A Crack in Everything
On 6 April, 2018, I went to see “Une brèche en toute chose / A Crack in Everything,” an assemblage of artists’ works in honour of the late, great Leonard Cohen, at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal. Cohen is one of my favourite songwriter-musicians and A., one of my oldest friends, accompanied me to the show, having come into Montreal for a day trip to visit me from Ottawa. I first met A. at a bus stop I think, on Blair Road North, maybe—a main drag out of which fed each of the streets leading to our houses in east end Ottawa (Gloucester, or whatever you want to call it). We were both 15 and waiting for the bus to go to our high school, Colonel By Secondary.
A few years later, we ended up as roommates together in our first year at McGill University. We lived in a sort of shabby low-rise building on rue Hutchison, slightly north of rue Milton—just about a block or two away from the legendary Word Bookstore on Milton. Like all buildings at the time, it had occasional cockroaches. I would walk along Milton and right by the Word every single day on my way to classes. I had a poster of Picasso’s “Blue Nude,” which I’d bought at the student poster sale, hanging above my single futon, which was located in the front bedroom of the apartment (we had a third roommate too, N.). That Picasso defined my whole outlook that year—absolutely melancholy, as I recall; miserable I’d left a boyfriend in Ottawa and disoriented in the big city while taking some tough courses and living out of my parents’ home for the first time.
Our soundtrack—or rather, the music that played incessantly in the apartment with only minimal input from me—consisted of Peter Gabriel, Nana Mouskouri (one of N.’s favourites) and Leonard Cohen among others.
We knew we all lived in the same city, and that we need only walk up boul. St Laurent 15 minutes, to the Parc du Portugal or the Bagel Etc café, to spot Cohen leaving his house on the square across from the park or in the café chatting with neighbours.
I never saw him the whole 6 years I lived in Montreal, but sightings were reported. But about that soundtrack: I sort of resented it, even though I loved it too, because I blamed it for making me feel sadder. And Montreal’s already distinctly melancholy Euro-vibe, narrow streets, and strange, variegated architectures only further cemented the sad feelings.
I’ve always carried this lump in the throat around in me about Leonard Cohen’s music, and I had been looking forward to “Une brèche en toute chose.” So was A.
I think the two worst pieces must have been Sharon Robinson’s dedicated song to Leonard, who was a great friend of hers; and the two-room installation of a capella male singers. Robinson’s song is merely tacky—in the tradition of sentimental bad taste like Céline Dion: an unimaginative melody and banal, sappy lyrics. But this other installation, in two rooms, was horrific. First, a darkened cinema space with a film showing 8 or 10 men staring straight out at the audience and singing a capella in a trance-like, start-stop way, the same words over and over again: “Everybody knows” – with a teasing hint that the song will continue, that there might be music—which never materializes. It’s just their big faces hitting some notes and singing those anticipatory two words.
They were like a brood of witch doctors attempting to put viewers into a trance in order to enable a migration of their souls.
Then you walk out of the room into a much a larger space, and into the spacious middle of a circular arrangement of vertical screens—there might be 20 of these, and they are about 6 or 7 feet tall and a few feet apart—that each have a filmed man (middle aged, most of them white, with one black man) goofily singing out “Everybody knows” again, over and over again, not in unison, with various sincere, cheesy, or otherwise uninterestingly slightly self-ironizing looks on their faces.
In each and every case: this is the guy you avoid at a bar; the friend of a friend at a wedding reception you hope to lose after having to chat with him a few minutes after you’ve arrived. These guys are that guy. Doing a “tribute” to wry, sexy, charismatic Leonard Cohen. It makes you feel bad to suddenly feel misanthropy, yet it invites that misanthropy. Maybe that’s the point.
I don’t think the artist’s intention was to show that these men were so different from Cohen, as in, “look, aren’t you all so homely compared to LC.”
No, the idea was to show some kind of humanity, I suppose.
I didn’t like the attempt to make a statement about everyday maleness, or the humanization of men. We know full well Leonard Cohen was human. The piece’s worst problem was that it lacked dignity, and I felt sort of bad for Leonard Cohen himself, and I’m glad he’s not here to see it.
It encouraged my most misanthropic feelings. These feelings grew like yeast or Magic Monkees in my psyche.
It was too ridiculous. Some of the guys had on those Mongolian bohemian-looking felt hats, others dumpy golf shirts or crappy blazers.
A. said she kind of liked it. She said she thought it was a way to channel Cohen’s masculinity, which of course is a feature of his work, this ladies’ man. Except that these guys were not so much ladies’ men but rather, they seemed to be Dads. I don’t want to think of Leonard Cohen as someone’s Dad. Even if he is a Dad.
What a spectacular failure. I walked out.
Oh, there were other bad pieces—for instance, a film that tried to make a naïve, Romantic, Hegelian statement about art being able to solve all political disagreements--narrated by a presumptuous American artist and professor of art theory. In other cases there were some good films included, but I can’t be bothered to describe them. The one installation I liked a lot was a softly lit room you walked into, which was a reproduction of Cohen’s study featuring a hologram film depicting him in the last photograph taken—in a chair, facing away from the viewer and out onto a street, with his walking stick in his right hand. At one point, he turns around in the chair, and looks at the viewer with a smile on his face.
That was the only installation that reminded me of the ferocious melancholy I felt when I first started to listen to his music, that year I moved to Montreal. I can’t even figure out if I was melancholy before I started to listen to so much Leonard Cohen, or if he made my condition evolve from a presence to an affliction. I suspect the latter.
The Montreal poet Robyn Sarah (whom I happened to see getting on the Laurier bus just the other day, as I was disembarking) captures that feeling more than anything else I can think of (with the possible exception of some songs by Tracy Chapman, and the score to “37.2 Le Matin,” a 1986 French film I saw then, starring Jean-Hughes Anglade and Béatrice Dalle).
You might understand what I mean by this feeling so difficult to describe, when you read Sarah’s poem (it's from her 2015 collection My Shoes Are Killing Me). I was nineteen too:
Always a surge of dark exultation
at the change of a season, a sparking
of memories. Today’s:
a dawn walk in the city, sunless dawn
near the end of August, when you stepped
through a breach in a construction fence
to cut across an open lot—a sort of ruin,
rubble-strewn, between standing walls,
down near Chinatown. Smell of the river.
Not a soul in sight. No hint of a break
in the cloud cover—lowering sky,
the breeze damp, even clammy.
You were nineteen.
You weren’t alone that day, but you were
alone. The hand you held
was noncommittal, loose in yours,
but it held. Nor did you drop it.
At the same time you hugged to yourself
some kind of inner blissful hard pure
aloneness that felt like treasure. A sense
of having embarked on open waters
in the frailest of crafts.
It could at any moment pour rain
on your bare arms—
You mistook this for happiness.