“I’m Your Man” Book Review: Tortured Poet Endures, Finds Peace (Downtown Magazine)

The tortured artist is as clichéd and yet paradoxically admired a figure as ever existed. The love-scorned country singer, the acid-tripping painter, the hard-drinking novelist. More than a few college freshmen have decided to become writers after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. One of the most beloved authors of the 20th century is a man who illustrated the idleness and disillusionment of the Lost Generation and then, 30 years later, ended his own despondency with a shotgun in Ketchum, Idaho. Not to mention Joplin, Morrison and the rest of the 27 Club.

It seems that depression and longing and restlessness and insecurity and the remedying effects of drugs spur creation, enhance the creative mind. (Or maybe artists are more prone to depression and drug addiction.) At the very least, many aspiring artists and impressionable fans believe that is the case.

But the tortured artist’s most unfortunate attribute—of which there are many—is that the narrative arc often concludes in tatters. The resolutions of the aforementioned writers and rockers are the same: tragedy. Rarely do the stories end with a completed search for spirituality, contentment, hope, confidence or the acceptance of aging and dying.

It’s an intriguing intellectual exercise to analyze why depression and drugs so frequently conquer artists. (Although in the case of narcotics, the answer is apparent.) But it is heartening to instead discover a story that ends in the defeat of one’s demons. One such narrative belongs to Leonard Cohen.

In the forthcoming biography I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (HarperCollins), prominent rock journalist Sylvie Simmons chronicles the iconic 78-year-old songwriter’s life in exhaustive detail. In 576 pages Simmons successfully depicts the man’s decades-long exploration of spirituality, God, morality, sex, love, depression, drugs, time, loneliness, poverty, obscurity, art, ellipses, false starts and conclusions. I’m Your Man, which is available September 18 for $28, is the portrayal of a poet. But its underlying theme is the investigation of the thoughts to which we all surrender when the lights are out and the bottle is empty—but never confess in polite company. Cohen’s life has yet to reach the last page, the final quotation; yet, Simmons suggests that his denouement is one of perseverance, relief and—at last—contentment with his life and existence. It is a conclusion all those with self-doubt strive for.

Describing Cohen’s stay in India to learn from Ramesh Balsekar, a spiritual leader, Simmons writes:

Something had happened to Leonard in India. Something—as he told [songwriter] Sharon Robinson—“just lifted,” the veil of depression through which he had always seen the world. Over the space of several visits Leonard would make to Mumbai over the next few years, returning to his room at the Hotel Kemps Corner and making his daily walk to satsang, altogether, he spent more than a year studying with Ramesh—“by imperceptible degrees this background of anguish that had been with me my whole life began to dissolve. I said to myself, ‘This must be what it’s like to be relatively sane.’ You get up in the morning and it’s not like: Oh God, another day. How am I going to get through it? What am I going to do? Is there a drug? Is there a woman? Is there a religion? Is there something to get me out of this? The background is very peaceful.” His depression was gone.

The Narrative of an Icon
In structure, I’m Your Man is a traditional biography. It runs straight through Cohen’s life, from his birth in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, to the January 2012 release of his latest album, Old Ideas. In this manner, the first few chapters feel like the sections of a comprehensively sourced Wikipedia entry: birth, adolescence, high school, college. But as the chronology of his life becomes defined less by the inevitable milestones of reaching adulthood and more by his literary career and social experiences, Simmons’ intensive research becomes increasingly evident, her writing more authoritative and her insight more explanatory.

Reflecting the talent of a reporter who has honed her skills over decades of magazine writing, Simmons fluidly weaves together facts and analysis into language that is, in expertly journalistic fashion, spare yet illustrative (albeit at times teetering on hagiography). In chapter five, for example, she traces the arrival in London of a 25-year-old Cohen:

