In the city he was born — where he is interred alongside his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, where there are two posthumous giant murals of him on sides of buildings, and his home is still in the family — Montreal’s Leonard Cohen was honored, a year minus a day to his death, at age 82.
Artists of all ages and genres, from Elvis Costello and Sting to Courtney Love, Bettye Lavette and Lana Del Rey, showed up to perform and pay tribute to the legendary singer-songwriter, Monday night at the Bell Centre.
“My father left me with a list of instructions before he passed: ‘Put me in a pine box next to my mother and father. Have a small memorial for close friends and family in Los Angeles … and if you want a public event, do it in Montreal,’” said Adam Cohen in a statement. “I see this concert as a fulfillment of my duties to my father, that we gather in Montreal to ring the bells that still can ring.”
Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen — named after a song on his 1988 album, I’m Your Man, and the title of a 1995 tribute album to his music — will air in Canada on CBC television on Jan. 3, and be released later as a documentary/DVD, directed by award-winner Jack Bender (Game of Thrones, Lost,The Sopranos). No U.S. broadcast date has been confirmed at this time.
Though produced by Hal Willner — the man behind many tribute events to songwriters and poets, including a past “songs of” Cohen, and the infamous Tim Buckley one which introduced son Jeff — Cohen’s 45-year-old son, Adam, a songwriter, recording artist and performer in his own right, spearheaded the concert. He helped assemble the formidable line-up, which included himself, Sting, Elvis Costello, Lana Del Rey, Feist, Coeur de Pirate, k.d. lang, Bettye Lavette, Courtney Love, The Lumineers’ Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, Damien Rice, BØRNS, Ron Sexsmith, and Patrick Watson.
Philip Glass, previously announced, didn’t appear, and some performers — like Sharon Robinson, Basia Bulat and Shaar Hashomayim Choir — were either surprises or late additions. Backup singers The Webb Sisters, Charley and Hattie — who toured with Cohen on his first tour in 15 years, back in 2008 until the end of 2010, then again in 2014 — also added their voices throughout the night.
The only departures from the musical contributors were appearances by Canadian actor Seth Rogen, who had never met Cohen, but is an avowed fan and fellow “Canadian Jewish person;” and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau. Cohen was a close friend of Justin’s PM father, Pierre, and had served as honorary pallbearer at his funeral in 2000.
Other than those three, Adam, and later Costello, no one regaled the audience of 15,600 people with stories of Cohen’s friendship or influence. Changeover was quick, one act after another after another, timed to a T, for the television production, even though it was not broadcast live. Most artists sang lead on just one number, except for Sting, Costello, and Adam; some shared vocals with Rice and Bulat.
On the backdrop, high and center, an image of Cohen — dressed in his trademark fedora and suit and tie — peered down from a window, watching the two-and-a-half hour proceedings all about him. One might imagine him making a refined joke about staring at everyone’s derrieres. There were also plenty of video clips, photos and audio of Cohen sprinkled throughout the show. A symphony orchestra filled most of the stage area, there when needed for various configurations.
Sting laid the first brick in the tower of song, coming onstage at 7:45 p.m. and singing “Dance Me to the End of Love,” adding the odd little dance move himself. Feist, who wowed people at Canada’s Juno Awards earlier this year, chosen as the artist to perform during the In Memoriam, again sang “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” along with two backing vocalists (she actually released it as a single days before). Patrick Watson played a remarkable “Who By Fire,” drawing the audience in with its increased intensity.
Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s backup singer and frequent co-writer, elicited cheers when she came out to do “I’m Your Man,” a smile on her face and a fedora on her head. Lumineers frontman Wesley Schultz sang the political “Democracy,” as two U.S. flags took over the backdrop, which led to the appearance of Prime Minister Trudeau and wife Sophie to talk for about five minutes — not about politics of course, but about Cohen.
“Leonard was an extraordinary Canadian, mais il était un grand Montréalais,” the PM noted. Sophie revealed that on the day of their wedding in 2005, “Leonard was there twice, first as I walked down the aisle to a gospel ‘Hallelujah,’ and then when we had our first dance to ‘I’m Your Man.’” Trudeau then quoted the lyric, “If you want a boxer, I will step to the ring,” which drew laughs because the PM had once competed in a charity boxing match.
They continued on, showing their love and reverence for the man. “Leonard was a poet. In his work, he was meticulous and driven. Every word, every syllable, every image, every inflection had to be just right,” Trudeau said, leading into an anecdote about Cohen and Bob Dylan and one of his father. “I like to think of them, the two of them [Pierre and Leonard], together somewhere, watching [this concert] with a smile, musing at all this.
“And reflecting on fathers and sons, I guess, as a son who also knew what It was like to have a challenging and larger-than-life father, I want to thank Adam for gathering us tonight and celebrating this extraordinary man.”
He ended with a line from “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” for which Cohen appeared in a clip on the video screens, narrating as the orchestra played behind his voice.
Ron Sexsmith followed with “Suzanne,” before Costello grabbed an electric guitar and knocked it out of the park with “The Future,” spitting out each line. On the other side of the spectrum, Damien Rice sunk into “Famous Blue Raincoat,” closing his eyes at one point, in the emotion of it all.
Adam then came out and turned the teary mood around, joined by the Webb Sisters for “So Long Marianne,” getting the audience to sing along, “It’s time that we began to laugh / And cry and cry and laugh about it all again.” He capped it with a reading of the farewell letter his dad wrote to his one-time lover and important muse, Marianne Ihlen, that was read at her funeral last July, including this: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
k.d. lang, who many believe does the best rendition of the oft-covered “Hallelujah,” might have topped herself — even the performance she did in front of Cohen at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006. Her emotional vocal from deep within ended the first act of the Tower of Song tribute, before a 25-minute intermission.
