Friday, November 18, 2016

Growing Up & Living in Leonard Cohen’s Montreal

Montreal Memories & Nostalgia

Nightly Presence: Saint-Joseph’s Oratory (formally named Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal) situated on the western slope of Mont-Royal, sits proudly on chemin Queen-Mary near chemin de la Côte-des-Neiges as this photo at night shows. The green dome was prominent and visible from many parts of Montréal , including my living-room window while growing up in the central neighbourhood of Cote-des-Neiges in the 1970s and later on as a young adult in the nearby neighbourhood of Snowdon. It was and continues to be a reassuring presence for many, including persons like me who are not Catholic.
Photo Credit: © Alain Carpentier, 2007

An article (“Leonard Cohen’s Montreal”; February 28, 2015), by Bernard Avishal (an ex-Montrealer), in The New Yorker gives a good sense of the Montréal in which Leonard Cohen [September 21, 1934–November 7, 2016] grew up, including the transition and change to a more modern and secular society in Quebec during the 1960s, a period known  as La Révolution tranquille (The Quiet Revolution).

Many of the insights of the writer resonate with me; these describe my experiences. Knowing and understanding the city in which Leonard Cohen resided as a child and young man might give you a better appreciation and apprehension of his music, notably its use of religious symbolism and the tension between the sacred and the secular.

Avishal writes in the article:
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—a hymn to souls too carnal to grow old, too secular to give praise, and too baffled to mock faith—recently turned thirty. Cohen himself, now eighty, came of age in Jewish Montreal during the twenty years after the Second World War, and those of us who followed him, a half-generation later, can’t hear the song without also thinking about that time and place, which qualifies as an era. The devotional—and deftly sacrilegious—quality of “Hallelujah” and other songs and poems by Cohen reflects a city of clashing and bonding religious communities, especially first-generation Jews and French Catholics. Montreal’s politics in the early sixties were energized by what came to be called Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which emancipated the city’s bicultural intelligentsia from Church and Anglostocracy. The pace of transformation could make the place half crazy; that’s why you wanted to be there.
Religious thoughts seemed to be the gravest ones in Montreal then, insinuated, even inculcated, by its architecture, seasonal festivals, and colloquialisms. Cohen grew up in affluent Westmount, the best part of Mount Royal, about a mile from my family home in Snowdon—a neighborhood on a lower Western slope, where “the English” (as my mother called them) had no choice but to make room for Jewish factory owners, lawyers, and doctors. Towering over both our neighborhoods, impressing itself on our senses, was the dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory, Quebec’s great basilica, the dream palace of (the now canonized) Brother André Bessette, who healed the body and spirit of pilgrims—the place we simply called the Shrine. A. M. Klein, the first of the Montreal Jewish poets, wrote, “How rich, how plumped with blessing is that dome! / The gourd of Brother André! His sweet days / rounded! Fulfilled! Honeyed to honeycomb!” Its neon-illuminated cross was visible from my bedroom window, an imposing rival for the whispered Shma Yisroel of bedtime. The city’s ironwork staircases, its streets tangled around Mount Royal, carried the names of uncountable saints (St. Denis, St. Eustache, St. Laurent); the fall air was scented by rotting leaves and, on Rosh Hashana, polished synagogues. Fresh snow sharpened Christmas lights. Our curses, borrowed from Québécois proles, were affectionately sacrilegious mocks of the Mass: “calice,” “tabarnak,” “osti”—chalice, tabernacle, host. 
Leonard Cohen in front of his Montreal home in  the Mile End neighbourhood in 1977.
Photo Credit & Source: Montreal Gazette
Although this could be said of any major city, there is no city like it—Montréal is unique; it certainly stands apart in North America. After a graveside service on November 10th, 2016, Cohen was put to rest at Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery, located on the slopes of Mont-Royal. This is a fitting and poetic end for a man who was not only a Montrealer true and true, but also always a romantic and a mystic, a man who was both an inquirer and a searcher. Cohen was a man who was trying to understand, and in doing so, his music helped us understand. It had such an effect on me.

For more, go to [NewYorker]

Addendum: The best interview of Leonard Cohen was at his Montreal home (across from Parc du Portugal), by Jian Ghomeshi of CBC’s Q show, first broadcast on Thursday April 16th, 2009. You can watch the fascinating and informative broadcast [here].

I am taking a short break; I will return next month.