Monday, 30 April 2018

My Leonard Cohen is not a Planetary Icon

I was not amongst the nearly 300,000 visitors to the Musée d’art contemporain’s blockbuster exhibition, Leonard Cohen Une Breche en Toute Chose/ A Crack in Everything, which closed this April 12th.  This show was three years in the making and I recall director and chief curator John Zeppetelli saying that he was both delighted and relieved when Cohen agreed to the concept of the show and generously made his entire artistic output available to MAC and its participating artists.  A Crack in Everything would evolve into a sprawling show that would take over six exhibition halls at MAC for several months.  It was a massive multimedia undertaking and wowed audiences.  Discussions are underway to see if a version of the show might travel to international venues.

As it would turn out, the show opened exactly one year after Cohen’s passing.  It transformed from an ardent celebration of a universally acclaimed Montrealer into something more solemn and commemorative.  It was an exceptional project that fulfilled its goal of marking Montreal’s 375th anniversary.

I am a native Montrealer and I happened to visit the city in March.  I could have gone but resisted the opportunity and this puzzled me.  So, I decided to reflect on that decision and I realized that I did not want the MAC’s version of Leonard Cohen as a planetary icon.  My reasons were entirely personal, emotional and subjective.  I wanted to hang on to my own version of Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen was very fond of my mother’s BBQ sauce and she was a cook at the BBQ Chicken Chalet in Montreal.  As a little girl, I would frequent the family restaurant, entertaining myself in a booth.  Occasionally, when I got restless I’d visit with customers.  If I was bold, I’d sing and dance for the regulars.  Cohen as a young man had a favourite booth and I remember him, keeping to himself reading and writing in notebooks.  Back then you could smoke in restaurants and eat your french fries.

I could never shed that image of Leonard Cohen at the BBQ, even as I grew up and became old enough to buy and read his novel Beautiful Losers or listen to his music.  Still, decades later I bumped into the now famous poet and bard at Concordia University.  I was with friends who were taking a class in Jewish mysticism.  Leonard was a fellow student in that class, which was taught by a conservative rabbi.  I remember standing in a circle after class and the students introducing themselves to the rabbi.  Cohen presented his hand ceremoniously and intoned “And I am Leonard Cohen”.  “Nice to meet you Lenny!” the rabbi exclaimed.  It was clear that this rabbi, who neither watched TV nor was in tune with popular culture knew who his famous student was.  It was delicious.  

I believe that as life worn on, with all its ups and downs–including financial upsets–Leonard Cohen grew into a humble man.  Perhaps, it had to do with his lifelong interest in spirituality, including Buddhism.  Whatever the cause, his acute sensitivity to the human condition of suffering was a magnifying lens for his talent, which indeed did connect with audiences worldwide.

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