“Deconstructing the man” (The Suburban)

Thousands will pack the Bell Centre on November 28 and 29 to witness a 78-year-old Leonard Cohen belt out the moody classics which have contributed significantly to the soundtracks of many a Montrealer’s life. Although local fans may claim to have more of a shared common experience with Cohen than any of his other fans around the world, the true identity of Suzanne, Marianne and the context behind other songs has nevertheless been long-debated and speculated upon even by the most devoted.

Recently, however, noted rock n’ roll journalist Sylvie Simmons released a comprehensive biography on Cohen which offers firm and definite answers to many of these burning questions. Having already accrued much praise, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, has even had some suggesting that this is one of the best biographies on a popular musician ever written.

“I just wanted to get into the heart and soul of Leonard as well as present the skeleton of his story and get it right,” says Simmons. “I realized very early on, as I think we all did, that Leonard is a lady’s man, that he loved women and that they were very important to his music and his work. I really wanted to speak to some of them directly to get their insights. I didn’t want to peak behind the bedroom door. It was more of a case of finding out who they were and what they could tell me about Leonard.”

In addition to speaking directly with many near and dear to Cohen, Simmons says the man himself was exceptionally cooperative and supportive of the project.

“I think he probably liked the idea of having a woman write a book about him,” she says. “He told me he didn’t want it to be a whitewash, so he clearly wanted someone who was going to go into it with heart as well as diligence.”

Although Simmons first interviewed Cohen in 2001, she says her initial exposure to the singer came when she discovered him on a compilation record released during her adolescence in her native country of England. She’s been a big fan ever since.
“A girl never forgets her first,” she says. “In Britain, he was a star from the outset as he was across Europe. I was surprised when I moved to America to find out that people didn’t know who I was talking about.”

Having written extensively on subjects ranging from Johnny Cash to Serge Gainsbourg, Simmons says she employed a time-tested research process from the onset of the project that would ultimate take up three years of her life.

“It was detective work, mostly,” she says. “I’m kind of used to the system of finding people through various contacts and getting them to talk. Some were more open than others.”

Of the many sources she approached, she says the woman who almost became Mrs. Leonard Cohen proved to be very forthcoming.
“One person who was a delight to speak to but who was very difficult to get hold of was Rebecca De Mornay, the actress, who was Leonard’s fiancée,” she says.

“He never married, but he came very close in this instance. She didn’t want to speak about Leonard because she thought it was somehow disrespectful or a kiss-and-tell. But that wasn’t what I was after.”

As well as pursuing his muses, Simmons also tracked down every living record producer with whom Cohen had worked. There was, however, one notable exception.

“Phil Spector was in prison, and I tried everything other than smuggling myself into a cake, which I’m tiny enough to almost manage,” she says.

Travelling far and wide on Cohen’s trail, Simmons admits to having “bled and suffered for this book,” even going as far spending time in the Buddhist monastery outside of Los Angeles where the artists took up residence in seclusion for five years during the ’90s.

“I found out that when he came down from the monastery on the occasional weekend and went back to L.A., he would stop by a McDonald’s on the way and get a Filet-O-Fish, which he’d wash down with a good Margaux wine, and watch The Jerry Springer Show,” she says of one her stranger discoveries.

Digging into this period in Cohen’s life also led to more sobering insight. “I had assumed he’d left the monastery because he’d been cured of his depression that kept him up there but he actually left because he was too depressed to stay there and went to another guru I hadn’t even heard about in India,” she says.

As trying as the monastery experience was for her, however, she says it wasn’t much worse than the cold she experienced in mid-winter Montreal.

“That was my first stop,” she says. “First thing I did when I got my advance money was spend it on a plane ticket and a small apartment in Montreal. I came here in winter and my admiration for people who live in Montreal knows no bounds. I thought I would die. I’ve never known such cold.”

Despite the cold, Simmons says the time she spent in Montreal proved crucial to the book’s development, just as the city’s artistic community prove crucial to Cohen’s own career development.

“He comes back regularly and speaks very warmly of the place,” says Simmons. “He said it informed what he did to a great degree, as well as Canada in general. He said that without the grants he was getting from the Canadian government, he couldn’t have existed without falling into the family business.”

Examining the peeks and valleys of Cohen’s professional and personal life as a whole, Simmons says she came to see her subject in a way that she had never anticipated.

“Overall, what I found out was how much of a resilient man he was. You don’t think of Leonard as being a fighter but in a way he really fought for his survival, partly due to his depression and partly due to having all of his money taken away from him and many other points in between. It almost turned the book into a story of redemption, which I hadn’t set out to write.”

Above all, however, Simmons seems especially proud that she “outed” Cohen as a ukulele player in his youth — a musical skill she just happens to share.

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen is now available.

The Suburban

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