Canada Reviews for I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen biography offers art and heart (Digital Journal)

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

Music journalist Sylvie Simmons interviewed a wide range of people to complete her exhaustive biography on Canadian music icon Leonard Cohen. It was a project done, as she says, with “diligence and heart.”

I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen (Vintage) examines the life and legacy of one of the world’s most beloved poet-singers. From his early life in Montreal, adventures in New York, Europe, and Los Angeles, life in a Buddhist monastery, touring international arenas, and through family life, spiritual life, even financial life, Simmons paints a compelling, vivid portrait that allows for its 400+ pages to fly by with equal amounts of ease and insight. Hailed by the New York Times at its release last fall as being “the major, soul-searching biography that Leonard Cohen deserves”, the UK paperback version was published this month, with Simmons doing heavy rounds of interviews and tours through her native England, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Simmons’ thoroughness is a studied reflection of her dedication to both the project and the man. “It was about a three-year project, all-in-all,” she says, her soft, British-accented voice lilting on the line from California during a recent break. “It was very intense working weekends and sixteen-hour days and losing my mind a little bit during the process. (But) it would’ve been so wrong not to follow these threads which started weaving together like a DNA helix, as opposed to (a storytelling style of), “…and then he did this!” Rock biographies especially tend to be very much in a long straight line, like a railway track, and there are stations along the way. With (Cohen), it didn’t seem that way; it was more circling around the same things over and over involving the same elements.”

It was, she notes, a labour of love. “People are drawn to the mystery and the mood of his songs,” she notes. “I know when I first heard (Cohen’s) music, I was too young to understand the implications of things on that first album… but somehow, there’s something in there, a sort of honesty and intimacy and authority, and a mystery, that draw you. That’s why a lot of people who love Leonard Cohen love Leonard Cohen.”

The Canadian artist, who turns 80 next year, is an inductee to the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame; Cohen is also a recipient of a Canadian Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. as well as Canada’s highest civilian honor, Companion of the Order of Canada. In 2010, he was awarded a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, and in 2013, received two Juno Awards, for Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year. Over his nearly five decades in music, the Montreal-born poet and singer/songwriter has released twelve albums, the latest being Old Ideas (Columbia) in 2012; his music has spawned a myriad of cover versions, with “Hallelujah” (from his 1984 album, Various Positions) being perhaps his most famous. Cohen has also authored a number of poetry compilations and two novels, many of which have been reissued the last few years. Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, a documentary based around a Hal Willner-produced tribute concert and directed by Australian filmmaker Lian Lunson, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2005 and featured big-name acts including Nick Cave, Beth Orton, Rufus Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, and U2 paying respects and performing some memorable covers versions from Cohen’s venerable canon.

Simmons herself hails from a passionate music background; she’s authored a number of music-related works, including a biography of French singer/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg (2002’s Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes, Da Capo Press), another on Neil Young (2001’s Neil Young: Reflections In Broken Glass, Canongate), and a collection of rock-and-roll linked short stories, 2004’s Too Weird For Ziggy (Grove Press, Black Cat). As a music journalist, she’s interviewed an impressive array of music icons (including Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, Beck, and Marianne Faithfull) and been published in major magazines like Creem, Kerrang!, Sounds, MOJO, and Rolling Stone for over three decades.

Simmons describes the biography as “my most in-depth book.” In assembling it, Simmons was constantly evaluating the information she’d gleaned from interviews and research. “As a journalist, the inclination is to ask, “why is this information of use?” Really, with all of these things, you’re using them because they’re of use, you’re getting to the heart and essence of this man,” she says, “and what goes on behind closed doors is of no interest to me, unless there’s some consistent weirdness, but I hadn’t heard that at all. I don’t know… I’ve written things in there (Cohen) may be uncomfortable reading.”

Some of that discomfort may be owing to the love affairs chronicled, though the writer also covers Cohen’s legal debacle from the mid-2000s between the artist and his former manager. “That was one of my least favorite bits to write,” says Simmons wistfully. The affair was ugly in and of itself, but moreso for a figure so resoundingly private and reserved. It was unseemly and mortifying to read about at the time, I tell her.

