crowd.

The event began at 4:30 p.m., and the crowd quickly swelled until commuters needed to squeeze past to get to the turnstiles. 

The karaoke event was organized as an accompaniment to the nearby Musée d'art contemporain's exposition on Cohen which opened that day.

Singers read lyrics off a monitor, while a band played behind them. 

Third in line was Lydia Yakonowsky who sang Tower of Song softly into the microphone.

Lydia Yakonowsky performs Tower of Song at the Cohen karaoke happening in Place-des-Arts Metro station. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

"It was terrible, I was shaking," she said.

If there is any artist fans can feel comfortable commemorating despite a bit of stage fright it's Cohen, who famously struggled with it for most of his career.

Despite her nerves, she felt she needed to be a part of this commemoration because Cohen's been such a big part of her life.

She said she lives near his Plateau home and was the second person to get flowers to his doorstep after news broke of his death last year.

She added that playing his songs is "the little light in the middle of my day."

And citing his song Anthem, as so many have done this past week, she said his work reminds her that personal struggles and pain aren't altogether tragic.

"It's so beautifully put, 'That's how the light gets in.'"


Elysha Enos


Elysha Enos is a journalist with CBC Montreal.


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