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Leonard Cohen and a tale of two Montreal murals

There used to be only one Leonard Cohen in Montreal, a man of medium size and enormous spirit. Now there are two: one large, and another, very large.

Cohen died in November. In Montreal, laments over his passing quickly morphed into a discussion about how best to honour his memory in his native city. Mayor Denis Coderre and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard both spoke of it as a matter of some urgency.

Ten months later, commemorative intentions have crystallized into two similar, large-scale murals on the sides of privately owned buildings. The Cohen conversation we're having now is about whether either memorial is appropriate and, if so, which of them does the job better.

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Both are grandiose works, based on photos from late in Cohen's life. Any debate about youthful Cohen versus older Cohen – like the perennial wrangle over Nashville Elvis versus Vegas Elvis – ended squarely in favour of Cohen's fedora-wearing phase. The two originating images might have been snapped during the same photo shoot.

Things might have turned out differently if the projects' backers had consulted with each other. But those behind the earlier and smaller project – the nine-storey mural in Cohen's old Saint-Laurent neighbourhood, painted by Kevin Ledo as part of the latest Mural Festival – say it was a complete surprise to them when Coderre revealed in April that a rival 20-storey mural would rise on a building near Montreal's Golden Square Mile.

The mayor made much of the monumental scale of his Cohen, which is being produced by MU, with city funding.

"This magnificent wall in downtown Montreal will become a magnificent 8,500-square-metre mural," Coderre said, sounding like a real estate agent reciting stats for an unbuilt condo. (In fact, the mural is 8,500 square feet.)

The mural, painted by Gene Pendon and El Mec, isn't quite finished, but the outline and much of the details of its photo-based image are clear. Cohen strikes an avuncular pose in a peaked-lapel jacket and fedora, with one palm pressed to his chest. He looks about as modest as any man could when he's 20 storeys tall.

The residential tower receiving this image is right across Crescent Street from a Hooter's restaurant, in the midst of a strip of pubs, clubs and restaurants. Cohen's gaze seems to rest on the Sir Winston Churchill Pub and the Copacabana Discothèque, neither of which seems particularly germane to his legend.

The Saint-Laurent Cohen has other issues, most apparent when you face it directly. The image is set back from Saint-Laurent, on tiny Napoleon Street, the name of which bears a load of irony relative to a musician who was in no way Napoleonic. From a full-frontal perspective, Cohen, in a dark vest and bolo tie (and another fedora), looks down with some severity at the parking lots on all four corners of the intersection. A thick purple line swirls mysteriously around Cohen's neck and head. He seems to be threatened with strangulation, at the deadest intersection on the whole Plateau.

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Everything changes, however, when you view the mural from Saint-Laurent – the Main, where, traditionally, English Montreal met French Montreal. Cohen isn't visible at all a block or so south of the mural, but as you walk up the west side, passing three old-time Jewish restaurants – including the Main steakhouse, an actual Cohen hangout – his hat, eyes and lower face appear over the eastern rooftops. He seems to be peering over at you as you walk onto his turf.

Or maybe he's looking past you, at the derelict stonemason's yard on the Main's west side. This overgrown lot, in which tall weeds embrace chunks of abandoned stone, wasn't for just any old stonemasonry. It was the work yard of L. Berson et fils, makers of Jewish grave markers. Berson's sign, with characters in Hebrew, still hangs over the sidewalk.

When you stand under that sign, and look across at Cohen's face, his solemn gaze starts to mean something. He's an old man looking at death. You want it darker?, as he said on his final album. Okay: There's death – but it's not terrifying, because it's surrounded by an ancient frame of ritual that defines it not just as a calamity, but as a marker that gives meaning and urgency to life.

That the gravestone maker went out of business is a cosmic joke, which one can well imagine turning up in a Cohen song lyric. Who will mourn the dead when there are no gravestones left?

From that perspective, the Saint-Laurent mural wins. It overlooks a neighbourhood Cohen knew well, and brings vitality and personal interest to a static two-dimensional image.

The much bigger Crescent Street mural has less going for it. It succeeds mainly in making Cohen look out of place, as he seldom did in life.

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It's the Montreal equivalent of the two Glenn Gould tributes in and around the CBC's Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto. Gould hated live performance, and was so germ-averse he preferred to meet even friends only by telephone. In Toronto, however, his name is on a concert room, and his bronze likeness sits outside on a bench in the pose of a man who would like nothing better than for you, a stranger, to sit down and chat.

The main point of the Crescent Street mural seems to be to literalize the notion that Cohen was a giant in his field. The same dumb impulse underlies equally monumental portraits of Third World despots.

Cohen deserved something more thoughtful. Perhaps he'll get it from a forthcoming exhibition about his life and works at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, which opens Nov. 9. But whatever goes up on a wall, or in a museum, Cohen's best memorials are still his own songs.

Editor’s Note In a Saturday Arts article on Leonard Cohen, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre incorrectly referred to a proposed 8,500-square-metre mural. In fact the proposal is for 8,500 square feet.
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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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