“That’s exactly what it was: unseemly and mortifying,” she says, without a pause. “It was also very undignified.”

Simmons did due diligence as a biographer, pouring over legal papers, emails, blogs, and other records used in the trial. A positive result of the affair was its forcing the reclusive artist back on the touring circuit, where he became (and still is) a popular arena performer. Simmons marvels at his immense touring success, noting it happened “in such a bizarre way.”

Such success borne from such calamity is, perhaps, a perfect reflection of Cohen’s line (from “Anthem” on 1992’s The Future) “there is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” Certainly, light has been flooding into his life with the widespread success he’s courted, particularly over the last decade. But it’s a success Cohen certainly courted, even in his younger days, as a young artist finding his way in 1950s Montreal.

“From all (Cohen) said at the time, he didn’t really want to be just a culturally respected figure,” notes Simmons. “It was all very well being the golden boy of Canadian poetry and the enfant terrible of novels -especially after Beautiful Losers -but he wanted a big audience. He did have a certain egotism back then; he wanted people to read his work and know his music.”

Simmons paints a powerful, fascinating portrait of a city that, in many ways, shaped the artist Cohen became. The role of religion played an especially prominent role in forming the insider/outsider status Cohen would riff on for much of his career.

“I was talking to an early friend of Leonard’s,” Simmons recalls, “and he was telling me about how, when they were living in Westmount (a well-to-do area of Montreal where Cohen grew up), they were looking for girls, and they couldn’t find any. French girls didn’t have anything to do with them. That, in conjunction with something Arnold Steinberg (a Cohen friend; now the Chancellor of McGill) said -it was the same thing: the Jews were tossed in with the Protestants (socially) on the grounds they weren’t French or Catholic.”

Such early formative experiences loom large in the scope of an entire life. “It’s interesting, this kind input, (considering the roles of) Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism,” Simmons reflects, “they’re all (in his work), along with a sense of being an outsider and an insider -of being somebody of status in the family and yet, hang on, “we’re in a Protestant neighbourhood, in a French province!” All these degrees of mystery and outsiderness are perfect for Leonard; he was meant to be in exactly that place, in some strange way.”

As well as place, Simmons examines the role of a number of people in Cohen’s life, including ex-lovers, longtime friends, famous admirers, business associates, and spiritual advisors. Out of the myriad of people she interviewed for the book, there are three the author wishes she could’ve spoken with: Joni Mitchell (who, despite assurances from the biographer she was strictly interested in discussing their working relationship, turned down repeated requests), Jennifer Warnes (who told Simmons she’d said everything she wanted to say about Cohen via her 1987 album Famous Blue Raincoat), and Phil Spector (who ignored her many letters).

“I can understand (the lack of response), he’s trying to fight his conviction,” Simmons says of the famed music producer “and of course, there were guns used in the making of (the album) Death Of A Ladies Man (from 1977) -so it would’ve been a chapter in which something appears that would not help him fight his appeal.”

Ukulele-playing author Sylvie Simmons says Leonard Cohen has a particular ability to integrate the sacred and the profane, as well as the mysterious. “In a song like “Suzanne”, for instance, he’s reporting an actual event, (but) the next minute Jesus is in there, out of nowhere, walking on the water. This happens over and over again with him, where the metaphysical comes in.”

Furthermore, at one point in his artistic life, “he liked or needed to live, for some reason, in a state of longing. There’s a considerable amount of poems and songs written for people, not while he was with them, but longing to have them back.”

It’s a keen insight into a man who’s only recently been very upfront about his personal demons. “Leonard has been very honest and open about the fact that almost his entire adult life he suffered very deep depression,” Simmons notes, “that he tried everything legal and illegal, and combinations of women and wine to take his mind off of it. Nothing takes your mind off depression.”

Still, Cohen has managed to rise -above the depression devils, as well as from personal setbacks, to become a wildly successful artist in his older years. A thorough, well-researched biography of him feels like perfect timing -though Cohen himself has no opinion of the work, or, if he does, he’s keeping it to himself.

