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Robert Altman Week

Tuesday
Mar262013

« In Which We Winter In Montreal »

Night Comes On

by HEATHER MCROBIE

When I was speaking to some twenty-two year olds in a university bar in England last week I made sure I was kind, in a 27-year old way, to their post-college references: F. Scott and whiskey, blank-canvas silent female icons who the 27-year old female knows are more than conduits for the male imagination. I didn’t say “I’ve heard this before” or even make a face that said it, the way people do to the young. This is not only because I spent a year in my twenties being laughed at unkindly by people five years older than I was. It’s because I remember my own post-college precipice of self, and I did more than just quote a few obvious reference-points. Twenty-two years old was the year I moved from England to Montreal to make Leonard Cohen fall in love with me.

“I’ve heard this before” didn’t come for a while, five years ago  even though thinking back everything I was doing was beyond-obvious. It didn’t come through all of September. There is an old CBC interview of a precipice-of-self Leonard Cohen in the 1960s, where he is shedding the snake-skin of ‘poet’ for ‘singer’ and blitzkreig’ing the CBC interviewer with pre-feminist-revolution charm. He claims with a faux-boldness reserved for male poets that he’s going to change his name to ‘September’. Watch the interview on Youtube if you want to feel all these feelings at once: (1) desire; (2) a feminist urge to reclaim the mid-1960s cardigan-wearing interviewer from the role of nervous, obedient good-girl being teased by the heroic subversive man, encourage her to find her own voice; (3) a desire to tell the young version of Cohen ‘don’t lay it on so thick, we know that you know what affect you have on women’; (4) sad desire. I haven’t watched that CBC interview for years.

That September in Montreal I was still fresh as the blue sky and green copper on the Catholic Church spires, bright as the red rust down by the port. I’d heard it before, of course  this Montreal I consumed hungrily in those first weeks I walked around the city  in my English college bedroom, through the Leonard Cohen songs that seeped out from under my door until the Estonian boy down the corridor complained. That had been June. Here I was autumnally now a European gasping at a new world  adulthood, like the sight of land from a ship.

I walked up and down Mount Royal as its neon cross worked like a magnet on my precipice-of-self heart. I walked up and down the streets that had French road signs that, in France, they write in English: Arret not Stop. I found ridiculous symmetries in everything, 22-year old-ishly. The old and over-varnished Yiddish shop signs were speaking to the new Vietnamese take-away without me translating. The mouth of the port and the tip of Mount Royal were speaking to each other. The Catholic Church spires and the synagogues were speaking to each other. I was speaking the awkward English-schoolgirl French of Europeans at un-impressed Quebecois locals who took pity on me as I struggled at late-night kiosks, buying my first packet of Belmont cigarettes with currency that felt like Euros and from which Queen Elizabeth’s familiar face stared out imperiously. 

I read books in bed about the Quiet Revolution and the novels of Mordechai Richler. I believed everything everyone told me about Montreal whenever someone started a conversation with me in a café. The city dominated talk and thoughts, this secret grotto and grubby sanctuary, a smuggled gem that sometimes, in my 22-year old mind, sort of spoke port-to-port to Naples and Marseilles  an under-ocean thread of swearing Latin sailors, transacted in ships’-bellies – and other times seemed a sister-city to New Orleans  secret America under America, coded in liturgy and a sponge of sacred curses, extravagantly mythologising itself.   And all anyone wanted to talk to me about was Montreal. Montreal Montréal! You could write it with or without an accent  what a city; double-city. Did you know Montreal has a bagel war with New York? I wanted to know many facts like this  as in love with Montreal as the city was, it later darkly emerged, in an aching kind of love with itself. But particularly I wanted to know one fact: where would I find Leonard?

Okay there were signs, when I asked that, that they had heard it all before. But to the 23, 24, 25-year old fully-formed impossibly-composed new friends to whom I made these enquiries, it was alright. Music was one of Montreal’s mythologies in which we all participated. It was 2007, a Montreal moment. Do you want to come and see the church where Arcade Fire recorded their first album, one new friend asked. Do you want to come back to mine to listen to The Stills? Do you want to come and see this new band you haven’t heard of? We went to see Bjork play  her song ‘Declare Independence’, new that year, set off a wave of Quebec-nationalist cheers in the audience that I needed someone to translate for me. We went on picnics  right through to October. Like we had all the time in the world for picnics.

For although Montreal has four full seasons, there was a further axis, over English-French, around which I had to contort my young and new-found freedom: summer-winter. I look back on those September days now through the glazed-window of what came later  evenings of rose wine and port-meandering buried forever beneath the winter I’ll never forget. When people warned me of the winter when I first arrived I thought they meant coldness, weather.  It turns out, though, they meant timeless moonwalking heartbreak.

