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Leonard Cohen at his home in Montreal. (Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)
Leonard Cohen at his home in Montreal. (Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)

Leonard Cohen is woven through the fabric of Montreal's identity Add to ...

If you grew up in Montreal, like I did, you are bound to have a Leonard Cohen story. He was always around, sitting in the cafés, strolling down the street, relaxing on a park bench. My friend has a story of standing next to him at a urinal and striking up a conversation. Once you spoke to him, you always had a beautiful tale to tell.

I first found his record Songs of Leonard Cohen in a box of my mother’s old things she had left behind when she ran away from us. My mother had been a romantic flower child once and everything she owned had an aura of mystery and beauty to it. I played the record and it began to tell me stories about bohemian lovers and poets and mad women with feathers in their hair.

My dad yelled at me to turn it off. When he was nine years old, my dad was arrested for breaking into Leonard Cohen’s dad’s factory. He had a permanent vendetta against the entire Cohen family. Furthermore, my dad thought Leonard Cohen was ridiculous and a phony. What was he doing on our side of town if he came from a rich family in Westmount. My dad told me that Leonard Cohen rode to elementary school in a limousine. I imagined Cohen as a little boy, in a black suit, all alone in the back of a long, long car, writing notes to pass to the little girls in his class.

In any case, Cohen had left that affluent world. He owned a little house off of Saint Laurent Boulevard, next to the Portugal Square. And he wrote poems and songs about places around there. He was inspired by the riff-raff, makeshift, artistic life of that area of Montreal. He picked up on its romantic nostalgie de la boue and made something extraordinary from that sensibility. He was our Prince Hal.

He draws from the traditions of romantic poets, postwar existentialists, Shakespearean misanthropes, wealthy heiresses in Edwardian novels. This compound of beautiful, intellectual and edgy bits of literature is so potent that hearing a Leonard Cohen song puts you in a state of romantic rapture. It is a sort of madness, but the most wonderful kind. He turns broke girls into prophets, a messy bedroom into a shrine, a disappointed lover into Samson.

There is a religious intensity to Cohen’s writing. A lot of that comes from growing up in Montreal. There are Catholic churches everywhere, reminding everyone that that God is everywhere. God is sitting on your couch watching TV with you, refusing to help you with your lottery tickets, pulling your blanket up to your chin after you spent a night out drinking and saying you’ll be forgiven in the morning. The iconography of the religion and the idea of a world that is saintly, even though done in an iconoclastic way, suffuses Cohen’s work.

Jewish culture, in which Cohen was, of course, raised, abounds gloriously in the fabric of Montreal’s identity. The colourful, hilarious storytelling tradition of Montreal Jews affects the way everyone speaks in the city. The humour and magical realism brought from that tradition is evident in everything Cohen writes and says. His send-up of wealth as being a series of absurd postures and nothing else comes from the experience of a Jewish Montreal that had to work so hard to be accepted among the elite.

So I didn’t care what my dad had to say about Leonard Cohen; I loved him. I had read all his poetry and novels by the time that I had graduated from high school. I decided after reading The Favourite Game that I would always stay in Montreal and write.

I wanted to be Cohen. He had that impeccable and daring Montreal fashion sense, always wearing debonair suits and jaunty hats. I went to Eva B’s thrift shop, searching for clothes that he might wear. I bought an old blue velvet suit and wore it with a paper rose in the lapel and high-heeled black boots. I was a sensation at the bars.

It’s impossible to overestimate what a bad influence Cohen was on me. I have often blamed my tumultuous love life on him. He invented an over-the-top way of thinking about love. He turned the women he loved into Chekhov and Tolstoy characters in the breadth of a few lines. I chose boyfriends that would be good muses, the ones whose personalities worked on the page. I dated all the poète maudits of the neighbourhood. My young adulthood was a Leonard Cohen song.

Indeed, Cohen has affected the way everyone imagines themselves in Montreal, causing us all to be more sweet and brave. And while the city in part shaped Cohen, Montreal has been made utterly more magical by his work.

Heather O’Neill is the author of The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Daydreams of Angels, both of which were finalists for the Giller Prize, as well as Lullabies for Little Criminals. Her new novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel, will be published in 2017.

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