A Tale of Two Lennys
Tea and Oranges in Montreal
When we headed to Montreal last summer, I had only one real objective: to visit the Mile End Guitar Builders Cooperative in order to meet Lenny Piroth-Robert, founder of Daddy Mojo Electrics, whom I’d interviewed by phone for my first book in 2011. But a different Lenny provided an unexpected trip down memory lane, a moment of reverence, and a meaningful photo.
I hadn’t thought much about what sorts of marks Leonard Cohen might have left on Montreal’s soul, but I got a hint on my third day there in the form of a nine-story mural depicting the singer wearing his classic fedora and a challenging mien, as if he’s sizing you up.
Montreal hosts a week-long mural festival each June, so every year more of Montreal’s plain brick walls are transformed into paintings by well-known muralists.
My girlfriend and travel companion Mary Beth wanted to take a walking tour during our stay, and we settled on the Original Montreal Mural Arts Tour, which focused on St. Laurent Blvd. in le Plateau-Mont-Royal, where we were staying.
Enriched and enlivened by their backstories, the giant paintings, which seemed to be everywhere, took on deeper meaning. Our guide also brought us up to speed on local graffiti trends and traditions.
At one of the tour’s first stops, we learned more about the borough of Plateau-Mont-Royal, and how the massive Leonard Cohen tribute I’d seen the day before had found its home in that neighborhood.
Beginning in the 1940s, the borough Plateau-Mont-Royal had a robust and lively Jewish population, evinced by the lines out the door of the world famous Schwartz’s Deli. Since the sixties, nearly fifty-thousand Portuguese immigrants also settled in that neighborhood.
Montreal-based artist Kevin Ledo, who specializes in large-scale murals celebrating diversity, and whose parents are Portuguese, created the painting for the 2017 mural festival. Choosing Ledo to represent Cohen, a Jewish artist, knitted the borough’s past and present together.
Festival organizers had approached the owner of the building several years in a row about hosting various murals on his building, but he’d turned down all previous requests. Approached about having a Leonard Cohen tribute on his wall, he happily agreed.
Our guide told us that when Cohen returned to Montreal later in life, he settled down in Plateau-Mont-Royal, where he’d owned a home since the seventies, and that that home was located just a short walk from where we stood!
Hearing that, I wanted to go, and here’s why: Leonard Cohen got me through.
When my older brother moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan for med school in 1970, he sold me his vinyl collection along with a portable Magnavox stereo with a drop-down turntable. I was twelve at the time, and as a result, my musical tastes ended up skewing ten years out of sync with my cohort. My musical tastes were (and are) heavily influenced by what my big brother had been listening to in college from 1966 to 1970.
I got my sixty dollars worth! In among The Ultimate Spinach, Traffic, Blood, Sweat and Tears and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, I found the hauntingly beautiful Songs From a Room, Leonard Cohen’s second album.
Growing up as I did in a working class neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana, I wasn’t used to seeing Cohen regarded as he is in Montreal, where he’s both a star and a local hero. Other than my older brother and sister and some of my misfit friends, few people I met in those days were attuned to his music.
I went deep with Leonard Cohen, researching and ordering albums through my local record store. I spent hours and hours in my basement bedroom, listening to his voice, his poetry, his stories.
Cohen’s songs played a big part in getting me through some troubled times, the nature and origins of which I wouldn’t begin to understand until well into adulthood. He came to my aid and helped me to see that, amid all of life’s pain and sorrow, one could find a messy and twisted way in to love. In his voice and in his words, I found a deep pool of calm and compassion that I had not found anywhere else.
Nowadays, when I mention Leonard Cohen, people under fifty, and even people in their twenties, often respond with, “Oh yeah, Shrek! The ‘Hallelujah’ guy”.
Well, yes, “Hallelujah” is a great song, and it’s been covered by over three-hundred other artists, but I, and my boomer cohort, tend to think of Leonard Cohen as the guy who wrote the ethereal, mysterious “Suzanne”, which Cohen released as a single in 1966, and which Judy Collins covered the same year.
“Hallelujah” was released a generation later in 1984, but would achieve much greater fame in the following millennium, thanks to a cover version by John Cale, which was used in the soundtrack to the 2001 movie Shrek.
I considered going early the next morning, but something told me to grab the moment, so while Mary Beth stopped to rest and enjoy a latte after our tour, I queried my phone and immediately turned up the address, listed simply as “Leonard Cohen Home”.
I headed northwest along St. Laurent Blvd., walking into the late afternoon sun. The map listing made me wonder if I’d find this historical site overcrowded, overdone, commercialized, cloying.
That would not be the case. Seeing the modest three-flat at 28 rue Vallières, I was taken by its nondescript appearance. There’s no signage, no brass plate, nothing remotely commercial. Not a thing had been placed in the service of tourism.
I took a few photos from one angle, warming up, wondering what I could possibly make of these gray doors, this stone box of a house. How could I create a photo that would possess a hint of the emotion I felt being at this locale?
Then I saw them: a small pile of visitation stones left by pilgrims who’d engaged in a Jewish bereavement practice, normally seen in cemeteries, of placing small stones on graves as an act of remembrance.
I walked from one side of the door to the other, and noticed my shadow in the frame. A beam of sunlight piercing the treetops formed a momentary spotlight directly on the pile of remembrance stones, a miracle, for this moment.
I hadn’t planned a Leonard Cohen pilgrimage. Had I done pre-vacation research and planning, visiting Cohen’s house might have been more like checking a box and less like the unfolding I experienced. My visit might have happened on a different day, at a different time of day, and the light and moment would not have been the same.
A second, even grander mural tribute to Cohen towers twenty-two stories over Montreal’s Golden Square Mile, on Crescent Street, the painting situated so that it can be seen from the outlook at the top of Mount Royal, four kilometers away.
In this painting, an older Cohen looks over his beloved city with a soft smile, his expression open, perhaps because the photo upon which the mural is based was taken by his daughter.
A bit more conceptual, Cohen presses his hand to his heart, from which a warm glow appears to be emanating.
We did visit Lenny Piroth-Robert at the Mile End Guitar Builders’ Co-op, and I’ll tell you about that inspiring visit another time.
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