It’s going to be a tearjerker, I think — artist Candice Breitz
Watch 18 diehard Leonard Cohen fans over the age of 65 ardently fumbling their way through the title track of his 1988 album, I’m Your Man, for a deep reminder of how we are transported by the artists we love best.
These men, selected from a pool of over 400 applicants, don’t appear overly bothered by the quality of their singing voices, though clearly they’re giving it their all.
Instead, their chief concern seems to be communing with Cohen, who had died the year before, at the age of 82.
Artist Candice Breitz zeroed in on the likeliest candidates for this project using a 10-page application, in which interested parties were asked to describe Cohen’s role in their lives.
Almost all were based in Cohen’s hometown of Montreal.
Many have been fans since they were teenagers.
Participant Fergus Keyes described meeting Cohen at a 1984 signing for his poetry collection, Book of Mercy:
He told me he liked my name. He asked if he could use it in some future song. I said yes and he wrote it down in his little notebook. I said to him, ‘Sometimes I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ And he said there was no wrong way of interpreting it, because he wrote for others and whatever we interpret is right.
There’s definitely a variety of interpretations on display, above, in an excerpt of Breitz’ 40-minute work, I’m Your Man: A Portrait of Leonard Cohen.
In person, it’s displayed as an installation in-the-round, with viewers free to roam around in the middle, as each participant is projected on his own life-size video monitor for the duration.
They’re our men.
Some standing stiffly.
Others with eyes tightly shut.
Some cannot resist the temptation to act out certain choice lines.
One joyful uninhibited soul beams and dances.
They keep time with their hands, feet, heads… a seated man taps his cane.
One whistles, confidently filling the space most commonly occupied by an instrumental, while the majority of the others fidget.
There are suit jackets, a couple of Cohen-esque fedoras, a t‑shirt from a 2015 Cohen event, and what appears to be a linen gown, topped with a chunky sweater vest.
Breitz’s only requirement of the participants was that they memorize the lyrics to the I’m Your Man album in its entirety, prior to entering the recording studio.
Each man laid his track down solo, singing along while listening to the album on earbuds, unaware of exactly how his contribution would be used. Several professed shock to discover, on opening night, that synchronous editing had transformed them into members of an a cappella choir.
The project may strike some viewers as funny, especially when an individual or group flubs a lyric or veers off tempo, but the purpose is not mockery. Breitz worked to establish trust, and the participants’ willingness to extend it gives the piece its emotional foundation.
They are not precisely singers. They are just passionate, ardent fans; their goal was to communicate their devotion and love for Leonard by participating in this tribute. It is not about hitting the notes. The emotion comes through in the conviction these men portray and in the dedication they show in having put themselves out there. There is so much beauty in that work; it disarms us.
Having centered similar fan-based multichannel video experiments around such works as Bob Marley’s Legend and John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, Breitz explained the casting of the Cohen project to CBC Arts:
I was really interested in this moment in life when one starts to look back and contemplate what kind of a life one has lived and what kind of life one wishes to continue living as one approaches the end of that life. And I think that even when he was a young man, Cohen was somebody who thought about and wrote about mortality in very profound ways. So what I decided to do was to invite a group of Cohen fans who really would be up to the project of interpreting that complexity.
Prior to the work’s premiere, Breitz gathered the group for a toast, suggesting that the occasion was doubly special in that it was highly unlikely they would meet again.
Sometimes artists are unaware of the powerful force they unleash.
Rather than going their separate ways, the participants formed friendships, reunite for non-solo Cohen singalongs, and in the words of one man, became “a real brotherhood… once you establish that connection, everything else disappears.”
Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto. Follow her @AyunHalliday.