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Sean Michaels on Leonard Cohen: ‘He’s still here’

Any time we moved alone at night through Montreal, it felt like a tribute to Leonard Cohen. The thought might not occur to us at first, but upon reflection it was there. It was as if he had taught us the names for the colours the city wears, the particular browns, greys and gleaming bright white, the gone green of a small park's grass under midnight. It felt like a tribute to him to see lovers on the street, or a solitary drunk, or nuns or old men or sauntering tomcats. It felt like a tribute to be lonely or turned on.

I first fell in love with Leonard when I was living on Clark near Marianne Street; Neale put The Best of Leonard Cohen on our turntable and I was 21. That spring, Suzanne and Famous Blue Raincoat creased my heart in ways they hadn't creased it before. I was ready, I guess. I had never heard a record that seemed more right as a record, words sung into a microphone and pressed into vinyl.

The singer lived two blocks away from our apartment. Everyone in Montreal knew that he liked to eat breakfast at Bagel Etc. We would haunt the place, linger over mish-mash, in the hope of seeing him. I would picture him ordering a small glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I never glimpsed him. I wasn't facing the right way. Friends (women) told stories of encounters – exchanges of words, looks, mutual admiration under the awning of the gazebo at Parc du Portugal. On Thursday night, after news of Leonard's final exit, dozens of locals gathered there with candles, cassette tapes, memories. Nobody rallied them on social media: they just went, to take up space in a place he once inhabited. As a tribute.

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I don't believe in afterlife, but Leonard doesn't seem to count. He's still here.

The city was his in a way that cities are rarely anyone's. Montreal belonged to him, even though he also lived in Los Angeles, where the summers are balmy and the people have suntans. In springtime, Leonard wrote, Montreal's terrasses sprout from their cellars "like a bed of tulip bulbs." The "girls rip off their sleeves and the flesh is sweet and white, like wood under green bark." He went on: "From the streets a sexual manifesto rises like an inflating tire, 'The winter has not killed us again!'" Leonard knew this place. The tire is a bicycle tire. The wood's the trees of Jeanne-Mance Park, or Lafontaine, or Mont-Royal. He lived the right way in it – which is to say, bravely. He survived his share of winters. The gratitude Leonard speaks of, come spring – it is realer than any steam that ever fogged my glasses.

He did not go to concerts. I did not see Leonard out at cafés or at the end of the bar at Wilensky's, not by the time I was living here. I liked to imagine that he was in the sunny San Gabriel mountains, meditating. I liked to imagine that he was at his desk, working.

He was 33 years old when he recorded Suzanne. He was 36 for Famous Blue Raincoat. Hallelujah at 50. You Want It Darker, this autumn, at 82.

In a week where everything has seemed so black, Leonard's loss at first seemed insupportable. Another beacon winking out – one of the most dashing, mysterious, wise. Yet in the pale of morning, his death almost seemed like a lightening. Here is an ineluctable example of what one life can be. Here is some proof of a life's subtlety and significance.

I think of the recording of his performance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 – late at night, into the baying of the crowd. "Could I ask you, each person, to light a match so that I could see where you all are?" he asks. "Could each of you light a match? So that you'll sparkle like fireflies, each at your different heights?" Gradually they do.

"Oh yeah," Leonard murmurs, as if he is watching the world disrobe.

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Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone and author of The Globe and Mail's Heartbeats column

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