Leonard Cohen superfans make pilgrimage to Montreal ahead of tribute concert

Devotees of the Montreal poet and singer-songwriter came together Sunday to witness Leonard Cohen's Montreal, as excitement builds for Monday's concert on the eve of the first anniversary of his death.

There was no public funeral when Cohen died, so those flocking here 1 year later see concert as closure

Elizabeth Bacon-Smith sits in front of Leonard Cohen's childhood home on Belmont Avenue in Westmount during Sunday's Cohen tour of the city. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

"I love how cold it is," says Florida resident Elizabeth Bacon-Smith, as the rain starts to pelt her during Sunday's Leonard Cohen tour of Montreal.

November rain can't dampen her mood, which is bright and bubbly as she engages other members of the tour in chit-chat outside Cohen's childhood home in Westmount.

"It's very dark," comments another tourist, as the grey clouds moved in. 

"Did someone say 'We want it darker?'" he quips.

Cohen fans within earshot laugh at the inside joke.

The tour was organized by members of an online community of Cohen aficionados. About 100 of them from around the world have flown in for this day-long tour, as well as Monday's concert, Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen.

Cohen, like an older brother

At 599 Belmont Avenue in the tony enclave of Westmount, members of the tour show themselves into Cohen's childhood backyard.

The home's current residents have allowed organizers to bring two busloads of fans onto the small patch of grass — from there, they can gaze into Murray Hill Park, where Cohen met his mysterious Spanish guitar instructor as a teen.

Bacon-Smith has been to Montreal to visit Cohen landmarks before, and she travelled to four European countries while he was still alive, following his tours.

"He's made all the difference in my life, in how I deal with things," she says. "When I've suffered losses that I shouldn't have, he's kept me from getting bitter."

After visiting the Cohen family synagogue, the tour is already tight on time and skips the Mount Royal Belvedere, stopping instead for 5 minutes at this more accessible lookout. (Elysha Enos/CBC)
She plays down her level of fandom, saying she only saw him about 25 times in concert and, despite being the most prolific poster to the fan forum that brought this group together, she thinks her posts might not be the most well-crafted.

Just the same, Cohen sent her Dance me to end of love, "signed by him, thanking me for all the years of loyalty at my ten-thousandth post," Bacon-Smith says.

The fan-artist relationship she cultivated with him over the decades resulted in him inviting her backstage at shows for pictures and autographs and sending her other signed memorabilia.

She says she thought of him as a loving older brother, guiding her through the tough times in life.

In periods of pain, she says, she's always been able to refer back to Cohen's work for healing.
At Saint-Viateur Bagels, Elizabeth Bacon-Smith beams as workers behind her deftly demonstrate bagels are made. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

A chance at closure

The chartered buses weave over Mount Royal and into Mile End, getting temporarily caught in a few tight, residential streets.

Some of its passengers have come from Europe, and as far away as Taiwan, for the concert and tour. Montreal-based fans were to join members of the tour for a dinner at Moishes, one of Cohen's favourite restaurants, Sunday evening.

Tour co-organizer Chris Karl, from Austria, has been a Cohen fan since she was 12.

She stands up in the bus to give the group tidbits of Montreal know-how, such as how one of their stops, Saint-Viateur Bagel, is the purveyor of bagels to what was Cohen's favourite coffee shop on the Main, Bagels Etc.

She says it's nice to meet other forum members in person. The Tower of Song concert has given them all an opportunity to come together and get closure after Cohen's death.

"There was no official funeral, and I think this is it," Karl says.

Tour guide Chris Karl offers commentary to Cohen fans travelling through Montreal inside the bus labelled Tower of Song #2. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Bruce Schmaltz from Alberta says he's in town for the concert because he needs to be part of the tribute "to a great man."

"Not many times can you say that in your life, you lived at the same time as one of the great poets, writers," Schmaltz says.

The group is looking forward to Monday's concert and remains curious to see which artists will be on the final cast list Adam Cohen worked so long to perfect.

Trayah Zinger lives in Calgary and is one of the younger Cohen fans on the tour.

"Lyrically, no matter what age you are, if you speak English, it's moving," Zinger says.

The tour was to join Cohen biographer Sylvie Simmons later in the afternoon for a performance in Old Montreal, after seeing the Star of the Sea, the statue atop the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel that Cohen calls "Our Lady of the Harbour" in the song Suzanne.

Other stops on the tour included Cohen's family synagogue, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim and Parc du Portugal, across the street from the home Cohen maintained in Montreal for decades until his death.

Trayah Zinger says she eats gluten-free but had a tough time not going inside Saint-Viateur Bagel to claim the bagel and cream cheese included in the tour. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Bacon-Smith said she once read in a songbook that watching Cohen onstage was like watching God. 

For fans filling the Bell Centre Monday night, the star-studded celebration of Cohen's life and work represents more than a concert — it is a communal offering.

About the Author

Elysha Enos


Elysha Enos is a journalist with CBC Montreal.