I was in grade three when I had my first favourite pop song. My classroom was a portable beside my elementary school that smelled like an old thermos. I listened to Z95 FM with a fervour that I haven’t been able to find since for FM radio. And for the first time in my life, I had a favourite song that wasn’t from Les Miserables. I was proud. I felt cool. I remember turning it up and my mum saying “wait, that’s a Leonard Cohen song”.
It was a cover, of course. A weird synth-y cover of Suzanne. I didn’t know who Leonard Cohen was, my parents didn’t listen to his records. My mum explained to me that she found his songs a bit monotone. But to me, this was the best song I had ever heard, who cares if there aren’t a lot of different notes. I called into Z95 and requested it, my first and last time requesting a song on the radio. I wanted to hear about the tea and oranges again. All the way from China. I could taste them.
I later lived in Montreal for six years and did a degree in Creative Writing, picking up another major in Communications Studies to round things out. I lived in Leonard’s hood, in a poorly insulated two bedroom apartment that I paid $300 a month for my share of. We had to shrink wrap ourselves indoors in winter, covering the windows in plastic and sealing it with a haridryer. We had two shabby sets of bay windows that peered out at the rambling walk-up apartments that lined our street.
I walked past where Leonard was reputed to live many times, in a jean jacket, in a wool coat, wrapped in scarves, in shorts dashing through a sudden summer rainstorm. It was on the way to anything north of me. Improbably it was reputed to be on Rue Marie-Anne, like the song. Would Leonard Cohen really be so “on the nose”? Wasn’t that just where people wanted him to live?
None of us who were paying attention should have been surprised that Leonard Cohen was quietly dying in Los Angeles this autumn. Apart from his latest album “You Want it Darker” which is obviously reckoning with mortality, there was the long article in the New Yorker, what turned out to be his last interview, where he talks a great deal about death. But learning about his death on the day Donald Trump became presented-elect felt like an extra punch in the gut, like the world wasn’t good enough for Leonard Cohen anymore.
In the New Yorker article, Suzanne Vega is quoted saying that Cohen’s songs “were a combination of very real details and a sense of mystery, like prayers or spells”. But his songs and poems could not be more hard won. He reportedly wrote 80 verses to Hallelujah before recording it in 1984. “Well, you get it. But you get it after sweating” he told Terry Gross in 2006. “I have to finish the verses that I discard. So it takes a long time. I have to finish it to know whether it deserves to survive in the song”.
This kind of genius is so relatable. My office is stacked with watercolour paintings of the same scrap of ocean. Malcolm Gladwell has a beautiful podcast that talks about Leonard’s marathon of a creative process.
I didn’t go back to Montreal for 8 years after I left. I finally returned for a midwifery conference in 2015. It was November and unseasonably warm. The city was charming, my old neighbourhood more gentrified, and crawling with midwives, who blended in neatly in with their scarves and mason jars.
We ate warm bagels standing on the corner of St-Viateur and and went shopping for sweaters. Four of us had a beautiful meal of confit de canard with a doting elderly French waiter. Several bottles of wine later, we ran west along Rue Marie-Anne, singing “So long Marianne” at the tops of our lungs.
As we neared boulevard Saint-Laurent, Leonard Cohen’s corner, a young woman approached us. She told us: you know, he lives on this street, Leonard Cohen. We knew. We were hoping he would hear us. She told us about the evening she’d spent with a dirtbag guy and then disappeared down an alley. It was perfect Montreal night.
At the end of her 2006 interview with Leonard Cohen, Terry Gross, she asks him about his preoccupation with beauty while not feeling particularly beautiful himself. Leonard says “Oh, yeah. I’ve felt, you know, like a snail. Like a worm, like a slug, you know, many times. I think the last time was this morning at breakfast.”
Just like his hometown of Montreal, just like all the good things, he was gorgeous and ragged and stinky all at once. He was my Suzanne. Showing me where to look among the garbage and the flowers. Bringing tea and oranges.