Leonard Cohen must have felt a sense of time’s great circle, Monday night. Honoured at Massey Hall as the Ninth Laureate of the Glenn Gould Prize, the iconic Montrealer doffed his fedora to the applauding crowd, cracking jokes and dryly sharing stories from early in his career. In that booming, legendary baritone, he recalled meeting Glenn Gould himself, a man described by host Colm Feore as the “James Dean of classical music.”
The way Cohen described it, you could imagine dozens of young journalists in the audience feeling exactly what he did over fifty years earlier.
During his post-McGill days as an emerging writer, Cohen was interviewing Gould for a feature story. Though it was supposed to be a brief interview—maybe ten minutes, maybe less—the process ended up lasting hours, he said. Later, those hours became days spent hiding from his editors, ducking regular questions about the progress of his story. Characteristically self-deprecating, Cohen remarked that the interview had gone just a little too well. In the eclipsing presence of a cultural giant, without the aid of a tape recorder, auto-transcription, or anything else, Leonard Cohen had completely forgotten what they discussed.
Today, of course, history is Cohen’s best witness. The 77 year old has gone from living a life of poetry, being part of Andy Warhol’s circle, and publishing two novels—The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers—to exemplifying a haunting, jarringly honest, confessional style of music that is his alone. Though the music came along only after Cohen’s writing had failed to pan out, you can imagine that whatever discussion had transpired between him and Gould had played its part: in the way Gould heard music in everything, Cohen, in turn, always managed to elevate ugliness to a level of raw, ethereal beauty. “There is a crack in everything,” he wrote. “That’s how the light gets in.” Once music came along, it all seemed to bleed together.
On Monday night, Cohen was honoured by a host of musical and cultural heavyweights—Gordon Pinsent, Basia Bulat, Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo, John Prine, Alan Rickman, the Cowboy Junkies, and Serena Ryder, to name a few—in celebration of his achievements as an artist, part of the Glenn Gould Prize’s mandate to recognize “the connection between artistic excellence and the transformation of lives.” Called the “Nobel Prize of the arts” by the Toronto Star, the prize nets its winner a cool $50,000, plus another $15,000 for a “protege” of his or her choice.
That $15,000 went to Sistema Toronto, an educational collaboration with the Toronto District School Board that offers free, intensive music education to children in Parkdale, with plans to expand outward into the Greater Toronto Area. And that $50,000? Instead of claiming it, Cohen has gifted it to the Canada Council for the Arts, returning the favour of the occasional $25 grant he received from the funding body early in his career. These days, with so many long shadows cast across the arts in Toronto and in Canada, it was a resoundingly potent way of honouring all artists, especially the ones just finding their voices.
All in all, it was a pretty beautiful way for things to come full-circle.