MONTREAL — Those who had contact with Leonard Cohen during his life would invariably speak of his incredible presence — whether it was up close in person, in a TV interview or on stage during a concert.
Last night in Montreal, on the eve of the first anniversary of his death, his presence was keenly felt by the 17,000 people who attended a sold out, three-hour, star-studded concert in his memory.
Despite his physical absence, Cohen, 82 at his death, loomed large throughout the evening by way of his songs and spoken words, photographs, videos, paintings, poetry and self-portraits projected on screens above and next to the stage.
Intimacy isn’t something usually associated with a cavernous hockey arena, but a feeling of familiarity, togetherness and shared emotion prevailed last night at the Bell Center.
Chalk it up to Cohen’s endearing persona and innately human oeuvre, and the way they were showcased — coupled with the appreciation he’s always attracted from the public.
His family put together the event, billed as “Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen,” which featured an impressive lineup of Canadian and international performers.
From the moment plans for the event were first announced in September, it was clear this wasn’t going to be an ordinary concert. To be sure, Cohen’s music was the main focus — but there was much more during the fast-paced, emotional program.
As former Police frontman Sting opened the concert singing “Dance Me to the End of Love,” a black and white photograph of Cohen appeared on the upper wall behind the stage. Dressed in a jacket and tie, wearing his trademark fedora and looking out a window, it appeared that Cohen was three or four stories up, watching over the proceedings below — as if he were in a “tower of song.” The image would frequently reappear throughout the evening, rising higher and shrinking in size as the night unfolded.
Cohen’s 45-year-old son, Adam, a gifted singer and musician in his own right, was the co-producer and driving force behind the event. He stayed true to his father’s wishes, as he explained to journalists ahead of the concert.
“My father left me with a list of instructions before he passed: ‘Put me in a pine box next to my mother and father. Have a small memorial for close friends and family in Los Angeles… and if you want a public event do it in Montreal.’ I see this concert as a fulfillment of my duties to my father that we gather in Montreal to ring the bells that still can ring. It corresponds to the one-year anniversary of his passing, and in the Jewish tradition, that represents the end of a year of mourning,” said Cohen.
A hometown mourns — and celebrates — a native son
Leonard Cohen always remained strongly attached to his hometown of Montreal, even though he spent many years in the United States, mainly in Los Angeles, where he died. Following his passing, he was buried in Montreal.
Last night’s concert, a half-century since his first album came out in 1967, was the unofficial kickoff to a week of events in Montreal honoring Cohen’s life and legacy. They include a major multidisciplinary exhibition at the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art that will run until April. Israeli film director Ari Folman is one of many international artists who have contributed to the exhibition.
It’s a safe bet that for most of the audience, which was predominantly over the age of 40, Cohen’s music has been a constant in their lives, each song evoking vivid memories. The crowd listened attentively to the performances and applauded enthusiastically, many people rising to their feet after each song. At times, it almost felt like a communion, with the crowd clearly united in song, enraptured by what they were witnessing. Many in attendance had traveled from distant places to be there.
Five songs into the concert, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie appeared on stage. They spoke, in English and French, with great affinity for Cohen, arguably the most famous and internationally admired Jew that Canada has every produced.
“Leonard was an extraordinary Canadian but he was a giant of Montreal,” Trudeau said before his wife Sophie added, “As Montrealers, we like to think Leonard belongs to us, but let’s remember he belongs to the world.”
She then mentioned that at their wedding in 2005, she and Justin walked down the aisle to the sounds of Cohen’s most well-known song, “Hallelujah,” and took their first dance to “I’m Your Man.”
In addition to Sting, other performers included Elvis Costello, Feist, k.d. lang, Courtney Love, Lana del Rey and many others.
Together, often accompanied by a 25-piece orchestra including an extraordinary lute guitarist, and three female back-up singers, they performed 22 songs from Cohen’s illustrious canon, covering different genres.
All sang with passion and great reverence for the songs they performed. They gave the distinct impression they were honored to be part of the event, reflected in their heartfelt renditions.
Damien Rice provided one of the more poignant performances when he sang “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
Frequent Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson livened things up with an upbeat, jazzy version of “I’m Your Man,” wearing a commemorative fedora, like many men in the audience.
Ron Sexsmith performed a captivating interpretation of one of Cohen’s oldest and most celebrated songs, “Suzanne,” whose origin and lyrics are rooted in Montreal.
A cameo-filled video montage had Celine Dion, Chris Martin, Peter Gabriel and Willie Nelson each singing different parts of “Tower of Song.”
Adam Cohen performed several songs, his resemblance to his father in appearance and singing style clear for all to see, especially when he played “So Long Marianne” and in his duet with Lana del Rey for “Chelsea Hotel.”
In the first of a series of videos played between songs, accompanied by his distinctive speaking voice ruminating about life and sharing his pearls of wisdom, stills from different periods in Cohen’s life appeared briefly on the screen.
One showed him performing for Israeli troops in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 alongside Israeli singer Matti Caspi, with Ariel Sharon standing next to them. It’s unlikely many in the audience recognized anyone other than Cohen in the photo or could guess where and when it was taken.
Laughter among the tears
An evening devoted to Cohen wouldn’t have been complete without some lighter moments, given how humor was an essential part of his unmistakably Jewish sensibility. Several soundbites highlighted his characteristic self-deprecating wit.
Comedian and actor Seth Rogen generated much laughter when he took to the stage.
“I never had the pleasure of meeting Leonard Cohen,” he told the audience. “I did have a teacher by that name in Hebrew school but he was much less cool. As a Canadian Jewish person, I must say there’s no higher honor than reading a Leonard Cohen poem in the middle of a hockey arena.”
He then recited the lyrics to the 1974 song, “Field Commander Cohen.”
One of the many highlights was the performance in English and French by Adam Cohen and Coeur de Pirate of Cohen’s 1969 song, “The Partisan,” which he adapted from a World War II French resistance song. They played it as wartime newsreel footage unfolded on the screen showing German Nazi soldiers in action.
Equally powerful was the performance toward the end of the concert of “You Want it Darker” from Cohen’s final album that came out last October, a few weeks before he died.
The men’s choir from the Orthodox synagogue in Montreal, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, which Cohen, his father, and grandfather attended, appeared on stage wearing kippas and sang the haunting hymnal track like they did on the album alongside Cohen’s recorded baritone voice. The lyrics were projected behind them.
Adam has not only inherited his father’s musical talents but also his facility with words.
Speaking to the crowd as the concert moved toward conclusion, he paid tribute to both the audience and those who performed.
“The goal [of the event] was, as in many religions, to sing songs of praise for someone who is no longer with us. And I know my father would have been very grateful, not only for the beautiful love that you have given him this evening, but for his songs being kept alive by these beautiful voices and accompaniments,” he said.
After the regular program ended and all the performers appeared on stage together to take a bow and then exited to rousing applause, Adam Cohen returned to the stage, dressed in black pants, a black T-shirt and red bandana in his hair.
For his last intervention, he said he’d play the first of his father’s songs he ever learned — “Coming Back to You.” Such was the power of the moment and the audience’s attentiveness, you could have heard a pin drop.
Soon after, once the concert ended and the crowd began to file out, Leonard Cohen could be heard singing, “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
A year after his much-lamented passing for which there was no public funeral, it was hard not to feel that last night’s moving event provided a sense of closure for his fans, with the lasting solace that Cohen’s songs will live on for generations.
Proceeds from the event are going to three arts-granting bodies: the Canada Council for the Arts, the Council of Arts and Letters of Quebec, and the Montreal Arts Council, all of which helped Cohen financially in his 20s when he was beginning his literary career.