“If you were ask him, he’d say, “let my work speak for me.” He didn’t ask me to write the book. He didn’t stop me from writing the book,” says Simmons. “He gave his support. I don’t know if he’s read it -I didn’t ask and he didn’t tell me -but I know most of his band members have a copy of it.[…] I’ve heard from his sister and friends that they have the book. I think he knows I put in the work and did my best.

It’s a strange relationship between biographer and their subject; you are, in a way, intruding in the most impolite manner. You’re going after their teachers and editors and muses and religious compadres and lovers, and so in a way, it’s a strange stalking…but, as I say, I went in with diligence and heart.”

by Cate Kustanczy for Digital Journal

A definitive biography of Leonard Cohen (Canadian Jewish News)

Monday, April 1st, 2013

Everybody knows that Leonard Cohen is the man. An acclaimed poet, novelist and songwriter, he is Canada’s answer to America’s Bob Dylan.

Cohen’s advancing years should indicate he is well past his prime, but the opposite is true. Like old wine, Cohen gets better with age, at least judging by a concert in Toronto I attended last December. For three hours, he regaled thousands of fans, who burst into applause when he finished one of his signature brooding numbers.

Although Cohen is a public figure, he is a shy, private person. Sylvie Simmons, in I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (McClelland & Stewart), breaks past his façade in a definitive biography.

A music journalist who has closely followed Cohen’s career, Simmons is nothing if not meticulous. Her book is a primer on the importance of excellent research.

She starts with his “privileged” background in Montreal. The scion of a wealthy and accomplished family originally from Lithuania, Cohen was born in 1934 and raised in the lap of luxury in Westmount, a fashionable neighbourhood in the folds of Mount Royal. Cohen’s father, Nathan, was a manufacturer of formal wear. His mother, Masha, was a rabbi’s daughter who spoke Russian and Yiddish.

At Masha’s encouragement, Cohen took piano lessons, only to switch to the clarinet. Along with two McGill University friends, he formed a country-and-western band, The Buckskin Boys, which catered to the then popular square-dancing market.

Cohen was drawn to poetry after reading The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. But like some men of his generation, he trafficked in poetry to attract women, having learned that “stories and talk” were an irresistible combination.

In Simmons’ estimation, he became a poet at McGill, his talents honed, in part, by the courses of Louis Dudek. Cohen’s first published collection of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, edited by Dudek, brought him to the attention of the media. His second volume of poetry, The Spice-Box of Earth, published five years later in 1961, prompted a Toronto Star reviewer to hail him as “probably the best young poet in English Canada right now.”

Thanks to his foray into poetry, he met Irving Layton, 22 years his senior. They could not have been more different, suggests Simmons. Layton was a brazen self-promoter, while Cohen was modest and self-effacing. Yet the pair maintained a durable friendship until Layton’s death.

Simmons devotes considerable space to Cohen’s sojourn on the Greek island of Hydra, and her focus on it is justified. After visiting Israel for the first time, Cohen discovered Hydra, a haunt of bohemians where he felt at home. There he met Marianne Ihlen, the first love of his life, and wrote his first two novels, The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers.

Disappointed by their lack of financial success, Cohen talked about becoming a folk music performer and making records. But it was not until 1967, with the Songs of Leonard Cohen, that he finally made his debut.

Curiously enough, he did not like touring. He had a problem with stage fright and feared that his songs would not be appreciated. As Simmons writes, “He wanted to protect them, not parade and pimp them to paying strangers in an artificial intimacy.”

Nonetheless, he flew to Israel to perform for Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur War. His motives were pure. “I’ve never disguised the fact that I’m Jewish, and in any crisis in Israel I would be there. I am committed to the survival of the Jewish people.”

For the next few weeks, Cohen travelled by truck, tank and jeep to entertain soldiers up to eight times a day. And he wrote a song, Lover Lover Lover, in Israel.

Despite his affinity for his Jewish background, he was attracted to Buddhism, a topic Simmons explores at length. Cohen joined the Mount Baldy Zen Center, high in the San Gabriel mountains and some 80 kilometres east of Los Angeles.