It was a cold gray morning and starting to rain when Leonard walked down Hampstead High Street, clutching a suitcase and an address. It was just before Christmas and the windows of the little shops were bright with decorations. Tired from the long journey, Leonard knocked on the door of the boardinghouse. But there was no room at the inn. The only thing they could offer was a humble cot in the living room. Leonard, who had always said he had “a very messianic childhood,” accepted the accommodation and the landlady’s terms: that he get up every morning before the rest of the household, tidy up the room, get in the coal, light a fire, and deliver three pages a day of the novel he told her he’d come to London to write. Mrs. Pullman ran a tight ship. Leonard, with his liking for neatness and order, happily accepted his duties. He had a wash and a shave, then went out to buy a typewriter, a green Olivetti, on which to write his masterpiece. On the way, he stopped in at Burberry on Regent Street, a clothing store favored by the English upper middle classes, and bought a blue raincoat. The dismal English weather failed to depress him. Everything was as it should be …

I’m Your Man goes through each phase of his life: It describes his discovery of women as a boy, when he would spend time “cutting pictures of models from his mother’s magazines and gazing out the window as the wind whipped up the skirts of the women as they walked [by].” It tells the story of the relationship with his most powerful muse, Marianne Ihlen—who is the inspiration for “So Long, Marianne”—and the tale of his most famous one-night stand—a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin, which Cohen himself immortalizes in “Chelsea Hotel # 2.” I’m Your Man details each of his spiritual experiences, from his continuous devotion to Judaism to his experimentation with scientology to his deep involvement with Buddhism (eventually becoming an ordained monk). It also stops along each point in Cohen’s progression from poet and novelist to songwriter and singer. And it even analyzes his evolution from shy, unsure performer into a man who commands the stage.

But Simmons makes it clear, as does Cohen through a number of quotes, that his focus has always been poetry.

The Edge of Emotions
Most people will experience a particular set of emotions in a lifetime: misery, euphoria, love, hatred, lust, repulsion. But poets tend to live within the extremes of these emotions.

The reason for this very likely has to do with the hyper-awareness and proclivity to abstraction that creating a poem requires. Happiness and love are publicly endorsed emotions. The others, however, are best kept hidden behind a superficial smile and idle chitchat at cocktail parties. You cannot tell your attractive coworker what you’d like to do with her; you cannot go on a water-cooler diatribe about your rival. There are rules of conformity.

But poets cannot survive on niceties and platitudes. They must exist on the edges between the norm and the fringe, in search of something intrinsically honest. This partly explains why poets so often indulge in mind-altering substances. (Dylan Thomas once famously boasted that he drank 18 whiskeys in one sitting at the White Horse. Percy Shelley may have used opium. And many of the poet-rockers of the ‘60s, including Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison—and, yes, Cohen—used amphetamines or acid.) But it also explains the thought process that, in many artists, leads to depression, and feelings of loneliness and isolation. It helps explain Leonard Cohen.

Simmons writes of Cohen: “As a writer Leonard seemed to thrive on this paradox of distance and intimacy. As a man, it was more complicated. Often it seemed to make him wretched, and, as a wretch, he turned to God.” She says that Leonard’s depression would reappear in cycles. Cohen, the biography suggests, has spent his life in constant conflict with himself. And his songs often reflect this through a striking soberness and prayer-like quality, as I’m Your Man continually states.

In reference to Cohen’s paramount song, ”Hallelujah,” Simmons quotes him as saying it is about “total surrender [and] total affirmation. … This world is full of conflicts and … things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess.”

It’s as if he is summarizing the theme that runs through the narrative of his own life and through I’m Your Man.

Cohen is a man who, like many of us, has experienced depression, anxiety, doubt, lust—both reciprocated and unrequited—devastating loss and debilitating internal pain. To cope, he at various times relied on drugs, sex, Judaism, Buddhism, attempted domestication and self-imposed exile. But unlike many of us, Cohen has an undying faith in poetry. He kept writing. And is still writing and singing and recording. Somehow, along the way Cohen accomplished what many of his 1960s contemporaries could not: he endured, survived and found peace.

Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man tells the compelling narrative of a great artist who grappled with his demons and (painstakingly) won. But it also relates to anyone who may have spent a spell in the darkness of depression and isolation—or who perhaps is still in such a spell. And in sharp contrast to the sad tales of the tortured artist, Simmons’ portrayal of Leonard Cohen delivers a message of perseverance, hope and faith.

by Chris Haire, Downtown Magazine

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