Hallelujah, it’s not all doom & gloom (Totally Jewish)

A new Leonard Cohen biography reveals him to be a true gentleman, writes Rebecca Wallersteiner.

“It took me three years to write I’m your Man – with blood on every one of its six hundred pages,” says author Sylvie Simmons of her new definitive biography of music legend Leonard Cohen.

And I have to say it was worth every drop of her blood, as I couldn’t put down her riveting, uplifting and stylishly written book.

A leading music journalist, Simmons has previously written the acclaimed biography of Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes and contributes to The Rolling Stone.

Based in San Francisco, though born in the UK, she has been fascinated by Leonard Cohen since her teenage years.

“I recall first hearing Leonard in 1968, which incidentally was also the day I hit puberty. His voice had a special intimacy and although his words were enigmatic, particularly to a young girl, I somehow sensed that he was a man who knew something important and was to be trusted. I read his poetry and novels and memorised every one of his albums, before becoming a music critic in 1977,” says Simmons, who enjoyed exclusive access to the talented singer and songwriter.

Her meticulously researched biography tracks Cohen’s artistic output – his music, poetry and fiction and also his fame, depression and colourful love life.

It is packed with fascinating interviews with everyone from poets, musicians and professors to rabbis, Buddhist monks and muses galore.

Former lovers speak affectionately of him, suggesting that despite being an irresistible lady’s man, he always behaved like a gentleman. We even meet the mysterious Suzanne who inspired his most acclaimed song of the same name.

She tells Simmons that she indeed served the poet tea and oranges in her rundown apartment by the St Lawrence harbour – although they were never lovers – and he only “touched her perfect body with his mind”.

We also meet the beautiful, long suffering Marianne Ihlen (So Long, Marianne), who lived with Cohen on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra, as well as Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his children, the folk singer Joni Mitchell, with whom Cohen had a stormy relationship, and Nico, a mysterious blond, German singer, who hung out with Andy Warhol’s glamorous Factory set.

Simmons takes us to New York’s Chelsea Hotel, in its late 1960s hey-day, where, early one morning he ran into Janis Joplin, another wandering soul, in its run-down corridors.

Despite Cohen’s extraordinary life, his background was traditional. He was born into a prominent, close-knit and loving upper middle class family in Montreal’s thriving Jewish community.

“Cohen’s ancestors had built synagogues, founded newspapers and businesses in Canada,” says Simmons. His father, Nathan, ran a thriving clothing business providing his family with a large house, chauffeur and Irish nanny in Montreal’s affluent district of Westmount.

Aunts and uncles lived nearby and in many ways Cohen was the archetypal Jewish son – well-mannered, diligent, thoughtful and decent. His mother, Masha, sang the Russian and Yiddish folk songs she had learnt in her childhood.

“My mother laughed and wept deeply and carried her past in songs,” Cohen told the author. He grew up to be more like his mother, who was warm, emotional and creative, than his reserved, kindly father, who tragically died at the age of 53, when he was just nine. His father’s early death gave the teenage Cohen more freedom than most other Jewish boys in his neighbourhood and he roamed the streets of Montreal’s poorer neighbourhoods until the late hours.

Simmons analyses Cohen’s wide-ranging influences from the poetry of Lorca to Hebrew prayer and his experimentations with Judaism, Christianity, Scientology and Zen Buddhism.

When you learn there are eminent Rabbis on both sides of his family, his spiritual quest and lack of materialism become less surprising. His maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klonitzki-Kline, was the principal of a school for Talmudic study in Lithuania.

On his father’s side, his great-grandfather, Lazarus Cohen, had been a teacher in a rabbinical school in Wylkowyski, before emigrating to Canada in 1860.

His younger brother, Tzvi Hirsch Cohen, then joined him and became Chief Rabbi of Montreal.

Although Leonard Cohen chose a different spiritual path to his devout ancestors, it is likely they are never too far from his thoughts. He has now found the religious fulfilment he spent most of his life searching for, in a monastery outside Los Angeles.

After five years in seclusion in the 1990s, he became ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk, only emerging from semi-retirement after finding that his manager had embezzled his money.

Still lean, handsome and hawkish and in his seventies, Cohen then began touring the world, giving performances to rebuild his fortune.

Packed audiences across Europe, Canada and Israel welcomed him effusively – with many of his fans being young enough to be his grandchildren. In Israel, tickets for his Tel Aviv concert sold out within 24 hours and Cohen generously gave the proceeds to charity.

I ask Simmons if she plans to speak at Jewish Book Week? “If all goes well, there are plans to Skype me from San Francisco onto a screen in London,” she enthuses. Having sold like hot cakes, the tickets to The Words and Music of Leonard Cohen event on 23 February have already sold out – but no doubt, those lucky enough to have a place are going to be in for an absolute treat.

by  Rebecca Wallersteiner for Totally Jewish

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