He lived austerely in a simple cabin set on the grounds of a monastery, and according to Simmons, he was quite happy performing menial tasks and cooking for and chauffeuring around its spiritual leader.
Cohen likened the Zen Center to a hospital and himself and his fellow residents to “people who have been traumatized, hurt, destroyed and maimed by daily life.”

In 1996, three years into his experience on the monastery, he was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk. But in 1998, he left Mount Baldy, where at times he had found contentment and where he wrote 250 songs and poems in various states of completion.

Cohen prospered as an entertainer, only to find out in 2004 that his longtime manager, Kelley Lynch, had swindled him out of millions of dollars and brought him to the brink of bankruptcy.

As Simmons observes, Cohen was tempted to cut his losses and walk away from the disaster that had befallen him. His lawyers balked, informing him that a lot of the missing money in retirement accounts and charitable trust funds left him liable for crippling tax bills.

Eventually, Cohen recovered some of the stolen funds, but the fiasco prompted him to return to the stage. “Of all the options available to him for making a living, the only one that appeared even remotely feasible was going back on the road,” writes Simmons.

He was 73 when he began to consider the possibility of resurrecting his concert career. Yet he was torn by nagging doubts, fearing he might embarrass himself in front of audiences.

His fears were misplaced. Cohen’s first gig, in Fredericton, N.B., on May 11, 2008, was a resounding success.

More bookings kept coming and again he triumphed, in countries as far-flung as Serbia, Israel and Turkey.
Cohen’s concerts in 2008 and 2009 grossed more than $50 million, and in the process, he earned back all that he had lost.

At this point, he could have retired without too many qualms, she writes. Instead, with his Old Ideas tour, which touched down in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre late last year, he has chosen to enlarge his already considerable fan base and burnish his reputation as a Canadian legend.

by Sheldon Kirshner for Canadian Jewish News

I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN – Sylvie Simmons (Press +1)

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Leonard Cohen, at almost seventy-eight years old, is currently experiencing an unprecedented level of popularity in Canada and around the world. In 2009, he became the first artist to have three versions of the same song (“Hallelujah”) close out the year in the UK’s Top Ten. A smiling and deeply appreciative Cohen paused in the middle of his three-year world tour to thank audiences. Awards and nominations would follow, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. How different it all seemed only a few years earlier, when Leonard Cohen’s last foray into public awareness was the result of his manager stealing upwards of $13 million from Cohen’s bank account, as well as selling off the rights for his catalogue of songs to Sony, while Cohen was living in a Buddhist retreat.

In I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons, author of previous books on Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young, has crafted only the second official Leonard Cohen biography, the first being Various Positions, written by Ira Nadel in the 1960s and periodically revised, most notably in 1997. At the time, Cohen had announced his departure from the music world after having released two highly successful albums, I’m Your Man and the critically-acclaimed The Future. Many wondered if we would ever see Cohen on stage again.

While Leonard Cohen’s second act is the obvious impetus for Simmons’s story, she begins with Cohen’s childhood and family life in Montreal and is able to bring together notes from many of his friends, including interviews with Cohen himself. Thus, several old stories are finally woven into their proper narrative. For example, as Simmons explores Cohen’s lifelong love of country music we are finally given the place for an odd, but often seen image of Cohen as part of a very youthful looking country band called The Buckskin Boys. In fact, while much is made of Cohen’s time on the Greek Isle of Hydra, I’m Your Man resurrects a dusty piece of Cohen lore, namely that for much of Songs from a Room, was written while Cohen was living on a ranch and riding horses in Tennessee.

In Simmons’ view, Cohen appears as a gifted, but tortured artist, driven by a need for a woman to love in order to channel his talent, while riven by depression and rendered unable to live side-by-side with his great loves. I’m Your Man is full of moments where Leonard swings wildly from declarations of love and marriage to fleeing in the next breath, either to Hydra, or New York, and later Los Angeles and Mumbai, for solitude. These moments of self-enforced exile coincide with his periods of greatest productivity. Even in the case of his most recent sojourn at the Mount Baldy Buddhist Monastery, Cohen emerged with a new book of poems, two albums, and somehow become free from his lifelong depression.

