My solo evening meal at one of Leonard Cohen’s favorite haunts. Perhaps the main reason why I came was to figure out why I came…
[ Parc du Portugal, in the evening ; Leonard Cohen as an almost-young upstart, from his first album cover circa 1968 ; Moishe’s Rumanian ambience ; Leonard Cohen as an old upstart, performing in London to wide acclaim, aged 75. ]
Among the numerous curiosities and accoutrements of the city of Montreal is the tiny Parc du Portugal where I found myself sitting and holding vigil one recent twilight. The park is just off a fairly main thoroughfare of the city, although in a rather sedate quarter of it. By the looks of things at this hour, it is largely ignored, bypassed by pedestrian and vehicle alike in favor of the promising festivity of Little Italy eight or so blocks north. There are benches, some comforting trees, a nice abandoned gazebo and a dedication plaque mentioning something about a wave of Portuguese who arrived and settled the area early in the 1900s. Although there are a sprinkling of tiny mom & pop Portuguese establishments eking out a survival among the neighboring blocks, serving quality fare from the looks of things through their windows, you couldn’t really say that this was a Portuguese enclave. Perhaps in a bygone era. Still, it is a tiny peaceful haven — one I’m resolved to occupy for half an hour — at least — for one unspectacular reason. Because Leonard Cohen wrote these lines in a snatch of poetry some decades ago while habitually gazing out his third floor window across the street:
“From a third-storey window above the Parc du Portugal, I’ve watched the snow come down all day. As usual, there’s no one here. There never is…”
At least I’m here, Leonard, I thought. Though admittedly it is not quite yet the time for Montreal’s formidable snow accumulations. But you can smell it’s approach. It’s not a bad spot at all, once you settle in. I positioned myself on a corner bench to scan the bordering side streets to find Leonard’s old place. I knew what it looked like from a photograph. Suddenly there it was, not quite mid-block, off to my left. Here was the place he had composed a good portion of his first two albums, and much poetry and no small amount of later pieces. Like Cohen himself, the place was unpretentious, even disarmingly ordinary. It was a powerful imagination of mine, supposing about the 30-something poet who inhabited this edifice, pausing often more than forty years ago to gaze down at my park bench while deliberating over the truth value of some poignant word or phrase.
“Well, I’ve been waiting, I was sure
we’d meet between the trains we’re waiting for
I think it’s time to board another
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart of this
or any other matter.
When he talks like this, you don’t know what he’s after.
When he speaks like this, you can’t tell what he’s after.”
Or perhaps he was sniffing out a melody. He’s thought of as a master lyricist, with justification. (I’d read once in some interview that he habitually wrote six to ten times as many stanzas as actually appeared in the final edit of his songs.) But LC’s melody lines were just as wonderful and evocative. Dylan remarked this on more than one occasion — an oft overlooked aspect of Cohen’s talent. ‘Travelling Lady’, ‘Stranger Song’, and ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ leap to mind from his debut 1968 album. But an especially obscure favorite of mine is the ethereal ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ from a follow-up album. Part dirge, part stream of consciousness tone poem, the tune unravels rather than proceeds, concocting a haunted portrait of an acquaintance gone sour. Cohen himself once expressed a vaguely itching dissatisfaction with the song, as though he could never quite resolve how to finish it, but for me that well expresses it’s charm.
Cohen loved this city, and the feeling is more than mutual. Walking the few blocks south from the park to Moishe’s, as he often had, I pass an enormous dark purple portrait of him occupying six or so stories on the side of a building. I also pass the neighborhood trappings he liked. A few classic old authentic Jewish delis, their mainstay item the smoked meat on rye sandwiches Montreal is famous for. In NYC they are known as corned-beef, but they taste even better here. People are lined up for fifty feet out the door down the sidewalk for one of them, fifteen minutes before opening time. You’d think nothing of it to pass by the 80-year-old greasy windows. Leonard had a favorite booth at this place.
“In Montreal spring is like an autopsy. Everyone wants to see the inside of the frozen mammoth. Girls rip off their sleeves and the flesh is sweet and white, like wood under green bark. From the streets a sexual manifesto rises like an inflating tire: the winter has not killed us again!”
One fall day I visited the neighborhood near the old import customs house down in Old Port, about two kilometers south of my park bench. There is an old chapel there built in 1771, distinctive but somewhat dwarved amidst more modern buildings. It is a place where seafarers used to come for warm soup and moral comfort before heading out to their dangerous labors. On the rear roof, roughly above the altar, stands a statue of Christianity’s mother figure extending her grace down upon the city and river. Somewhere in this vicinity, two blocks from the water, once lived the Suzanne of Leonard’s very popular and beautiful song. The lady who fed him tea and oranges and got him on her wavelength. And it is this chapel’s statue which occasioned the lines: “And the sun pours down like honey on Our Lady of the Harbor. And she shows you where to look amid the garbage and the flowers…”. As a young man coming of age as an artist, Cohen was thrilled to discover this more bohemian district which contrasted with the upper middle class neighborhood of his youth, Westmount. One must imagine it back then, before gentrification. It had to be absolutely wonderful. Affordable flops, a steady in-streaming of international visitors — I’m certain I would have loved it.
