Leonard Cohen on a Vilnius Street: A Quiet Celebration
A Quiet Whirl of Memory
Leonard Cohen is not among us physically for six years by now, but his presence is as tangible as ever. He had this kind of substance in actually everything, not just in his poetry and music, that is simply non-erasable. Years after Leonard’s passing, bearing his presence inside myself, I am more and more tend to think that it is his unique human qualities which transpired in his poetry, music and singing in that unmistaken expression of palpable love, ever-present warmth, charming self-irony and mighty easy-going intellect that attracted millions souls to his one for good.
Leonard Cohen is a unique and wholesome phenomenon for me. And as I suspect and know, for so many others.
Being blessed to know him personally, and being undeservingly enriched by our warm exchanges and communications, I took his passing so personally and so deeply that I simply could not hear him singing for good two years after November 7th, 2016. I just could not.
Then the ability to listen to the man whom you have a full impression of talking with while he is singing somewhere on an opposite part of the globe, has returned to me slowly, along with the possibility to laugh and cry and to laugh and cry again. But I do know people who were so affected by Leonard’s passing that it is very painful for them to listen to his record still now, six years after he is physically gone.
There is a belief that bringing our reflections out in the ways one is able to is the way of curing the pain of the loss of the people who are special to us. It is not that evident to me. But what is evident is that we have a kind of inner memory clock which self-activates around the dates of passing of people who are dear to one. I noticed it a while ago, and this inner clock never over-sleep. It always ‘peeps’ at a certain time bringing from your innermost territory a smile, a word, a song, a look. A joke, a gesture, a good laugh, and a sad laugh, a sigh, a drink, a place, sometimes empty, mostly not. A sound, a melody, a couple of lines. Or a word. Or a silence full of unborn words, unborn laughs, unborn looks, never happened drinks.
This quiet whirl of memory is always awakened for me around November 7th from 2016 onward, the date when Leonard passed away.
And sometimes I follow this whirl remembering something else and thinking about Leonard aloud, as happened in the of the couple of my essays of which one was an attempt of self-applied pain-therapy a couple of years after Leonard’s passing, with the help of Cohen’s finely attuned understanding of life, and the other one was a series of an artistic homages to the man who still inspires us for a soulful art.
A Gift of Loving Memory
And then, with regard to Leonard Cohen’s legacy, there is a very gratifying phenomenon of tangible, continuing love and remembrance of him among the people in different places. What is especially valuable, in my view, is that this process of loving continuing remembrance of a great poet of our time is carried on in the way which organically corresponds to the way of life of Leonard: thoughtful, quiet, understated, tactful, and – real. Very real.
Three years ago, at the end of the summer of 2019, literally several months before we all would be forced into the pandemic nightmare of covid 2019, there was a nice and special event in Vilnius. I wrote very happily about it at the time.
On that nice late summer evening, the first ever sculpture of Leonard was unveiled in a quiet garden of Vilnius. The whole thing turned to be a story wrapped in the story and wrapped in the story. The author of the sculpture, famous Lithuanian sculptor Romualdas Kvintas, was not present at the opening. He died a few months before of incurable cancer. Cohen’s sculpture was his last work which was finished by his pupil Martynas Gabuas. The idea of placing the sculpture on the street in Vilnius was the one by Norwegian businessman and philanthropist John Afseth who, very much in his character, did everything that this idea will be materialised.
We all, the Cohenistas world-wide, were absolutely happy, not only because the first ever sculpture to Leonard was become a public acknowledgement of his legacy, but also because the sculpture itself was so very much Cohen: understated, humane, with a hint of a good humour, and a lot of Leonard’s unique warmth.
The idea was that the quiet garden in Vilnius was a temporary place before the sculpture would be moved to a prominent spot in down-town Vilnius, as was agreed with the city Administration. From our site, my husband artist Michael Rogatchi and I, our The Rogatchi Foundation, in close cooperation with great Jarkko Arjatsalo, close personal friend of Leonard, the founder of famous The Leonard Cohen Files, and the champion of the Cohen world fan club, and in cooperation with the Vilnius City Administration, developed the concept of Fingerprints, the special art exhibition dedicated to Leonard and his heritage, which would be opened first in Vilnius at the same moment with the moving the Klimas sculpture to its permanent place, in both tribute to Leonard and celebration of his legacy, and then will travel internationally. But the pandemic had its forbidding say to our all so nicely worked out plans.
