Is Leonard Cohen the New Secular Saint of Montreal?


A mural of Leonard Cohen on a Montreal building. Credit François Ollivier for The New York Times

MONTREAL — In an octagonal chamber at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, a spectator in a trance-like state hums Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as numbers on a digital display leap up to 631. That’s how many people on Earth are streaming Cohen’s version of the secular anthem right now, each represented by a recorded voice humming the song.

In a nearby neighborhood is Bar Suzanne, a new speakeasy named after one of Cohen’s most celebrated muses and songs. The lyrics “takes you down”are written in bold black letters on the stairs — a playful allusion to the song. Olivier Farley, the owner, said he chose the name because “Everyone in Montreal is proud of Leonard Cohen — the French, the English; he is sacred here.”

Then there is the imposing, luridly colorful mural that stretches nine full stories down the side of a building in the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood. Pilgrims come daily to pay homage to the painted portrait of Cohen, staring plaintively from under his signature fedora. A second, even more towering Cohen-inspired mural, can be found in the heart of downtown.

Montreal has a real case of Leonard Cohen mania. More than a year after this poet, novelist and singer-songwriter died at the age of 82, he has become something of an urban prophet here. A new generation is memorizing his lyrics. There is the museum exhibition, “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,” inspired by his life and work. And Cohen-obsessed residents are making trips to Moishes, a storied steakhouse, to sample his favorite lamb chops.

In the pantheon of Montreal cultural figures, the soulful, self-effacing singer occupies exalted space. But befitting a deeply spiritual man whose art was nourished by Judaism, Catholicism and Buddhism, Cohen attracts a form of devotion here that can border on the messianic.

Gideon Zelermyer, the cantor of Shaar Hashomayim synagogue here, where Cohen once celebrated his bar mitzvah, said the liturgical melodies of his upbringing had brought Cohen solace as he was suffering from cancer. He was buried in the synagogue’s cemetery next to three generations of his family. “Cohen’s grave always has footsteps leading to it, no matter how high the snow,” Mr. Zelermyer said.

Cohen, he added, embodied his native city, its multiple cultural identities, the poetry of its potholes and imperfections. “What Bruce Springsteen is to New Jersey as a prophetic voice, Cohen is to Montreal,” he said. “His lyrics are not ‘Baby, baby.’ They are deeply profound.”

“The reverence for Cohen has become a fully fledged civic mania,” said Andrew McClelland, a.k.a. Li’l Andy, a 35-year-old, 6-foot-4 country singer who on a recent Thursday night led a group of singers through all the tracks of “The Future” (1992), one of Cohen’s most poignant and cerebral albums. The audience of aging hippies and twentysomething hipsters in the sold-out Gesù concert hall, listened rapturously to the performance, including a Motown-infused version of “Closing Time.”


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