Leonard Cohen’s getting a gigantic tribute in Montreal.
But at least one prominent local thinks the late cultural icon would have cringed at his 28,000-square-foot, 20-story likeness plastered on a downtown building.
Writing for the Montreal Gazette, writer Bill Brownstein called the massive mural an “ill-fitting tribute… that feels so wrong.”
“The fact of the matter is that Leonard Cohen was a humble, religious, unassuming man,” Brownstein told the Forward. “The last thing he’d want is his face plastered on a downtown street he’d never frequent.” The avenue in question is Crescent Street, which draws Eurotrash tourists and suburban locals in equal measure — that’s my assessment as a Montreal native, not Brownstein’s, though the columnist did point out it’s the site of Montreal’s annual Grand Prix.
“He’d find it embarrassing. St.-Laurent was his street. Crescent is a different mindset,” said Brownstein, who was a guest of honor on the Forward’s 2016 tour of Jewish Montreal. “People who know him are dumbfounded by this. He wasn’t knocking back champagne with the Euros or gazing at Ferraris.”
At least one friend of Cohen’s agrees with Brownstein’s assessment of the mural, which will be created by Montreal artist Gene Pendon and an American artist known as El Mec.
“Lenny was modest and would have smiled at the absurdity of it,” Deb Filler told the Forward from her Toronto home. Filler’s connection with Cohen is at the center of her one-woman show “I Did It My Way in Yiddish (in English.)” “Leonard preferred intimate conversation, not grandiose spectacles. He was a spiritual person and anything that smacked of industry, capitalism, absurdity, largess, would have embarrassed him. He chanted, he prayed, he sang, he drank good red wine… and he appreciated a great joke. This would have been that to him.”
Does this cross the line into exploitation of Cohen’s image, I asked Brownstein?
“I’d call it appropriation, but even if you’re going to do that, it should make sense,” he said. “It’s one thing to honor him by naming a street, a park, or a Metro station. But to do that in a place where he had no connection is bizarre. Why not just put up a picture of Celine Dion or Cirque de Soleil?”
The new mural also may upstage a smaller portrait slated to be unveiled this summer in Cohen’s old Plateau neighborhood. The city, Brownstein says, has been rushing projects like the Crescent St. mural as part of its extravagant – but somewhat tone-deaf - celebrations of Montreal’s 375th anniversary.
“A lot of strange things happening here around the anniversary, which, for starters, is a weird number to celebrate,” Brownstein said. “Our mayor has delusions of sorts. He put granite tree stumps on Mount Royal. We had an urban rodeo. There are these temporary vinyl coverings on bus shelters downtown. It’s part of the bread-and-circuses culture here to make us forget our roads, bridges, and infrastructure are falling apart. This seems to be part and parcel of same bizarreness.”
The Mayor’s office was closed for Good Friday when the Forward reached out for comment.
Michael Kaminer is a frequent contributor to the Forward.