Montreal Remembers Leonard Cohen
About two years ago, when the Musie d’art contemporain de Montreal approached native son Leonard Cohen about a collaborative exhibit, the famed singer, songwriter and poet took two days to decide. He finally said yes, but added that he wouldn’t be attending. It was his most salient prediction. He died Nov. 7, 2016.
But I did attend. I flew to Montreal from the United States for the city’s celebration of Cohen and the opening of the museum’s homage, all of which happened on the anniversary of his death. I arrived too late for the tribute concert – with such luminaries as Sting, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Feist, Philip Glass and many more celebrating his songs — but it was easy to see the affection the city had for Cohen as there were two immense portraits of the singer looming over the commercial area and his old neighborhood painted on the outside walls of buildings. The one in the shopping area was at least 10 stories tall.
The museum’s comprehensive celebration included many disciplines, including sound, video and modern dance. Indeed, the exhibit called “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” was an absolute maze with every stop including a sensory-deprivation room and animation from Israeli director Ari Folman, whose award-winning animated feature, “Waltz With Bashir,” was designed to make one both observe and listen.
I caught up with Folman, who told me he loved Montreal because “It’s so calm, peaceful and cultural.” He was surprised when the museum contacted him about contributing but glad they did.
“I just adore the guy,” he said. “The way Leonard Cohen had invented himself so many times from the beginning was incredible.”
To fully appreciate Cohen, I decided to take a walking tour of his neighborhoods and haunts. However, to do that I needed to find an appropriate cicerone, and that person turned out to be licensed guide Darren Shore.
Since Cohen was Jewish and grew up in Montreal at a time when the Jewish community was extremely vibrant with budding entrepreneurs (the Bronfmans of Seagrams liquors), writers (Mordecai Richler), actors (William Shatner) and songwriters like Cohen, I decided to begin my quest by having lunch at Schwartz’s Deli on St. Laurent Boulevard, which has been around since 1928 and is now 50 percent owned by singer Celine Dion, also from Quebec.
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When Shore showed up, however, he guided me across the street to The Main and said this was Cohen’s preferred deli, where he enjoyed not only the smoked meat (pastrami in the United States) but also the baby-back ribs. The waitress even showed me his favorite booth.
Cohen’s house was a very plebian abode in a Portuguese neighborhood at 28 Rue Valliers across a narrow road from Portuguese Park, a neighborhood enclave. Cohen’s son still lives in the home, and on the anniversary of his father’s death candles and flowers appeared on his doorstep.
Cohen’s life in his native city was tied up in Montreal’s old Jewish neighborhoods, now called Mile-End. Shore pointed out numerous points of interest, including the Shubert Baths, built in 1929 when the surrounding apartments were all cold-water flats, and erotic stores that were once Yiddish theaters.
Most interesting stops were the Baron Bing High School, which Mordecai Richler and William Shatner attended and which is now a community center, and Wilensky’s, a sandwich shop first opened in 1932 that not only was a Cohen hangout but is also immortalized by Richler in “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.” A scene in the movie was shot there, as well.
At this point on our quest the locations were all east of Mount Royal Park. On the border of the park, in Outremont, where the wealthy French-speaking citizens of the city lived, we headed to the Jewish Cemetery of Mount Royal. Not far inside the gates is a tombstone busy with flowers, books and all sorts of dedications – Cohen’s gravesite. He was buried at his bequest next to the resting places of his parents and grandparents.
Next we traveled over the top of the park to Westmount, where the wealthy English-speaking Montreal inhabitants once lived. Cohen grew up here in the house at 599 Belmont St. It’s also possible to visit the synagogue Shaar Hashomayim, which the Cohen family attended, and Westmount High School, where Leonard graduated.
For years at a time Cohen lived elsewhere in the world, but he always came back to his hometown. He once said he was suspicious of anyone who didn’t like Montreal. My sentiments exactly!
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- My excellent guide was Darren Shore at [email protected]
- The Museum of Jewish Montreal also runs tours.
- Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal. The Cohen exhibit closes April 9, 2018.
- Cultural eateries
Watch this video of Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah in remembrance of this legend.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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