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'The best wordsmith in contemporary song:' Canadian musicians pay tribute to Cohen

Last Updated Nov 11, 2016 at 4:40 pm EDT

A man lights a candle in front of the home of legendary singer and poet Leonard Cohen Thursday, November 10, 2016 in Montreal. Cohen has died at the age of 82. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

For many Canadian musicians who grew up listening to and being inspired by Leonard Cohen, his death announced on Thursday hit the saddest of notes.

“An elegant practitioner of the senses. Fully engaged in the realm of desire and yet fully dedicated to the spiritual,” remarked k.d. lang, who covered his beloved song “Hallelujah” during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

“The quintessential renaissance man who will never be matched.”

Bruce Cockburn called Cohen “a beautiful romancer of the darkness in our souls.”

“Hands down, the best wordsmith in contemporary song,” Cockburn said in a statement. “Sail on older brother!”

Singer-songwriter Steven Page, former frontman for the Barenaked Ladies, said Cohen “probably had more meaning to me … than any other writer ever.”

“His poetry and his music has been with me at every step of my life,” said Page, “from the age of 15 onward.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie reminisced about wandering through Montreal with Cohen as they discussed writing projects or compared notes on a favourite book. Other memories revolved around hanging out at the Chelsea Hotel in New York with a young Joni Mitchell and other folk artists.

“He was really humble, even though I think that he absolutely knew without a shadow of a doubt that he carried something in his brain that was very, very special,” said Sainte-Marie.

Asked to relate a favourite memory of Cohen, both Page and singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith 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 the 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 infused his often-dark 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.”

Sexsmith added that Cohen raised the bar “pretty high for all us mortals.”

Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics said that rather than shed tears he preferred to raise a glass for “a life lived to the hilt.”

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.”

Gordon Lightfoot said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened by the passing of my contemporary, colleague, fellow Canadian and my dear friend.”

Myles Goodwyn of April Wine said Cohen “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.

Countless others around the world also paid tribute to Cohen, including soul and R&B singer Aaron Neville, who said he was glad to have both met the poet and recorded several of his songs, including “Bird on the Wire.” Neville’s version was featured on the soundtrack to the 1991 film “Bird on a Wire” 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.”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated Cohen died Thursday. A statement announcing his death was released Thursday.

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