“Crying and laughing about it all” (The Spectator)

For many biographers of popular musicians, the obvious problem is that the only interesting bit comes when your subjects are in their brief creative pomp. For Sylvie Simmons, the situation is rather different — and not just because Leonard Cohen has been somewhere near his pomp for nearly 50 years. The real trouble is that every other aspect of his life is fascinating too.

To do the man justice, you first need to know about the wealthier parts of Jewish Montreal in the 1930s, where the new-born Cohen arrived home from hospital in a chauffeur-driven car. There’s also the fact that he didn’t become a working musician until he was 33, having first been a respected poet and novelist, who smoked French cigarettes with the best of them, among the artists and drifters of two continents. Along the way, his unashamed interest in spirituality has led from synagogue to Scientology, bohemianism to Buddhism — often at the same time.

And then of course, there’s all his women. No wonder that at one point Simmons somewhat exasperatedly quotes Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: ‘A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousands.’

Happily, Simmons — a music journalist of impeccable pedigree — triumphantly rises to all challenges. Certainly, the depth of her research can’t be faulted. She seems to have spoken to almost everybody who’s ever met Cohen, as well as to the man himself — and in one typical passage tells us not merely the name of his boyhood dog (Tinkie) but the name’s history. (‘His mother had originally given it the more dignified name of Tovarich, the Russian word for “ally”, but it was vetoed by his father’). Yet, like all her facts, even that one is there for a reason: in this case, to illustrate how Nathan Cohen, from a long established family of Canadian Jews, was slightly embarrassed by his immigrant wife’s Russianness.

Having got his own way on canine nomenclature, Nathan died in 1944, leaving nine-year-old Leonard and his older sister to be brought up by assorted female servants and their mother Masha, remembered even by her rabbi as ‘very Jewish’. According to Simmons, it was this background that created Cohen’s lifelong desire to be ‘nurtured by women’ — which is one way of putting it. From what we read here, among the very few who ever turned him down were Nico, who stuck to her policy of only nurturing younger men, and, perhaps surprisingly, the Suzanne about whom he wrote his first famous song. Otherwise, the list of his lovers is hard to beat for either quantity or, as the pictures in the book clearly demonstrate, quality.

Some, like Marianne Ihlen, were commemorated in songs, often of farewell. Others were famous in their own right, like Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin in the 1960s and Rebecca de Mornay, 30 years his junior, in the 1990s. Still others, who passed by more quickly, are summarised by Simmons in a neat phrase or two — including ‘the lovely homeless artist who, he found, shared his fascination with St Catherine Tekakwitha’.

But if Cohen may seem to have led a gilded life, it famously hasn’t been a cheerful one. In fact, the nearest the book comes to a single theory is that his long-standing depression was, as he puts it himself, ‘the engine of most of my investigation into the various things I looked into: wine, women, song, religion’.

And, if anybody needs further proof that depression can be unrelated to life circumstances, there’s what happened when Cohen’s finally lifted. In the late 1990s, he returned from an austere five years in a Buddhist monastery — with the odd break for The Jerry Springer Show and the occasional Buddhist nun — and a trip to India as a happy man. (‘He was fully aware of the novelty,’ notes Simmons.)

Not long afterwards, he discovered that his trusted manager had stolen all his money. Persuaded that the best way to earn it back was to go on tour, he got a band together and, in his mid-seventies, knocked them dead from Caesars Palace to Glastonbury. Not only that, but he thoroughly enjoyed himself. The book ends in a blizzard of awards, critical acclaim and inductions into any numbers of Halls of Fame.

By the end of I’m Your Man, Cohen may still come across as pretty mysterious, but that only goes to show Simmons has done her job properly. Meanwhile, the individual elements of the mystery have been calmly unpicked and chronicled in unfailingly lively prose, with a journalist’s relish for the memorable set-piece and a tone that blends obvious affection with a bracing touch of scepticism when required. It’s possible, I suppose, to imagine a less kindly biography of Leonard Cohen — but not, I think, a fairer or a better one.

by James Walton for The Spectator

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