Quiet Celebration on a Vilnius Street
Three years on, I am receiving an email from John Afseth who is on his way to Vilnius. To participate in the event which we all were waiting for so intensely in the beginning, but on which many of us gave up, frankly, with the non-happening mode for those three years. Many of us, but not John Afseth.
On Friday afternoon, October 21st this year, there was a nice crowd on a corner of a square in down-town Vilnius. I was positively surprised by so many attendees, because I knew in advance that this would not be an officialised event. Very much to the contrary. All those people came to the event by the way of a friendly word. Probably, the best way to gather soul-mates in the case of Leonard Cohen Club.
And here he was, on the corner of a nice square in the Vilnius down-town, in bronze, but placed in such a clever and thoughtful way that he is just one of us, staying on that corner unpretentiously and so very charmingly. Absolutely as he was in his pre-bronze age, so to say.
Expectedly, Leonard’s songs were performed by a young and able band, with many present people singing quietly and nicely their favourite Cohen’s songs. Unexpectedly, the band’s suitable name, Leonard’s Four, had nothing to do with Mr Cohen. As it turned out, the name of the band’s leader is Leonard. What a nice coincidence, gathered people were smiling.
A Jewish Triangle in the Heart of Vilnius
When discussing the cordial event with the man who was behind it for all this time, John Afseth, I said that in my understanding it is exactly the way in which Leonard would like it to be, apart from the fact that he would be terrified of an idea to put him in bronze.
‘You know, I’ve heard some critique with this regard, – said John – by some people telling me that a sculpture should stand on a pedestal. But it is exactly what I wanted to prevent. I did want Leonard to greet people just on a street level, in the way he was, one of the nicest people we know. And also, Romualdas Kvintas being the fantastic sculptor he was, was able to express the very essence of the great Leonard, his humbleness. To me, this very special sculpture now stands in the most appropriate for it way and, importantly, at the most appropriate to it place in Vilnius, making a special Kvintas and Jewish Triangle in the heart of Vilnius, with his sculpture of famous Jewish doctor Tsemach Chabad from one side of the Leonard Cohen’s sculpture, and recently placed extraordinary sculpture of Jewish Water Carrier, on the other. By the way, the same sculptor and Kvintas’s pupil Martynas Gaubas did complete this special work of art, too.
So now Vilnius has that very special presence of three great sculptures created by the same master and situated in a close proximity to each other, all dedicated to the Jewish theme, at the spot which is an essential part of the Jewish history itself. And I will start to lobby that the square will be re-named to Leonard Cohen Square. Not because of the sculpture, of course, but because Leonard’s family are Litvaks and his predecessors are all from Lithuania, so it will be only logical, but with him literally staying on the corner of this square, it is just a must, I think” – smiles John.
I wrote about that unique Jewish Water Carrier sculpture in the centre of Vilnius and its former Jewish Quarter at the time when the sculpture was erected there a year ago, in the Autumn 2021, so I cannot agree more with John Afseth who did support the work of the great Lithuanian sculptor Romualdas Kvintas for years, including the most dramatic period of Romualdas life, close to it untimely end.
It is also worth remembering that Romualdas Kvintas was the author of an iconic by now sculpture of the girl in Seduva where the forthcoming very special The Lost Shtetl Museum and Memorial complex should be open in the second part of 2024.
John Afseth continues: “ I visited Kvintas studio many times during the years. And then, during one of my visits, I saw this so speaking to me Leonard’s sculpture, and at the same time, I learned that Romas is so gravely ill, with such a devastating diagnosis. I thought and I felt that he would need to be distracted from heavy thoughts, to be focused on his work and to think positively, to know that this sculpture will be erected and taken care of. So I decided to push a button then, and Romualdas knew that this project was a real thing” .