While I’m Your Man presents itself largely as a factual narrative in which Cohen’s actions are described in stark detail, without much romantic or heroic hyperbole, Simmons nevertheless appears to share Cohen’s wry sense of humour, and its easy to imagine the grand old man smiling back at you throughout its many pages.

by Sean Marchetto for Press +1

Sometimes, There Are Happy Ending – Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Critics at Large)

Friday, January 25th, 2013

The news that novelist Philip Roth has retired seems to have shocked everyone. Late last fall, in the French culture magazine Inrockuptibles, he said he’d had enough of reading and writing fiction and felt he’d said everything he had to say within the pages of a book. Thus, Nemesis, his fifth novella in an unofficial series looking back at various aspects of American society, was, Roth insisted, his last book – ever! The problem with this is not Roth’s decision – why can’t he retire at nearly 80 years of age? – but the assumption that artists, unlike regular folk, don’t ever retire from their professions. Of course many don’t. The majority of writers seem to write until the end and many filmmakers, from Robert Altman to Sidney Lumet, Satyajit Ray to Eric Rohmer, regularly made movies until their deaths. But others do hang up their cameras. The great Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi (Christ Stopped at Eboli, Three Brothers) hasn’t shot a movie since 1997’s (underwhelming) The Truce and he’s still alive at age 90. And talented Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, Robin and Marion) stopped making films in 1991. And let’s not forget actor Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Under Fire) who, citing the strains of getting up really early for film shoots, decided to chuck it all in 2004 only to change careers and become a writer.

And then there’s the great singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who as Sylvie Simmons makes evident in her entertaining, breezy and very comprehensive Cohen biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (McClelland & Stewart), not only didn’t retire but upped the ante, going out on tour from 2008-2010 and keeping to a lengthy, rigorous schedule far more onerous than the tours he had done in his relative youth in the late 80s and early 90s. Not only that but he seems to have found only joy in writing songs and performing very late in life, beginning in his late sixties after a nearly six-year continuous stint in a Buddhist monastery (1993-99). Simmons’ very well written book covers the gamut, from Cohen’s birth in 1934 in the milieu of upper class Montreal through to his youthful Greek years of creativity on the island of Hydra to his sojourns in New York and L.A. Though Simmons answers pretty much any question you’ve ever had about the man, she could probably have delved into Leonard Cohen a little more vigorously and probingly than she actually does.

Interviewing more than one hundred people who’ve played a part in Cohen’s life over the years, and spending over three years working on the book, Simmons touches all the bases in this peripatetic artist’s complex, unique and tumultuous journey. She also dispels some myths – Cohen didn’t sing Suzanne over the phone to Judy Collins (who recorded it before he did) but in person, and despite producer Phil Spector’s holding (a likely unloaded) gun against Cohen’s head during the troubled recording of Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), Cohen himself never felt that Spector wanted to actually do him harm. (Hard to believe, I know, but Leonard comments on that twice in Simmons’ bio.) But I’m Your Man, which evokes the name of a Cohen album and song as well as a fine 2005 documentary about a series of tribute concerts on him, spends perhaps an inordinately large part of the book focusing on Leonard and his women, Marianne Ihlen (of So Long, Marianne fame), Suzanne Elrod (not the Suzanne of the song but the mother of his two children, Adam and Lorca), actress Rebecca De Mornay and singer/collaborator Anjani Thomas, among many others. This is understandable, as Cohen’s reputation with women is legendary and quite positive – as Simmons points out, his relationships with his many exes stays almost uniformly connected with surprisingly little ill will demonstrated by them, except, perhaps with Suzanne Elrod. Oddly enough, Elrod still comes across as more opaque than any of the other women in Leonard’s life, despite cooperating with Simmons in the writing of the bio.

The problem with this focus on Leonard’s love life is that, though somewhat fascinating, it’s likely the least interesting aspect of his persona and, since he and his lovers, in effect, have a policy or practice of not really explaining why they broke up except in the most superficial analyses, it becomes a redundant explanation of a man who ultimately doesn’t want to or can’t commit to any one woman, even if some of his relationships lasted a decade or more. Too often, the book settles for a mere chronology of Cohen’s path: the women, the albums, the cities, the songs etc.

