Leonard Cohen humbly accepted the Glenn Gould Prize on Monday, but not the $50,000 prize that accompanied it, instead donating the cash to the Canada Council for the Arts.
The 77-year-old Cohen struck a modest tone as he claimed the award, first by hushing a standing ovation and then by offering his reassurance to the roster of musicians set to perform in his honour.
“Thank you so much ... how very kind of you to greet me with such hospitality,” said Cohen, briefly doffing his trademark black fedora.
“I’m going to make these remarks mercifully short because I want to hear the music ... if there is any anxiety about performing in front of me, please let it dissolve completely. I go into bouts of childlike ecstasy ... when I hear anyone cover my songs.”
It was a joyful affair for the Montreal troubadour, then, as an eclectic mix of artists offered faithful renditions of Cohen’s best-loved tunes (well, most of them – his oft-covered Hallelujah was given the evening off).
Illinois country-folk songwriter John Prine, Toronto roots outfit Cowboy Junkies and Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor were among the musicians to fete Cohen while he looked on happily from the balcony above, applauding each performance and offering enthusiastic, two-handed waves to any musician who happened to glance up at him.
And former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson was just one speaker to compare Cohen to Gould, the eccentric piano virtuoso who inspired the biennial award, given for unique lifetime contribution to the arts.
“I think it is wonderfully fitting that the prize in his name goes to Leonard Cohen,” Clarkson said.
Cohen also opened up about his relationship with Gould during his brief time onstage.
He recalled meeting the Toronto native for the first time around 1960. A twenty-something Cohen was interviewing Gould for a magazine and nervously ventured to the pianist’s apartment to meet.
“This was before the days of tape recorders,” said Cohen, who recalled that the interview – intended to last a few minutes – stretched for hours.
“I was so engrossed by what he was saying, I stopped taking notes. Those words were burned into my soul.”
Until Cohen returned to his Montreal home to write, that is.
“I couldn’t remember a word that he said,” added Cohen, who became the ninth recipient of the Glenn Gould Prize and followed in the footsteps of Montreal jazz great Oscar Peterson and Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu Gould and Cohen would meet again years later, at Columbia Records’ New York headquarters.
“He was recording something sublime, I was recording something otherwise,” quipped Cohen, noting that he was, at the time, endeavouring to master the hip new slang.
“I said (to Gould), ‘Hey man, what’s shaking?’ He said: ‘I didn’t know you were from Memphis, Tennessee.’”
While Cohen avoided overt sentimentality in his words, an array of speakers from different disciplines happily offered testimony to Cohen’s brilliance.
Actor Alan Rickman compared Cohen to the 16th century English poet Thomas Wyatt. Celebrated author Michael Ondaatje discussed the ways in which Cohen’s 1963 book, The Favourite Game, helped him transition to life in Montreal as an immigrant to Canada. And Clarkson, whose friendship with the singer dates back nearly 45 years, said his two novels “made (her) life worthwhile.”
But perhaps most touching was the brief tribute offered by Cohen’s son, Adam, who performed Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye before closing the show with a rousing singalong take on his father’s 1967 hit, So Long, Marianne.
“I welled up when my father was speaking. I’m so honoured to be part of this honour,” Adam Cohen said.
“Thank you for the music. Thank you dad.”