A black and white video coaxed us back, featuring separate clips of Willie Nelson, Celine Dion, Peter Gabriel and Chris Martin trading lines on “Tower of Song” with the choir live on the stage. Sting then returned for “Sisters of Mercy,” which got the former Police frontman dusting with fiddle and penny whistle. He had covered that song with The Chieftains on the Tower of Song tribute album back in 1995.
A clip then showed Cohen telling the amusing story of meeting Janis Joplin at New York’s Chelsea Hotel; she was there looking for Kris Kristofferson. “I said, ‘Little lady, you’re in luck, I am Kris Kristofferson.’” Adam then came out onstage with Lana Del Rey to perform a duet of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” When he sang the last line, “I don’t even think of you that often,” the pair were back-to-back, as if mad at one another, but then ended with a big hug.
Septuagenarian soul singer Bettye Lavette then arrived to pick up the joyous vibe for “Secret Life,” before Courtney Love, looking timeless in a black slip dress and black boots, did a slinky, gritty rock version of “Everybody Knows.”
Seth Rogen followed Love. “I’m going to start with very disappointing news: I’m not singing tonight. I know you assumed I was doing ‘Hallelujah.’ When k.d. lang came out, you were probably confused,” he joked. “No, I’m here because I’m a huge fan.
“I never had the honor of meeting Leonard Cohen. I had a Hebrew school teacher named Leonard Cohen so…,” he said to laughter. “He wasn’t as cool. I’m here to read a poem and I’m incredibly excited, because as a Canadian Jewish person, there is no higher honour than reading a Leonard Cohen poem in the middle of a hockey arena. That’s the top achievement. I can stop being a Canadian Jew after this.”
In a measured and fluid and assured voice, he began, “Field Commander Cohen.” When he was finished, after six “oh my love”s, he simply said, “That’s it,” and welcomed 25-year-old Børns, who was startlingly good, simple and captivating on “If It Be Your Will.” Adam then returned for “Partisan,” for which Quebec’s Coeur de Pirate came out with Damien Rice to flank him on harmonies.
Costello got another song too, “Bird On A Wire,” and added, “It’s fallen to me to just say a few words of thanks, if I may. And first of all, I have to thank the Cohen Family [daughter Lorca, a photographer, was backstage] for bringing us here.”
He continued: “Beautiful songs have brought so many friends together and people that I’m meeting for the first time, and I will remember this night forever.” He then took a few minutes to introduce the musicians onstage, including Cohen’s acoustic guitarist, bandurria, laud and archilaud player Javier Mas; Costello’s Imposters bassist Pete Thomas and drummer Davey Faragher; and guitarist Marc Ribot, with props to Hal Willner and more.
He then brought out his pal Sting again for “Anthem,” capped with a big finale note. Clips of Cohen with his grandkids and other personal footage and photos brought the evening to an end, as the choir from Cohen’s local synagogue, Shaar Hashomayim, backed his voice on the title track from his final album, “You Want It Darker” — as they appear on the record. Then all the performers came out on stage to line up and take a bow.
It was then Adam’s turn to say something:
“The goal tonight, was — with the generosity of this incredible band, and the beauty and generosity of all these artists — the goal was to, as in many religions, to sing songs of praise for someone who is no longer with us. I know that my father would be very grateful not only for the beautiful love that you have given him this evening, but for his songs being kept alive by these beautiful voices that accompanied us.
“We don’t really have another song. I’m just holding the guitar,” he joked. “Would you please be seated? Hal Willner asked me a beautiful question. It made me very nervous. He said, ‘What’s the first song of your father’s that you learned?’ It’s this one.”
He then called out Basia Bulat and together they sang “Coming Back to You,” from 1984’s Various Positions. Curiously, he left Bulat to close out the night by herself, and she did so, appropriately, with “It’s Closing Time,” getting the audience to clap and sing along to a rousing end.
While there were moments during the evening that might have brought a tear to one’s eye, the tribute was neither maudlin or celebratory. Instead, it unfolded as one would expect for such a distinguished gent: tasteful and elegant, high-caliber and respectful, with a certain simplicity and efficiency.
Proceeds from the ticket sales went to three arts funding bodies, Canada Council for the Arts, Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, and Conseil des arts du Montréal. Cohen had received a government grant in 1958 that took him to Greece, where he met Marianne Ihlen in the early ’60s and penned songs for his 1967 debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Sting: “Dance Me to the End of Love”
Feist: “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”
Patrick Watson: “Who By Fire”
Sharon Robinson: “I’m Your Man”
The Lumineers: “Democracy”
PRIME MINISTER TRUDEAU AND WIFE SOPHIE
Ron Sexsmith: “Suzanne”
Elvis Costello: “The Future”
Damien Rice: “Famous Blue Raincoat”
Adam Cohen & The Webb Sisters: “So Long Marianne”
k.d. lang: “Hallelujah”
Choir & Video: “Tower of Song”
Sting: “Sisters of Mercy:
Lana Del Rey & Adam Cohen: “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”
Bette Lavette: “Secret Life”
Courtney Love: “Everybody Knows”
Seth Rogen: “Field Commander Cohen”
BØrns & The Webb Sisters: “If It Be Your Will”
Adam Cohen, Coeur de Pirate, Damien Rice: “Partisan:
Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Choir & Orchestra: “You Want It Darker”
Adam Cohen & Basia Bulat “Coming Back to You”
Basia Bulat: “It’s Closing Time”