It’s not that Simmons isn’t able to bring Cohen’s dramas, romantic and otherwise, to riveting, vivid life; she’s much better at that than Charles Foran was with Mordecai: The Life & Times, his 2010 informative but pedestrian biography of another singular Jewish born Montrealer, writer Mordecai Richler. For a British-born non-Jew, she really gets the Canadian Jewish Cohen, though she does seem to think – it’s a common mistake – that Hanukkah is one of the most significant Jewish holidays, just because it falls around Christmas most years. (She mentions Cohen’s practice of lighting the Sabbath candles each week and has one allusion to Yom Kippur and one mention of the Jewish New Year but mostly it seems as if the only holiday Leonard Cohen observes is Hanukkah.) And as a good music journalist – she’s written bios of singers / songwriters Neil Young and Serge Gainsbourg as well as filing pieces for the excellent British music magazine MOJO – Simmons, who also wrote the liner notes for the Cohen CD / DVD Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (2009), is very adept at getting at the gist and roots of Leonard’s progression as a musical artist, though she does value all his albums equally, which I don’t. (Wisely she only uses her access to Cohen sparingly, usually to clarify certain disputed incidents and events. Too much of Cohen’s own words to an interviewer would have overshadowed Simmons.) My take is that late-career Cohen, when he finally found contentment, is pretty dull as a happy Leonard Cohen is a rather dull Leonard Cohen. Ten New Songs (2001) only had five good ones. Dear Heather (2004) was utterly negligible. (Cohen might agree, as it was the only album, other than Death of a Ladies’ Man, which was not represented on his 2008 tour or at least in the Toronto show I saw that year.) And his most recent album, the more spoken than sung Old Ideas (2012) is only a partial return to form.

What Simmons fails to do or at least do adequately is get beneath Cohen’s (carefully cultivated) public image of the decent guy who respects women, avoids most of the negative ills of the rapacious music business and writes some of the best, most incisive songs on the planet. That is all true: Cohen really is the mensch (Yiddish “for a person of integrity and honour.”) you’d expect him to be. (The worst Simmons gets on him is some admitted drug use – not heroin or cocaine – earlier in his career and an inability to remain faithful to his girlfriends, in his younger years, though it must be said that Marianne, for one, accepted his wandering ways. Cohen’s depression and incipient alcoholism was known and is hardly a condemnation of him.) But surely beneath that upright patina is a man who is more than he seems to be, even if he is humble as he was during that Toronto concert when he exclaimed that that last time he toured, in 1993, he was “ just sixty years old, just a kid with a crazy dream,” of success in his future. That surprise at the sublime love-in – I was part of it –  was genuine but Simmons’ book doesn’t end up going too far into his real depths and turmoil that he likely didn’t disclose to anyone no matter how close they were to him.


It’s ironic that upon finishing Foran’s Richler bio, I felt he’d at least answered all my questions about the man, even if I wasn’t satisfied with the book, but Simmons’s superior tome left me wanting more. I also twice met Richler (briefly) so I could glean at least something about him. But Cohen, like my favourite writer Harlan Ellison (whom, unlike Cohen, I’ve met) is the interview that got away. (I can take some satisfaction that my review of Cohen’s 2008 Toronto concert in the Canadian Jewish News was at least sent to him by a friend who had his contact info. I hope he read it.) After all, Simmons writes that Cohen was great at deflecting really personal questions with wit and disarming language, which means he’s not as forthcoming as one would assume him to be. The singer may not be the song as much as almost everyone who perceives Leonard’s words to be the reflection of his real inner feelings believes. Perhaps Sylvie Simmons can’t unveil the real Leonard, who despite his supposed introspective nature, filtered through his work as writer and singer, never once considered psychotherapy to find out more about the ills that plagued him. He didn’t think it had anything to offer him. That’s not entirely surprising, as Simmons points out that Leonard never liked to look back on the past, but it is somewhat puzzling as Cohen used religion, Jewish and Buddhist, drugs, sex and the solitude of the monastery to try to heal himself at various times throughout his existence. Psychotherapy would have just been one other method or tool of sifting through the vicissitudes of life, something that a polymath like Leonard Cohen ought to have at least tried to engage. (Cohen’s also an incredible perfectionist, jettisoning dozens of  his recorded songs as not being good enough for his albums. In fact, he kiboshed Columbia’s initial efforts to add some unreleased tracks to the recently re-issued early albums of his career, which does explain why we’re not going to get a real Leonard Cohen box set, with unreleased songs, demos etc., anytime soon. His first 14 albums were put out in a boxed package sans extras.) Simmons, who admits in her Author’s Note that she’d been a fan of Leonard’s since she heard his music when she hit puberty, may, in fact, be too much the fan to get at that particular conundrum of the man and his demons.