It took a very long period of three years for Vilnius Municipality to finalise the arrangements after the sculpture was erected first at its first temporary place, covid or not. But now it is done, and Leonard is greeting people from a corner of the square which might become be named after him, hopefully, and in a close proximity of the so humane, so characteristic two other works of Romualdas Klimtas, two of which were finished by Martynas Gaubas.
Inevitably, we discussed with John Afseth a wider context of his recent philanthropic deed: “ You know, it is a truism to say that Vilnius is a home of a great Lithuanian Jewish culture, but it is the fact. When I am seeing all these three sculptures of my friend Romas now standing there, in that triangle motion, in that very place which is a concentration of glory and drama in the same proportion, I can feel this special magnetism. I do think that it is tremendously important that we, today, decades after the tragedy, the tragedies regarding Lithuanian Jewry, and Jewry in general, act consciously, by engraving the memory about Jewish people and Jewish history at the very place where they were living, working, creating, among these very stones. What can be more natural? And more necessary?” – thinks John Afseth. I am so grateful to John and people like him, for this question, and for the logic behind it.
John has told me that the phenomenon of the people who were running for their lives from the Nazis, is part of his thinking perpetually, because one of his closest friends Egil Bodd, a leading Norwegian figure in medicine and business, is exactly from the similar family from Lithuania. The family’s grandfather was sensing the situation back in the end of the 1930s, and managed to get out his family at the last moment.
“The balance of life and death in histories like that, the vitality of the choice, the possibility – or to the contrary – to survive and to save one’s family, has its own grip on me, all those years” – said John. – “ All my life, I have been convinced that Jewish culture is unique in the world, due to its millenia-long uninterrupted historical perspective and, very importantly, its continuing fermenting process. You simply cannot find any other culture of the sort, except an Icelandic one. This phenomenon of survival, enrichment of one’s own, and the world’s culture and civilisation, fascinates and attracts me. And causes a deep conscious admiration and respect. All my life, I was of a strong conviction that those in wide academia circles who are unable to grasp the uniqueness of Jewish culture, both in general and in its intellectual component, are either intellectually deficient themselves, or there are prejudices. And as we know, it is so often the case”.
Dream of a Rock & Roll Vilnius
With completing the task of re-locating the Leonard Cohen sculpture in the centre of Vilnius, and having in mind a new challenge of re-naming the square after the great poet, John Afseth is far from rounding its cultural philanthropy business in Vilnius.
“For a while already, I have had this idea, this dream to bring, say, ten sculptures of great modern-age rock n roll musicians to Vilnius, to make it yet more attractive to the tourists from all around the globe – says John. – I love music, and I was thinking about it for several years by now. Then, the Leonard sculpture appeared on its own schedule, so to say, being prompted by the ( sculptor) Romas ( Kvintas) acute and dangerous illness when we were willing to do it ASAP. And of course, with existing in the city already ( Frank) Zappa and ( John) Lennon sculpting memorials, heads in both cases, the tendency is there, so to say”.
Naturally, I could not not ask John who will be the next master of Rock n Roll to appear on the streets of Vilnius. I did not even complete my question when I saw a victorious smile of John Afseth: “The next Litvak, of course! What do you think? Bob Dylan! I just hope that the City of Vilnius will support this whole project as it should”. We do too.
Knowing John for several years, and seeing his commitment and determination, I have no slightest doubt that the Lithuanian capital will merit a fantastic collection of a good modern sculpture dedicated to the great figures of modern music.
Meanwhile, a smiling Leonard Cohen is greeting people on the corner of a nice square at Pylimo street in the heart of Vilnius. He never made it to the city with a concert although he was quite near to it while in Warsaw in 2010, but for many – and there are many – of Cohen’s devoted fans in the city, it is very meaningful and very heartening appearance.
How special is to write about it on the sixth anniversary of Leonard’s passing. So long, dear Leonard, who never ever left any of us who are living not by his word, not by his melody, but by his intonation. And thank you, John Afseth.