The friendships we made in the autumn, post-college groups made for going to parties, to the cinema and into too much detail too quickly, constricted like oesophagi as the snow set in.  Sometime in late autumn a new friend who had grown up in Montreal explained to me that he had ‘summer friends’ and ‘winter friends’.  Summer friends lived in other areas of town, you met up with them for Frisbee and open-air jazz and trips out of town. Winter friends you wintered with. Wintering felt a bit like how my friends who liked to live in the heat described their months on kibbutz, or a bit like marriage or a bit like American graduate school. Getting through Montreal winter with other people (you could not get through Montreal winter alone  although, also, everyone got through Montreal winter alone) was less friendship than folie a deux. Or trois. There were three people in our apartment and three regular visitors. 

In autumn I’d moved into the building just off Rue St Denis which, I was told as an extravagant mythology, had been a brothel in the eighteenth century. It had stairs leading up to the front from the outside, just like I’d English-ly dreamed of. Every morning I had to throw salt on the ice-covered stairs so I didn’t break my neck. This, I found out, is how Montreal breaks your heart.

As the snow set in, in those first weeks, time still worked and the novelty of snowfights and Montreal mythology buoyed us through numb-toed drunken stumblings back from the Casa del Popolo bar. In the weeks that followed, time got snowed in too. I’d ask my warm-faced, wrapped-up flatmate whether he’d mind being the one to go out today, to pick my books up from our friend two streets away. He asked me two days later if I’d be the one to go out and buy more gritted salt. Evenings were wide as the prairies I had never seen — would never see, now that time had stopped and the concept of westwards was covered over with the moonscape of the city that we watched from our windows. We really did watch from our windows.

We listened to the Arcade Fire song ‘Une Année Sans Lumière’ with no discernible sense of irony. We played things on vinyl, because we were 22 and thought we were the first people to appreciate a variety of things, including wooden floors and theories of translation and our old telephone. Our landlord from upstairs would ring the phone at unsociable hours because all hours were unsociable and speak Quebecois French that I brain-translated into my-French then brain-translated into English and I have no idea what it meant but I think it meant, “Are you cold?” We called into work or university sick or university or work called into us sick  let’s just not move, either way. We made a lot of fried eggs and took it in turns to moonwalk out to the dépanneur two blocks away for cigarettes. I wore my yellow knitted socks and my pink silk dress and my grey woollen jumper and had my first encounter with the brain-dentistry of clinical depression. Once we didn’t leave the apartment for three days. The experience snowily, sleepily dusted all surfaces of human interactions  at breakfast: “We haven’t left the apartment for a week!” This was conversational exaggeration and at the same time possibly true.

Because we were twenty-two, we read a lot of books self-consciously and some sincerely, and talked about them as we cooked terrible food. People fell into morbid, miserable love affairs of the kind that can only happen when you are enclosed in a room with a person with minus-twenty on the thermometer. We listened to jazz, blues, 1990s triphop, Broken Social Scene. But underneath it all was Leonard Cohen, the ache for him, the presence of him, the absence of him. We didn’t actually listen to him that much  not the way I had a year before, when ‘So Long Marianne’ and ‘Anthem’ and his album Dear Heather which had my name so it was fate of course (a twenty-one year old thought) filled my college bedroom. There was not much point actually taking the lid off him while in the thick of his shadow. We listened to everything in the mood of him instead.

I skipped a season here: if I can go back to autumn  which I can’t  there was a time in my early Montreal months when I walked up and down around Rue Rachel, thinking of the moment I would meet him. Cohen had lived in California for years, cloistered in Buddhism and late-celebrity, but there were extravagant rumours about his periodic migration back north. His migration back home, surely, for Leonard  to his Westmount childhood and McGill student fumblings, somewhere between the time he was Leonard Cohen and when he became ‘Leonard Cohen’.  

It finally hit me the third time I found myself waiting outside his mythologised local newsagent in Parc du Portgual. I saw the other girls who were looking for him, waiting. A French girl in a skirt, another girl in jeans and a red coat. And through them I saw, too, the historiography of Cohen, the decades there must have been of women walking up and down these streets, looking for him. Decades like sedentary layers of moon-surface Montreal  the women who had come from Winnipeg and St. John’s, women who had come even from New York and from Europe. The dust of Leonard. The weight of dreams of girls from eras where marriage was creeping up, was stalled, was receding. Even in the later decades of this line I imagined, of Leonard-longing girls, there was something burning in the thought of their dreams melting, get on the bus go home become an adult. I wasn’t ready to accept its inevitability yet, but the image of the line of those who’d come before me pressed itself into the thoughts I carried through the streets. I stopped looking for him after that, sickened the way a 22-year old is at the realization that they are a footnote to a stronger story.

