BookLovers: Simmons pens definitive biography of rock poet Leonard Cohen

Sex, God and Depression.

This is the Holy Trinity of Leonard Cohen.

I’ve always had this image of Cohen as a holy man coming to his senses after a night of Greek bacchanalia.

Sylvie Simmons only confirmed my notion after I read her new biography, “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (2012).
You cannot write about Cohen, one of the great poet/singer/philosophers and Lotharios of our time, she says, without untangling these three topics:

Sex: Berlin, 1972. During a concert, Cohen “jumped into the crowd and kissed a young woman — a deep long, kiss. It just went on and on. It ended up with Leonard on the floor, and you wondered if they were going to start taking their clothes off,” a cohort of Cohen’s tells Simmons.
The next night in Frankfurt, the concert ended with “Leonard laying on the floor and people laying on top of him, writhing like a pile of worms. He just lost it. He got so sexually involved with the crowd that he took it to a whole new level,” the source told her.
But while other rock stars may have done something equally outrageous and felt no shame, Cohen — like the holy man stumbling
home after the party — told filmmaker Tony Palmer backstage solemnly: “I’ve disgraced myself.”

God: An ordained Buddhist monk, Cohen descends from a long line of rabbis in a well-to-do, prominent Jewish family in Montreal; he’s also a student of the Bible, grew up attending a Catholic church, chanted with the Hare Krishna, lived in a Buddhist monastery for five years in his ’60s, studied Hinduism with a guru in India.

Depression: Cohen’s father died when the boy was 9, and he grew up writing poetry, always with a sense of despondency and isolation. He’s publicly battled chronic depression for years, self-medicating in the past with everything from LSD to Ritalin to a European sedative called Mandrax, and later in life, legally, with dozens of doctor-prescribed drugs.
His songs are at times so dark and melancholic that, as Simmons recounts, a manager at a concert venue once told his doorman, “You better check the bathroom for razor blades, because this stuff is real depressing.”

Simmons, a rock journalist and biographer of Neil Young, has written the definitive biography of Leonard Cohen. She nails it. Solid 10.0. Sticks the landing.

I called her up recently and found her celebrating.

Simmons: You caught me in the middle of celebrating. Did you see that “I’m Your Man” just made the New York Times bestsellers list?

Daley: I did see that! Congratulations!

Simmons: I was going to make a drink, but I figured I better be sober for your interview.

Daley: (laughs) Well, thanks! Sorry I interrupted the drink, though.
Simmons: No, it’s OK, let’s talk. (laughs.)

Daley: (laughs) OK ¦ It seems to me that Cohen’s penchant for creativity and writing, along with the death of his father at age 9, and growing up during WWII, was the perfect storm for creating this sad, stoic poet.

Simmons: He’s one of those people who’s hard to pull apart — every strand of his DNA is a key part to figuring out who he is. It’s very important to him that he came from a Jewish family of importance ¦ His mother’s side had rabbis going back forever. But they were also great businessmen; there were all these businesses that Leonard was meant to grow up and take over. He was also brought up a Jewish minority in a place that was largely Catholic in a French province in a largely Anglo country. Plus he was born between the Depression and World War II, the death of his father — all these things formed Leonard’s sense of loneliness and insecurity.

Daley: What was Cohen was like to interview?

Simmons: He’s extremely charming. He focuses entirely on you. You can see absolutely, from a glance, why the ladies love him. Both men and women who interview him come out reeling (laughs). He’s got a quiet charisma, no ego. He focuses on you in an intimate way.
For example, he offered me a cup of coffee, and he said (uses slow, deep voice) “Now think seriously before you answer this: Would you like a scoop of ice cream in there?” It’s almost suggestive (laughs).
He loves women, not just in the horizontal, but even to talk to. He doesn’t like to talk about himself. He’ll do anything to get the subject off himself. He’ll answer questions because he’s a kind man, because he’s a gentleman.

Daley: Speaking of women: You write that since he was a little boy, he loved women, he’d cut out pictures of models from his mother’s magazines. Obviously, you can’t think of Leonard Cohen without thinking of the sensuality in nearly all his songs. How did you deal with the whole romantic side of Cohen?

Simmons: In this case, (the sexual aspect of) Leonard was so obvious, I didn’t have to ask about it. It was just everywhere – Leonard said when he was in his early teens, he bought a little book on hypnotism. He hypnotized the family maid and instructed her to take her clothes off. I love that story (laughs).
When he first started writing poetry, it was to attract girls. And it makes sense, because in his teens, there was no rock ‘n’ roll — it was the Beat poets who were big. You might get a little more action if you can tell a girl she’s pretty in a poetic way (laughs).

Daley: (laughs) True. Many readers may not know that Cohen was initially a poet and novelist, not a singer.

Simmons: Right. He (started singing) “for financial reasons “¦ To be a novelist in Canada, you can’t sell enough copies of anything to live on. So he decided to go to Nashville and be a country star. It happened to turn out, because of the era he was in, he ended up becoming more of a folk/rock singer.

Daley: You say Cohen liked the Beats, but they didn’t really like him.

Simmons: As Leonard put it, the Beats thought Leonard was too traditional. Ginsberg was writing “Howl,” and Leonard had poems that rhymed “¦ Leonard tended to hover on the outside of groups “¦ which was also due in part to his chronic depression.

Daley: Right, he’s famously battled depression. He said he “spent a lot of time alone letting himself slowly die.” Has he ever been suicidal?

Simmons: I think the real question is has he ever not been suicidal? (laughs) I mean, the answer is yes, he’s been suicidal. He had extremely serious, deep, chronic depression the whole of his adult life until recently, the last 10 years ¦ He’s self-medicated with all kinds of medication, legal and illegal — LSD, opiates, prescription drugs. But mostly it was done with self-discipline. He said the most helpful to him was Buddhism and Hinduism.

Daley: What’s your take on his obsession with fasting and losing weight — is that a religious thing, or more of a compulsive issue?

Simmons: I think it was a mind-altering thing. Fasting is part of purification and altering your state of mind. Also, he had this Jewish mother who tried to fatten him up, and he wanted to be thin and sharp and have an edge to him. He’s very disciplined and hard on himself.

Daley: So he went back on the road touring because he was completely bankrupt. You say his “former manager bled his retirement account dry.” Can you explain how he lost all his money?

Simmons: It’s a hard one to summarize, but the short version is that while he was living in a monastery for five years, he gave his money to his manager, who was also a close friend … Somewhere along the line, his money was misappropriated ¦ His daughter knew someone who said, ‘Look into his finances now.’ It turned out that he’d been wiped out ¦ He lost everything. He was completely impoverished. He was forced to go back on the road after 15 years away (from touring) to make money at a time in his life when most people retire.

Daley: Why did you want to write this book?

Simmons: I’ve loved Leonard’s music since I was a teenager¦ I’d interviewed him twice before ¦ (one) was a three-day interview, and at the end I wanted to know more. I read books on him, and none of them told me what I really wanted to know. So I started writing this book.

by Lauren Daley for South Coast Today

Leave a Reply