It's debatable whether Montreal needs a Leonard Cohen mural. What's not debatable is whether it needs two, especially when the second one is a monstrous insult to everything Mr. Cohen represents and will only destroy what's left of the integrity of a once noble 19th-century artery that has been losing a long war to neon and kitsch.
Leave it to Mayor Denis Coderre to describe the plan for a taxpayer-funded rendering of the high priest of Canadian song this way: "Between now and September, this magnificent wall in downtown Montreal will become a magnificent 8,500-square-metre mural of Leonard Cohen."
Believe me, there is nothing magnificent about the wall in question. It's an eyesore on the side of a chintzy 20-storey 1970s apartment block that should never have been built, at least not at the end of a long line of semi-magnificent low-rise Victorian-era walk-ups on Crescent Street. And especially not within eyeshot of the truly magnificent Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Crescent began its long descent into kitsch in the 1960s, when it emerged as the centre of the city's anglophone bar scene, where Mordecai Richler would famously go to gripe about life at Winnie's or Ziggy's. The street's fortunes went downhill for a while, but it's enjoyed a revival of late as ground zero for the partying that goes on when the Formula One comes to town.
That alone makes it the wrong location for a tribute to the reclusive Mr. Cohen, who began his life and spent his final years in Montreal. Montreal made him, and he it. The Westmount-bred Mr. Cohen regularly crossed over into the other solitude at a time when socializing among anglophones and francophones was still rare. The religiosity of Catholic Quebec, like his own Jewish faith, seemed to have a spell on him amid the emerging secularism of the sixties. His songs, from Suzanne to Hallelujah, juxtapose sex and spirituality in a never-ending cycle of sin and redemption. Set to music, his poetry becomes a Gregorian chant for the sexual-revolution generation, meant to be sung both plaintively and reverentially.
Painting a gaudy 20-storey rendering of Mr. Cohen is much like singing Hallelujah as a power ballad. It totally misses the point about the man, his art and the wisdom he left us with.
I'm not a fan of outdoor murals, in general, but I especially dislike the ones that are funded by governments or corporations. As an art form, murals are most powerful when they emerge organically in the roughneck neighbourhoods of the artists who paint them. That's why the barrios of South America have some of the best mural art, especially of the political kind.
I can live with the recently completed mural of Mr. Cohen in the messy and eclectic Montreal neighbourhood where he lived up until his death in November. It's much smaller than the Crescent Street monstrosity and it's got a raw Banksy-like quality to it befitting its surroundings. I have no idea what Mr. Cohen would think of it. He was a deeply polite and private man and it was only through his poetry that he bared his soul. My guess is he would have publicly thanked the artist, privately wished he wouldn't have bothered and then forgotten about it all.
It's not that Mr. Cohen was an artistic snob. "What it boils down to is that we're frightened of making fools of ourselves, politically and artistically. That's exactly what we must do – produce with courage to fail and shed this phony sophistry, this dream of urbanity that isn't ours," a 30-year-old Mr. Cohen told a crowd at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1964, according to a Montreal Star article from the era cited by Liel Leibovitz in his 2014 book on Mr. Cohen, A Broken Hallelujah. "Unless we explore our own possibilities – these things we consider corny – then we'll lose something valuable."
The populist Mr. Coderre has no inhibitions about making a fool of himself, politically or artistically, if it wins him a few votes. But that does not give him the right to insult Mr. Cohen's legacy with this hideous mural. Besides, how could he ever top it? Because you know he'd want to. With one of Celine Dion plastered over all 47 storeys of Place Ville Marie?
Personally, my idea for a Cohen memorial would involve a statue of his early muse, Suzanne, near her place by the river, among the garbage and the flowers, wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters.