“‘I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ by Sylvie Simmons” (Nudge Me Now)

[4 stars]

Leonard Cohen is a deeply private individual, wanting to be known only for his songs and writing, deflecting questions with his famous wit. Yet in I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons aims to get under his skin and present to readers the ‘real’ Leonard Cohen.

The author presents Cohen’s life chronologically, spending several chapters on his early years in Montreal and the close-knit community of Jews, in which his family played a significant role. It gives an unhurried look at his formative years, particularly the impact of his father’s death, which left Leonard as man of the house at only 9. Indeed, his first memory of writing came on the day of his father’s funeral, as he slipped a note into a tie and buried it in the garden. But the influence on the man Leonard was to become stretches beyond this, and it is something that Simmons returns to regularly throughout the biography. Through the next few chapters, she charts his progression through school and university, introducing some of his childhood friends and literary idols who influenced him.

Once the author moves beyond Leonard’s early life, the chapters tend to be structured around whichever book or album he was working on at that point, interlinking other life events in with these, such as his Greek hideaway in Hydra, his tenancy at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, moving to Mount Baldy to study with Roshi, and the many women VolumePills in Leonard’s life. This is a logical progression, making it simple to follow and easy to dip in and out of the book.

The writing, too, is fluent and enjoyable. Leonard occasionally seems to be a fictional character, one partly of his own creating – this wounded poet, part troubadour, sometime ladies’ man. Those who have followed Leonard’s career closely may still be surprised by some of the shenanigans that Leonard indulged in, particularly during his earlier career. Simmons clearly distinguishes the man painted in song and text on the page from his real-life counterpart, making for some very enjoyable but sometimes incredulous moments of discovery. The book is supported by an array of interviews and quotes, lyrics and poetry – many provided by Leonard himself – and Simmons weaves this into the main text to paint a more revealing picture of her subject.

The one disappointment is that the pictures provided are printed on the same grain paper as the text, meaning that many are too small or too low quality to see clearly. I’m Your Man is an excellent biography, easy to read and highly enjoyable. It is at times deeply revealing, as Simmons aims for the core of Leonard Cohen’s being, using various biographical details to sculpt the whole. It is highly recommended, both for those who are new to his work and long-term lovers, and more generally to fans of music biography.

by Brendan Wright for Nudge Me Now

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