“Let judges secretly despair of justice: their verdicts will be more acute. Let generals secretly despair of triumph; killing will be defamed. Let priests secretly despair of faith: their compassion will be true.”
Moishe’s is a semi-posh old world steak house whose elegance belies its external rather run-down appearance. It was built and opened by Romanian immigrants in 1938, and god, did they know how to cook! To say I’d been in an authentic steak house during the past ten years would be stretching things. In order to consume this type of feast, I needed to order as much salad and vegetable side dishes and carbonated water as possible, for balance. Delicious though. I was told that Leonard normally favored the lamb chops and also liked it with their creamed spinach. He liked taking his family and friends here when they paid him visits. Pricey menu, even sans wine, though I figure it an appropriate cost for a pilgrimage. It’s an occasion for me to eat s-l-o-w-l-y and think about his body of work.
“Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.”
Considering his middle period and later stuff, one gets the impression of a meticulous thinker who is equally concerned with the presentation. He is a songster, a poet, not an essayist. Never unaware of the commercial aspect of things, he admits to himself: this is how I earn my keep. But he never gets flashy, never gives into the seduction of wanton consumerism for a second. In fact he lives spartanly, treating it like an artistic as well as human duty to think seriously and perceptively on the prospects of our times. He watches the way the wind blows, and sees in advance of most.
“I feel,” says Cohen a little later, when we’re alone, “that we’re in a very shabby moment, and neither the literary nor the musical experience really has its finger on the pulse of our crisis. From my point of view, we’re in the midst of a Flood of biblical proportions. It’s both exterior and interior. At this point it’s more devastating on the interior level, but it’s leaking into the real world. I see everybody holding on in their individual way to an orange crate, to a piece of wood, and we’re passing each other in this swollen river that has pretty well taken down all the landmarks, and pretty well overturned everything we’ve got. And people insist, under the circumstances, on describing themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ It seems to me completely mad.”
(quote above from an interview done by the writer Pico Iyer, who visited Cohen in the late ’90s while he was staying at a Zen retreat, as one of the cooks, on Mt. Baldy in California, near L.A.)
A remark I often hear from the wide mass of people who are aware of Leonard Cohen’s music, at least the better known stuff, but do not rise in their opinions to the idea that he was great, is that his writing is too moody and dark. Good, okay, but it dwells on the darker side of life. I’ll spare you how much this kind of thinking both grates upon and strikes me as inaccurate, and let the man himself deal with the topic. He was once confronted with the trope by an interviewer. Interestingly, the question made him thoughtful for a long moment before fashioning his response.
“I don’t consider pessimism or darkness to be a defining characteristic of my work. I would say that the uniting theme for all my work has been a consistent effort to express the truth, honestly. I like a good joke as much as the next fellow. But the truth of the matter is that when you are alone with your thoughts at night — it simply is not all that funny.”
Cohen surprised, even amazed, his adult children one day in the summer of 2016 during a conversation about world affairs. He declared his certainty that the world would be beset by the election of Trump and all this entails. A prediction forseen some months before his death, and though he survived the election by a week or so, he never had to co-exist with the actual administration.
These days, what with living near Montreal, more experience, and perhaps witnessing my own sensibilities migrate a bit closer in some ways to those of Mr. Cohen’s, I’ll admit that it is not unusual for a song snatch or two from this great man’s oeuvre to find itself playing out within my inner theater. Yet! I conclude by passing a couple of favorites along to you.
“They laid down beside me I made my confession to them,
they touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem,
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn,
they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem…”
“I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless blue screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA…”
[ Grey brick 3-story townhouse which Cohen owned for half a century ; Our Lady of the Harbor atop the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours looking out over the river from Old Port, Montreal ; Parc du Portugal in winter ; 60-foot tall mural portrait of LC painted on side of an apartment building a few blocks south of his place within a year after his death. ]
Notes: The lines about Parc du Portugal are from a poem called ‘Titles’ which appeared within ‘Book of Longing’, a collection of Cohen’s poems published around 2006. Most of Leonard Cohen’s songs have a decidedly haunting quality about them — they remain with you — and I’ve sprinkled this piece with several of my favorite lines and ideas from him.
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