“I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (Montreal Gazette)

“Not I, but the poet discovered the unconscious,” Sigmund Freud is quoted as saying. Who, then, discovers the poet? In Sylvie Simmons’s biography of Leonard Cohen, it will be you.

The central surprise in the 500-plus pages of I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen is that for all the artistic and hedonistic glamour, the bottomless psychic suffering, the mystic mystery, Leonard Cohen emerges as surprisingly knowable. The Leonard Koan is cracked. But in perfect irony, through most of the book and the life, Life is not entirely knowable to Cohen himself.

Happiness, equilibrium, marriage, a regular mailing address — these things elude, or are eluded by, Montreal’s titanically honoured poet laureate of rock, who was interviewed extensively by Simmons for this book.

There are ample surprise revelations, oddities: who knew Cohen was a frat joiner at McGill, that he wrote failed TV scripts, almost hosted a CBC show? He was an early Mac adopter and a Jerry Springer watcher (!) later in life. Jammed with Jimi, almost “double dated” with Iggy Pop. Fun to know, but the least of it.
The career arc, from meteoric young poet to legend, is officially enshrined in every corner of Canadian cultural honour and across the globe. But credit Simmons and her rigorous research for scouring the details of six decades of struggle and triumph in the Tower of Song. I’m Your Man doggedly reminds us that the tower was on fire.

Poetry, Music, Women, Spirit — those might be the headers if you pulled the life and the book apart into nastily confined sections. Instead, we can start with the guy, raised in conservative upper-middle-class Jewish Westmount, adored by mother Masha (a coddled Jewish son — who knew?), lost his father at 9, went to Westmount High, strolled the pre-dawn streets of Montreal as a teen, refining his emerging artistic sensibility and chick radar. Simmons bracingly confirms he was “not anti-establishment by any means,” in the words of Arnold Steinberg, his college pal and now chancellor of McGill University. No, Cohen sought and expected inclusion into the elite poet caste, and with Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956, McGill Poetry Series) would have it, entering into a lifelong elder/scion admiration society with Irving Layton.
And what a cheeky poet. When hanging out at Columbia in New York — there was no studying — Cohen proposed and succeeded in writing a term paper on … Let Us Compare Mythologies. So he had the rock attitude down. Though poetry was “the passport of all ideas,” he had deduced “the only economic alternative was … teaching or university or getting a job in a bank … but I always played the guitar and sang.”
He would flee to Hydra, an isolated Greek island populated by characters from a bad spy novel, where “everyone was in everyone else’s bed.” He would meet and win a jilted Oslo beauty named Marianne and buy a primitively perfect house with a $1,500 inheritance. Those were the days. And Marianne — might be a song in that. He would return to New York.

It was the ’60s, when “there’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening.” Cohen plunges in, writing Suzanne, meeting Judy Collins (who covers it) and experiencing performance — by dying onstage at the Village Theatre in 1967, slinking off when his voice and guitar fail him. It will be a major theme: the perceived failures, the self-castigation, the persistence.

Now, many will want to zoom forward to a chapter titled Taxes, Children, Lost Pussy, but hold off. The middle of the book is a catalogue of the many highs and psychic lows of a music career that now has the burnish of the icon, but was forever at risk. Yes, his first real song would become a standard and Hallelujah is a modern psalm. He will be revered by a younger generation — Nick Cave, Pixies, REM, Bono, the latter heralding him as “our Shelley, our Byron.” But at the time of the 1967 debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen, critics dismissed “a sad man cashing in on self-pity” whose albums should come “with razor blades.”

Still, the highs are high in two senses. On his 1970 European tour, he and his band ride horses onto a French festival stage, and Cohen is known as Captain Mandrax for the drug he gobbles. He drinks like a rock star and smokes like a Frenchman, jetting from Hydra to New York to Montreal to L.A. to Oslo to Paris and back while the records tank in Canada and the U.S. and he becomes a god in Europe. It’s the glam life you’ve yearned for as you light your Gauloise from the Chianti candle. It only gets better when crazy Phil Spector embraces Cohen and presses a gun to his neck, saying “I love you, Leonard.” And bilks him of half the songwriting for Death of a Ladies’ Man, crediting the album to “Spector & Cohen.”
Amid this colourful bio, Simmons provides us with something absent from most rock biographies: musical analysis. You (or I) might disagree with some of her readings, but Simmons has spent the time with the records. She has spent time with the people who made them — who adored Leonard, or did not. She gathers and cross-references a library of in-studio detail for every single record — personnel, arguments, Cohen’s ceaseless rewriting, the penniless backing band they found in a dive for his debut, the library of lost songs. “I’m cold as a new razor blade,” he says, but burns candles during every vocal. Rather than cold, there is a deep warmth.

There are vivid portraits from Simmons here of lost hedonistic Edens — Hydra, ’60s New York, the Chelsea Hotel. Portraits of the women are no less vivid: a couple of Suzannes, a Marianne, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, later Rebecca De Mornay. The women — they are in the titles. Suzanne you likely know: it was Suzanne Verdal, wife of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. He titled Sisters of Mercy for two female hitchhikers he invited into his Edmonton hotel room and watched over as they slept. And by the late stages of the story, Cohen has gone from Ladies’ Man to Man for the Ladies, eventually partnering musically with Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas in ways he perhaps could never do romantically. He will end up wanting to “be reincarnated as my daughter’s dog.”

Well, spirituality comes in many guises, and Simmons spends a significant page count on it. Cohen was lured by Scientology before pursuing Zen Buddhism and master Joshu Sasaki Roshi. And here, the disparate elements coalesce into one character who ties up the wine, women, song and soul: the Seeker. As Simmons catalogues, he had good reason to seek the light.

The threnody line running through the book and story is: Darkness Visible, a lifelong struggle with depression. There is family history. Beautiful, volatile Masha will spend time in the infamous Allan Memorial Institute. Cohen will live in the greys and blacks for most of his life, despite the loves, the success. He is the depressive who rescues a worldwide cult of suicidals.

Depression — to some extent, you can see his point. Why not? How many artists of his stature had a U.S. label bluntly refuse to release an album (Various Positions)? Dylan said, “Somebody’ll put out Leonard’s record here. They have to.” (So, the record industry has always been that dumb.) Depression — even a triumph, the hit I’m Your Man was made “under the usual dismal and morbid conditions”: Suzanne Elrod was suing him for child support. And how many septuagenarians who have poured a soul’s worth into their lifelong Book of Song find themselves betrayed by a trusted financial handler — the apparently deranged Kelley Lynch — and defrauded of an eight-figure sum? Just the one. In 2008, Cohen is forced out onto the road again.

It could be a sad story. Instead, enlightenment arises. Cohen breaks with Roshi, bows to guru Ramesh Balsekar in India and eventually finds the veil of a life’s gloom disintegrating. Meanwhile, a younger generation —Nick Cave, Pixies, REM, Bono — heralds him as “our Shelley, our Byron.” The tour is a global smash.

“There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” The perfect lines on imperfection. On the shortest possible list of greatest writers this country has produced, in three disciplines — poetry, prose, pop — Leonard Cohen can be known here, to an extent. Because Simmons’s comprehensive, insightful book ultimately reminds us that the answers to the koan are less important than the irreconcilable mystery itself.

by Mark LePage for the Montreal Gazette

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