TORONTO – For many Canadian musicians who grew up listening to and being inspired by Leonard Cohen, his death on Thursday hit the saddest of notes.
“I was just surprised, you know?” said singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith in an interview from his Toronto home, as a Cohen song played softly in the background.
Sexsmith called him a man of wisdom and an artist who raised the bar “pretty high for all us mortals.”
“He probably had more meaning to me as a person than as an artist than any other writer ever,” said singer-songwriter Steven Page, who also once fronted the Barenaked Ladies.
“His poetry and his music has been with me at every step of my life from the age of 15 onward.”
Asked to relate a favourite memory of Cohen, both men recalled the same story – an event where they had been asked to perform at the launch of Cohen’s “Book of Longing,” a collection of poetry.
Sexsmith said a group of them, including Page’s then-band Barenaked Ladies, were in the basement of the bookstore getting ready for the show, chatting with Cohen and singing a few tunes.
Cohen was not scheduled to sing at the event itself, but Page said when he got on stage he asked Cohen if he wanted to sing a song.
“He said, `No, but I’d be happy to share a microphone with you.’ So he came up on stage with us and sang ‘So Long, Marianne’ with us,” recalled Page.
“He stared right into my eyes as I was singing this with him. At first I thought, with those piercing green eyes of his, he was saying, ‘Don’t worry, everything’s going to be OK.’ And then I realized he was looking at me because he was trying to remember the words. He’s staring at my mouth, and trying to get some guidance on what the lyrics of the song were.”
Page said he appreciated how Cohen often infused his music with humour.
“He spoke of the pain and difficulty of being an artist, and then also talked about that with great derision, in the sense that being an artist is one of the least of things we can complain about.”
Others also paid tribute to Cohen.
Soul and R&B singer Aaron Neville said he was glad to have both met the poet and recorded several of his songs, including “Bird on a Wire,” featured on the soundtrack to the 1991 film starring Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn.
“I’m sure he’ll fit right in the heavenly band,” Neville said in a statement through his management.
“He left goodness here for all.”
VIDEO: An Irish priest has become a social media sensation after he surprised a bride and groom by singing a custom-made cover of Canadian Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at their wedding.
Dave Bidini, formerly of the Rheostatics, said rather than shed tears he preferred to raise a glass for “a life lived to the hilt” by the performer.
While Bidini only briefly shook hands with him at the Juno Awards, he says Cohen’s career left a strong impression.
“He was a totally cool dude,” Bidini added.
“He was one of those sustaining forces whose power and influence strengthened the older he became.”
On social media, singer k.d. lang wished Cohen “a swift rebirth” while Bette Midler called him “another magical voice stilled.”
“To say that Leonard Cohen was a one-of-a-kind poet, singer, songwriter would be irreverent,” said Myles Goodwyn of April Wine in a statement.
“He was so unique and extraordinary and so loved, that words fail to describe the loss we feel at the sad news of his passing. Tonight he will be singing `Hallelujah’ with a choir of angels at his side.”
Dozens of fans gathered at a park across from Cohen’s Montreal home late Thursday. They placed candles, a felt hat and roses in front of his home.
One woman who gave her name as Myriam said she did not want to live the moment alone.
“He was such an elegant man. I met him in the corner, always in costume, ” she said.
By Gwen Dambrofsky in Edmonton with files from David Friend in Toronto