“I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, By Sylvie Simmons” (The Independent)

The ageless troubadour of Montreal at last has a biography that does him justice

In a genre where the currency is much debased, Sylvie Simmons, a British-born journalist working from San Francisco, has turned in a fine example of what a rock biography should be. Of course the subject is far more than just a rock star: long before he became “the Bard of the Bedsit”, Leonard Cohen was an award-winning poet regarded as the brightest and best among the new generation of Canadian writers.

Down the years, there have been critical collections and cut-and-paste biographies. This is the real McCoy, written with Cohen’s cooperation – drawing on personal papers and the memories of subject, friends and lovers – but not his approval. He didn’t want to read the manuscript and had just two concerns: that the book not be a hagiography and that its author not starve. Cohen ought to be pleased with the result, which includes extensive notes and a proper index.

With the worldwide embrace of the last decade or so; the awards; the sell-out tours with brilliant musicians led by a dapper, droll, self-deprecating and much lighter-hearted Cohen, it’s easy to forget he was once the butt of endless jokes. Depressing. Unhip. A loser. In 1979, so few people wanted to interview him that I, just out of college, was offered the chance. A long-time admirer, I wasn’t disappointed.

Captain Mandrax, Laughing Lenny… Cohen, whom one might describe as a cunning linguist, was always a poet first and foremost. He simply didn’t make enough money to live as one, even on the Greek island of Hydra (first with Marianne and later Suzanne, though not the one immortalised in song) in the 1960s. Music might solve the problem.

A wanderer, born and brought up in Montreal, he’d intended to go to Nashville but stopped off in New York, where he “bumped into the so-called folk-song renaissance” and realised he’d been “writing those little songs for a while and just playing them for friends”. So he got himself introduced to Judy Collins who, in 1967, recorded “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag”. Now Cohen had a new audience and, before long, a record contract.

Now Cohen, the Lorca-loving poet who learned six chords from a mysterious young Spanish guitarist, who grew up steeped in Jewish life and lore, and whose finely wrought poetry had always been a heady mix of sex and religion, was hanging out at the Chelsea, with Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Nico, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith and Jimi Hendrix.

Reading Simmons’s rich and engaging study, it’s easy to see what drew so many women to this self-confessed ladies’ man. Cohen was empathetic, generous, caring; a seeker whose life-long quest led him to a monastery, where for years he served Zen Master Roshi and was ordained as a monk. The hours of meditation brought him solace. Had manager Kelley Lynch not cleaned him out financially, Cohen might have lived out his life on Mount Baldy. That would have been our loss. To the man with “the golden voice”, we must raise an unbroken “Hallelujah!”

By Liz Thomson for The Independent

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