Sean Michaels Listens to Music in Montreal
From time to time, from his home in Canada’s second-largest city, writer Sean Michaels will share with us his thoughts on songs, singing, and music in general.
Reflections on Seeing Leonard Cohen Perform in Montreal on June 23, 2008.
On Monday, June 23, Leonard Cohen performed for three hours at the Place des Arts in Montreal. It was his first Montreal performance in almost 15 years. I had ticket J26, which was a pretty good seat.
Because I was at the concert alone, I had a lot of time to think. These are some of the things I thought about as Leonard played:
- I heard somewhere that, in Leonard’s song “So Long, Marianne,” he is singing not about a girl called Marianne but about the street called Marianne, in Montreal. I used to live near the corner of Marianne and Clark.
A couple of years ago, I went to a music festival in England called All Tomorrow’s Parties. Many of the acts playing were avant-garde and jazz acts, especially on the smaller stage. We would sit or stand in the gloom and feel the music bending in the space around us. The music did not come easily from peoples’ saxophones or bows or amps. At some point, K. and I were waiting between acts and a song came on over the P.A. It was “So Long, Marianne,” by Leonard Cohen. K. was a former Montrealer, like me. We listened to the song on the P.A. and I remembered home. It took a few moments before I realized that I wasn’t just remembering Montreal—I was remembering Montreal and its hominess. I was not born in that city, and had not lived there for two years, but there in the song, waving like a pennant, was the certainty: Montreal was home.
K. and I started to sing along to the chorus of “So Long, Marianne,” grinning over our beers. I was singing about a street, not a girl, called Marianne. Before long, people at nearby tables were singing along, too. We didn’t know the verses, none of us did, but as soon as the chorus came we would begin to sing. We were singing as loud as we could. Throwing our heads back and singing like idiots. I was singing like a homesick idiot. The people around me were not homesick, but I wondered if, in their hearts, they, too, were imagining faraway friends, faraway trees, the way snow used to fall over their doorsteps.
- Tickets for this Leonard Cohen concert were very expensive. I paid $180 for this ticket. Because I’m a music critic, it’s tax deductible. Also, I thought I’d sell a review to someone, but in the end no one wanted a review. Sitting in the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, I think about what I would write if I were reviewing this for Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. “He seems at once smaller and larger than his songs. And, while I never need to hear ‘Democracy’ or ‘Boogie Street’ again, because they were terrible, I also never again need to hear ‘Who by Fire’ or ‘Sisters of Mercy,’ because they were beautiful.”
“Malgré les prix gonflés,” Leonard says, wryly, “j’espère que vous n’êtes pas déçus.” Despite the inflated prices, I hope you are not disappointed. While Leonard is playing “I’m Your Man,” I do some math. If the concert is three hours long, that’s just $60 an hour. Or $15 for 15 minutes. Which is about the same price as a taxi. Or laser tag. This concert is far, far, far better than riding a taxi or playing laser tag. Leonard, I am not disappointed.
- Inside the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, in Montreal’s Place des Arts, it does not really feel like Montreal. The Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier is wide and tall, with two balconies, festooned with lights, but it’s modern and clean and, in its way, lifeless. Many of the concertgoers drove in from the West Island, or from New York, and so they’re dressed in suits and ties and dresses. But it’s hot outside, so most of us are just wearing T-shirts. I bicycled to the concert and my bicycle helmet is under my seat. We don’t look particularly fashionable, and Montreal is a fashionable city. In the summertime, it’s gorgeous, hip, noisy, free, shining. It’s the opposite of this big room with its pink-orange lighting, its hanging diaphanous backdrop. It’s the opposite of this safe, mellifluous smooth-jazz band. I wish Leonard would kiss someone on the mouth. I wish he had brought a drummer who would be insulted to be called “our time keeper.” I wish it were Silver Mt. Zion backing him up, or something; that this place smelled of exhaust, bagels, sumac, and dirt, and not of cologne.
- Leonard lives in Montreal, off boulevard St-Laurent, near Bagels Etc. Apparently, he gets an orange juice there on many mornings. People see him on the street in his little coat and little hat, or on a bench in the park. One of A.’s friends met Leonard in the park and they talked and they hung out and eventually Leonard sort of suggested she go home with him. She said no. It must be strange being Leonard, and also it must be strange being a pretty girl.
- At its worst moments, these are the colors of this concert: pink, silver, pastel blue.
At its best moments, these are the colors of this concert: black like night; white like teeth; gold like P.‘s necklace, that night; blue like S.’s eyes, that morning; and brown like the creak that hides in my apartment’s floor.
- Leonard sounds better than everyone who is compared to Leonard. Sometimes people say that a singer sounds like Leonard Cohen; Leonard Cohen sounds better.
- My friends J. and J. write together sometimes. Once, they wrote a story where they go up to heaven. I think heaven in this story is the top floor of a peculiar hospital. In heaven, they meet an angel. He is a “smoothie.” When J. and J. used to read this story aloud, on a stage, they would gesture in the air to make it clearer what “smoothie” meant. It means someone with no genitals. They would move their hands like they were running their palms over the front and bottom of a beach ball.
A couple of years later, I was with J., another friend with the same initial, at a jazz bar in Kraków. We listened to the Poles’ cheesy, schmaltzy, soporific solos and he mouthed to me the word “smoothie” and I nodded.
All this is to say that every time Mr. Dino Solto picks up a saxophone, harmonica, or clarinet to play along with Leonard, I want to make a motion like I am running my palm over the front and bottom of a beach ball.
- Leonard sings “Hallelujah” and he doesn’t sing it like Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright. He sings it not like a love song but like a prayer, a supplication. The lyric “Hallelujah!” seems all-caps, italicized, wrenched out from his throat. This is not easy stuff, this love stuff. These mysteries. If Leonard believes in God, and I’m pretty sure he does, I suspect that for him love is just as forceful, just as italicized and all-caps, as THE FLOOD, or THE ANGEL OF DEATH_, or SIN_. I think about how Leonard Cohen has no wedding ring on his finger. How much is “Hallelujah” a celebration, and how much is it an appeal?
- In 2004, J. and I were traveling through Britain and we stopped in Cambridge for almost a week. We were staying with a friend of J.’s family. It was the almost-countryside. Through the window, I would watch wide green trees and wide blue skies and small brown birds. The house was old and filled with wooden chairs that creaked.
One afternoon, J. and I decided to make supper for everyone. We found the cutting board and the knives, and pots and spoons, and tomatoes and lettuce and probably some pasta. I poured some coarse sea salt into my palm and rubbed my hands together.
I went to the stereo and looked at the CDs. I put on the album The Best of Leonard Cohen, which is mostly old songs.
It felt like the season had changed. It felt like spring and autumn at the same time. There were shadows in the garden. I looked at the leaves in the wooden salad bowl and at the way they were green.
For more from Sean, please visit
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