Back in the apartment, though, we always returned to Leonard  his early poetry as a McGill student, that post-war open-mouth shock of young men whose thoughts are full of Eichmann, and then his love poetry preceding  precipitating, I liked to think  the sexual revolution. His first novel of young-man Montreal, his second novel of still-young man desire. A lot of people don’t know Leonard Cohen was a novelist before he became a songwriter; everyone I met in Montreal did. We read the writers who inspired him, were inspired by him  A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, an enclosed Montreal dialogue. The rest of the world hadn’t heard of them; Montreal didn’t care.

And then I felt the second haunting, in the second-half of winter. The ache I felt at the thought of all those years’-worth of young women who had come to this city hungry for the love of him was answered  or mirrored  in the swollen presence, suddenly, of all the men who were not Leonard Cohen.  There were so many men who were not Leonard Cohen here. I knew this because I used to notice them as I walked up and down Rue St Denis looking for his face on every figure  you’re not Leonard, you’re not Leonard, you’re not Leonard. I thought of all the men in this city straining under the weight of not-being-Leonard, of listening to his music as they kissed girls, lyrically cuckholded. I pictured entire marriages conducted in the shadow of his poetry. Those girls who’d come to Montreal on buses from Winnipeg and St John’s and New Jersey and wherever else in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s  did they find not-Leonards, close-enoughs, and settle down? 

Leonard loomed over us like grandfather time, like the neon cross on Mount Royal, like the snow-unfurling skies. I listened as the young man who was one of our ‘winter-friends’ and lived three streets away  that is, we were in Montreal-love and deluded and snow-psychotic together  told me at some hourless dinner in our sealed-off apartment how he sometimes narrated his thoughts entirely through Cohen lyrics, and navigated the city the times he numbly ventured out by reference to Cohen-points. We were all echoes, marginalia to someone else’s golden burning life. I realised lazily over a month into winter that my friends were tightrope-walking between depression and delusion the way that, in the city, you turned the corner and the language on people’s mouths suddenly changed from French to English. The boys had started waking up at 6 p.m., cooking meals then throwing them straight in the bin, reading the same book twice. This is one of the last things I lucidly noticed.

Because it was just after that that my own delusion set in. It was about spring. Spring, I decided, was never coming. I tried to explain it to my housemate when I was going to bed and he was waking up at 3 a.m., in the kitchen full of books and the residue of omelettes. This was it, I said with the calmness of someone who has laid in bed with a book for a week. It would stay winter forever. The seasons decided to stop. I decided to stop.  At some point my flatmate took me aside through the fog of the window-staring sadness and told me he thought I should call my family. “I think you’re not well, Heather,” he said.

So I didn’t make it to spring, and for all I know it doesn’t ever come, or something miraculous happens that I’ll never know, to make it stop being the way it was like the moon or pre-history during those fogs of weeks.  I went back to England and asked people not to ask me about what had happened in Montreal. But I did finally see Leonard Cohen, I think. It was one of the early nights of Hannukah and I was walking to this bar not far from my apartment. I was moving so fast, like he sings in ‘My Secret Life’. This was the moment I’d been dreaming of — he’d see me, he’d notice me, I would become stitched into song. I overtook him on the street before I knew it was him, turned around just by chance and saw it — his Leonard-face, those two deep lines either side of his mouth that he’s always had, that you can see on the cover of The Songs of Leonard Cohen.  

But it was all wrong.  Because that night, for once, I had somewhere to be and other thoughts. I was going to a bar to meet my friend from three streets away and my thoughts were full of him, a real person in my real 22-year old life. I suppose it is a victory, for the not-Leonards who have for so long lived in his shadow, that at the moment I saw the singer himself turning the corner, his brow furrowed, scarf-wrapped, in his Pablo Neruda hat, I was thinking about another man.

One of my favourite Leonard Cohen lyrics is when he sings to Janis Joplin at the end of ‘Chelsea Hotel No 2’ – “That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.”  I don’t think of that winter often. But when I do it is not Leonard Cohen that I think about, but all the not-Leonards trying to be and to make, faltering in their apprenticeship as I faltered in mine, in that first failed venture out into the world. When I meet 22-year olds in college bars in England, I think of them there in the snow  unfamous and without the magic power to make everyone fall in love with them through their words. I either love them so much or at least want, so much, to love them so much, for getting through the winter without being Leonard. Human and clumsy and with no magic powers, they are almost as defenceless as girls. 

Heather McRobie is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Oxford. This is her first appearance in these pages. She twitters here. 

"Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" - Broken Social Scene (mp3)

"Lover's Spit" - Broken Social Scene (mp3)

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