It’s been a year since the passing of iconic Montrealer Leonard Cohen and it seems the city, and its people, are still struggling to process his death. Since there was no public funeral when Cohen died on Nov. 7—only a small memorial for close friends and family in Los Angeles—Cohen superfans from around the world are descending on Montreal to find some closure.
This week marks the beginning of an extended, multi-disciplinary celebration of Cohen’s life, art, and profound impact through music, visual art and film. It includes an international exhibition entitled Leonard Cohen: Une brèche en toute chose / A Crack in Everything at Montreal’s Musée d'art contemporain (MAC), featuring new works created by local and international visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians; a POP Montreal festival concert series entitled Leonard Cohen: 5 concerts / 5 albums; the CBC’s free walking tour of Cohen's Montreal, narrated by singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright; and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ Dance Me To The End Of Love (June 7-9), paying tribute to Cohen.
The festivities kicked off at the Bell Centre, where close to 16,000 Cohen fans gathered for Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen—a celebration of Cohen’s legacy by world-famous musicians and lesser-known artists who were invited by Cohen’s family to pay homage to their beloved Leonard. Proceeds from the event will be shared by several of Canada’s arts organizations “in an effort to continue the legacy of great works,” Cohen’s managers had said.
The event—a complex undertaking involving a full orchestra and numerous performers—was expertly produced and seamlessly executed by renowned record and concert producer Hal Willner. “Leonard Cohen is a literary and musical icon of word-craft,” said Willner, expressing the “endeavor to present a tribute to an artist who is universally acknowledged as one of the great poets and songwriters of all time.”
The concert was co-produced by Cohen’s son, singer-songwriter Adam Cohen. “My father left me with a list of instructions before he passed: ‘Put me in a pine box next to my mother and father... And if you want a public event, do it in Montreal,’” he said in a press release. “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.”
There was a ceremonial, almost religious atmosphere in the arena, as thousands of Cohen fans from Montreal and around the world took their places in silence. Two screens on either side of the stage announced the performers, opening with Sting and his cover of “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Next, Feist sang “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” and then Patrick Watson covered “Who By Fire.” Longtime Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson performed a moving rendition of “I’m Your Man.” Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites of The Lumineers performed “Democracy” with the American flag projected behind them.
The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, attended the show with his wife Sophie. The two spoke of Cohen’s stature as a Canadian and Montrealer, and of his impact on their family. Then came Ron Sexmith with “Suzanne”; Elvis Costello with an intriguing arrangement of “The Future”; and Damien Rice with a heartrending “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Photos of Cohen, his unique drawings, and clips of him reading his poetry with that unmistakable voice and cadence, were projected onto a large screen, making his presence felt throughout.
Cohen’s son Adam performed “So Long, Marianne” with the Webb Sisters, closing the performance with a poignant quote from Leonard’s farewell letter to his dying muse, Marianne Ihlen: “Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.” He later returned in duet with Lana Del Rey (“Chelsea Hotel”) and again with Damien Rice and Québécoise singer-songwriter Coeur de Pirate (“Partisan”).
“Tower of Song” opened the second half of the evening, performed by the choir of Shaar Hashomayim synagogue (invited by Cohen to contribute to his final album), with video of Willie Nelson, Celine Dion and Coldplay’s Chris Martin offering their own distinct delivery of the song’s potent lyrics, demonstrating just how broad Cohen’s influence really was — from country and pop to punk-rock and grunge (Courtney Love with a rocked-out cover of “Everybody Knows”) to R&B (soul singer-songwriter Bettye LaVette with a smouldering, bluesy rendition of “Secret Life”), and beyond.
Børns, an American singer-songwriter, delivered an exquisite cover of “If It Be Your Will”—an exciting discovery for many in attendance, as he was strategically positioned between world-renowned musicians by the event's producer. Proud Canadian Seth Rogen was a surprise; “I’m here because I’m a huge Leonard Cohen fan,” he said before reciting “Field Commander Cohen,” laughter erupting when he noted that as a Canadian Jewish person, there was no greater honor than reading a Cohen song in the middle of a hockey arena.
“I was in a totally altered state of unconditional love,” said one audience member after the show. She was clearly not alone.
Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. You can read her past work here.