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LEONARD COHEN AT 75; HE'S OUR MAN
By Juan Rodriguez, Special to The Gazette
September 18, 2009
Leonard Cohen performs "Dance Me to the End of Love" Monday June 23, 2008 at Place des Arts in Montreal.
Photograph by: Marcos Townsend, Gazette file photo
MONTREAL - When Leonard Cohen turns 75 on Monday, he won’t exactly be taking it easy. The quintessential poet-singer will be performing a concert in Barcelona, part of a world tour that started last year in May in the Maritimes and Quebec and has already yielded one of the year’s finest recordings, Live in London. With his customary grace and canny Zen energy, he seems to be saving his best for last.
Admirers and fans in his hometown hope to keep up with him, spiritually and psychically at least, at a 75th Birthday Gala at Atwater Library on Monday, with a silent auction and book launch of Leonard Cohen, You’re Our Man: 75 Poets Reflect on the Poetry of Leonard Cohen. Proceeds from the event will go towards the establishment of the Leonard Cohen Poet-in-Residence program at Westmount High School, which he attended way back when. The program would pay a poet to write at the school, thus inspiring students.
For the gala Cohen offered up a limited edition print of one of his art works, appropriately titled Back in Montreal, for the silent auction. Twenty poets will also be reading works inspired by Cohen. Margaret Atwood supplied the keynote poem, Setting Leonard to Music, to the book.
The brainchild of the birthday celebration and poet-in-residence program is poet Jack Locke, who also heads the Foundation for Public Poetry.
“Actually I’ve never met the man, and there are many who are much more knowledgeable of him,” he says in soft and well-articulated tones. A dinner years ago in Niagara-on-the-Lake with the late poet Irving Layton, Cohen’s mentor, opened some doors to Cohen for Locke to promote public poetry. You can’t get more public than Cohen, who describes his performing as “just the other side of intimacy.”
“Poets are notoriously poorly paid,” says Locke, “yet there is some appreciation of what (poetry) means in our daily lives.” Especially now that young people have more opportunities to express themselves – from daily routine twitter to deepest angst – due to the Internet and social networking media.
More than any other English Montreal artist, Cohen is beloved on the local francophone music scene. When he regularly renews his self-described “neurotic affiliations” with the city, he blends with young and old on the streets off the Main, his presence respectfully felt. The relationship with his local admirers is as intimate as it gets. Suzanne, from 1967, is one of the ultimate Montreal songs.
That adoration and respect for Cohen was evident in chats with various local musicians and singers at an event last week to announce the nominations for the ADISQ gala, honouring Quebec’s music industry (to be held Nov. 1).
Julien Sagot of the popular progressive rock group Karkwa says: “He was a big part of my youth and he’s still there today. It was the ballads that got to me – especially, like everyone else, Suzanne. I also live in the Mile End area, not far from his place. He’s a monster in the history of music around the world, but we have the chance to see him in Montreal as a person. He’s our neighbour.”
Superstar belter Ginette Reno: “Beautiful!” Although their careers are more or less contemporaneous, she’s quick to add that she’s only 63. “Let him live forever – and be very happy! And free, especially free, and peaceful.”
Yann Perreau, probably the city’s most energetic (and poetic) young showman, smiled widely at the mention of Cohen: “He’s aged very well. I can only wish that I will grow old with the kind of youthful wisdom that marks him with such elegance and grace. Chapeau, Monsieur Cohen, and happy birthday!”
Marie-Annick Lépine of folk-rock stars Les Cowboys Fringants: “He’s one of the great poets to come from chez nous, and that gives us great pride in his international reputation.” Added bandmate Jérome Dupras: “I think Leonard Cohen has done for English poetry what Georges Brassens did for French chanson, that’s to say, he has a real command over language.”
The words songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mara Tremblay connected Cohen with were: “My mother. Softness, tenderness, extraordinary poetry with magnificent melodies. My mother played his records a lot so he played a big part of my musical upbringing.”
Pierre Lapointe, the poetic prince of Montreal chanson, was emphatic: “He’s the very model of The Poet. He’s never been flamboyant, he’s always been very sober – but gigantic. It gives me a warm feeling in my heart to know that he’s a Montrealer, that we can pass by him in the Plateau or the Portuguese neighbourhood. I’ve never met him but he’s a real important figure in our lives, a figure who remains a Montrealer.”
Meanwhile, the gala will feature a DVD of birthday greetings sent by Canada’s doctor in space, Robert Thirsk, aboard the International Space Station. And the poet-troubadour himself tours planet Earth in a stage show as intensely musical as it is real-life poetic. The tour was necessitated by Cohen being fleeced by his manager for virtually all his accumulated earnings, beginning after Cohen retreated in the 1990s with his spiritual guide in a Californian Zen Buddhist centre.
After being shocked by the scam – he was left with a few thousand dollars – Cohen has been a model of industry: touring (he’s been consistently in Pollstar’s concert top-grossers), recording, selling prints of his art, finally bringing out The Book of Longing, and preparing another collection. An anniversary paring of his two 1960s novels, The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers is being released this week.
The poet and performer accepts the accolades, as he accepts the job at hand, with humility and humour and, again, that Zen vibe. No one does that combination better, and it’s been practical in setting him up for life (i.e. touring to recoup what funds he lost, selling CDs and DVDs).
Introducing his classic There Ain’t No Cure For Love, Cohen recalls the last time he stood on a stage, “about 14 or 15 years ago. I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream …” After listing the number of prescription drugs he’s taken for various depressions, he adds, “I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions – but cheerfulness just kept breaking through.”
Happy 75th, Leonard.
Leonard Cohen, You’re Our Man: 75th Birthday Gala Event is being held Monday at 7 p.m. at the Atwater Library auditorium, 1200 Atwater Ave. A silent auction and readings are featured. Tickets are $75, through (514) 484-9958. For more information see: http://www.publicpoetry.wordpress.com
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