It was exactly a year ago today that Montreal’s favourite wordsmith left us. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting in a bar with friends watching the Habs play (does it get any more Montreal than that?) when the texts starting coming in fast and furious. I was numb for the rest of the night.
Since then, much has been said and done to honour him, and this month will see a flurry of events and activities around the city meant to, once again, remember him and pay tribute to his legacy.
Few attempts at commemoration, however, have managed to anger and baffle Montreal residents – regardless of which side of the linguistic fence they reside on — like the city’s announcement earlier this year that a mural (officially being inaugurated today) honouring its favourite son would be painted on the façade of a 20-storey building on Crescent Street.
I was one of the many avid Cohen fans who struggled with the location. Not only did I not understand the connection, I found it insulting. I desperately needed to find my peace with it. What did a street so — how shall I put it? — slightly basic, have anything in common with a man so refined?
Crescent Street. Land of the inelegant, the unrefined, and the uncouth. Where the weather-beaten, the off-the-boat, the out-of-place, and the slightly out-of-touch gather to drink and dance too closely to one another.
“What is the appropriate behaviour for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What’s the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood.”
Crescent is Montreal’s toned-down Bourbon Street and Vegas Strip all rolled into one, a place where American tourists congregate, looking for Quebec joie-de-vivre and French finesse, often too inebriated to realize they’re just talking to another hapless U.S. tourist from Missouri.
“We’re drinking and we’re dancing, but there’s nothing really happening, the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night. And my very close companion gets me fumbling, gets me laughing, she’s a hundred but she’s wearing something tight.”
Crescent is an amplified, jacked-up version of Montreal playing up its bawdry past. It hurts your eyes and ears. It wears its badge of Grand-Prix tackiness with ease and no regrets. Dresses are a little too short, heels a little too high, tans a little too dark, teeth a little too white, the cologne is a little too strong. Behind the glitz, the Nick auf der Maur alleyway reeks of stale beer and vomit.
“He is a courtly man, elegant, with old world manners. He bows when he meets you, stands when you leave, makes sure that you’re comfortable and makes no mention of the fact that he’s not,” acclaimed biographer Sylvie Simmons writes in the prologue of her excellent biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen.
“Darling,” he tells her, “I was born in a suit.”
What does Crescent have to do with a stoic, elegant man like Cohen?
Cohen was as much about sex and longing than he was about the sacred and the divine. He melded the two so effortlessly, you didn’t know where one ended and the other began.
“Nobody can say the word ‘naked’ as nakedly as Cohen,” wrote Tom Robbins in the liner notes for the Tower of Song tribute album. “He makes us see the markings where the pantyhose has been.”
The thing about Cohen, is that he exuded such baritone-tinged class and gracious depth, he managed to make even a poem about a quick blowjob at the Chelsea Hotel an eloquent study in existential angst and redemption. Of course, he regretted writing it later — it’s what a gentleman would do.
While the obscenity of an 8,500-square-metre mural to honour this city’s favourite wordsmith — ostentatious for a man so discreet – has ruffled feathers, to re-read his poetry and lyrics is to understand that Cohen was Crescent, too.
After all, a young Leonard wrote often about having his advances spurned, about the agony of longing, of pleasure denied, of wanting to be desired and touched by a beautiful woman. The only reason he even picked up a guitar, he willingly admitted in many biographies and interviews, was in the hopes of attracting that elusive female attention. Despite his mastery of language and the brilliance of his prose, Leonard was, in the very beginning and at his most elemental, just another horny boy with a wet dream and a master plan. His just happened to pan out better than most.
There’s some semblance of logic to be found in a mural in his honour being erected on a street where people go looking for love – of the quick and of the long-term variety. A street filled with equal measures of hope and desperation, one-night stands and connections; that easy companionship found in the bottom of a glass and the soothing embrace of a random Sister of Mercy.
“I know you’re hungry. I can hear it in your voice. And there are many parts of me to touch. You have your choice.”
Leonard knew who he was speaking to. In a letter to his publisher, he once said that he was out to reach “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.” That’s you and me, too.
Cohen managed to elevate the tawdry and the pleasures of the flesh into a religious experience. After all, isn’t our perpetual, very human desire for sex an out-of-body revelation, a prayer for the living, an imperfect glimpse into perfection, that light coming in through the cracks found in our bodies; a broken Hallelujah?
“Don’t go home with your hard-on, it will only drive you insane. You can’t shake it (or break it) with your Motown, you can’t melt it down in the rain.”
Perhaps, one can’t help but think, he would have been unperturbed by a mural on Crescent, familiar with the street’s lascivious, salacious, quick-fix associations and his own very real, very admitted relationship failings and desires.
Montreal’s graceful, wise, benevolent bard looking down on the lonely and the lusting, touching so many perfect bodies with his mind. His words compassionately serving for them, and for all of us, as a manual for living with defeat.