None of this is to suggest that you shouldn’t read Simmons’ book, which over 500-plus pages, contains relatively few (minor) errors, repetition or sentences needing clarification. (There’s also the odd typo, but that’s par for the course for any book published nowadays.) The American edition of I’m Your Man, incidentally, is slightly different from the Canadian edition, both cosmetically (its cover is blue instead of orange, Simmons’ name is made smaller and placed differently there and there’s only one batch of photos instead of two) and in its content. (The War Measures Act, used by Canadian Prime Minister, and Cohen friend, Pierre Trudeau in 1970 to briefly suspend civil rights in order to fight a terrorist threat is translated , somewhat inaccurately, as martial law in the U.S. edition of the book.) Cohen has been the subject of numerous bios, including Canadian Jewish writer Ira B. Nadel’s Various Positions: A life of Leonard Cohen (1996), which I reviewed and (dimly) recall as being quite slight. That doesn’t apply to I’m Your Man, which certainly tries mightily to unearth the ‘truth’ of the enigma that is Leonard Cohen even if it falls short of that goal. What you will take out of Simmons’ book are the fascinating facts of his life which distinguish him from anyone else in the music business. No one of Cohen’s stature ever began a music career in their early thirties, as he did with Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), ten years later than most anyone else in the business. None of his compatriots were published poets and novelists as he was (Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), Beautiful Losers (1966)), and acclaimed in both fields, before they began singing. And I can’t think of anyone else in the music business, except perhaps satirist Kinky Friedman, who wore their Judaism on their sleeve as proudly as Cohen. Cohen’s poignant song “Who By Fire” is even based on a somber prayer uttered on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. (Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, Cohen’s near equals as songwriters, only occasionally make reference to their Judaism inside and outside their music. Cohen pretty much always did.) Cohen’s appeal is also more widespread than any other serious music figure. Beloved in Europe and his native Canada, Australia and Israel, he’s always been bigger than Dylan worldwide. (Dylan’s latest album Tempest didn’t even place in Inrockuptibles Top 100 of 2012; Cohen’s Old Ideas was at No. 42. And while both Cohen and Dylan’s latest albums were in the top ten of MOJO’s best of 2012 list, it was Cohen who topped Uncut’s list.) Dylan, however, despite a touch of jealousy, was friends with Leonard, which only makes sense for those two poets. Simmons does particularly well in showcasing the experience of Cohen’s concerts in Israel; her descriptions of those concerts and the deep connection between this practicing Jew and the Jewish state are quite moving. Cohen was also one of those moral souls who resisted calls to boycott the Jewish state; he was never one for simplistic political statements. As for the U.S., the one benighted country that for the most part (except for Cohen’s albums I’m Your Man  (1988) and The Future (1992)) has been lukewarm to his charms, Simmons nails the ambiguity so many in the music industry felt about Leonard by relaying Walter Yetnikoff’s priceless quote, when as, head of Columbia’s music division (Leonard’s longtime label), he decided not to release Cohen’s Various Positions in 1985. “Leonard,” he said. “we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.” (The album was later released on a small independent label.)

But of particular interest is the incredible diversity of those entertainment figures who’ve adopted Cohen as their own personal fan favourites, testifying to the absolute unique nature of this particular singer / songwriter. (Apparently there have been hundreds of tribute albums dedicated to Cohen, emanating from 20 different countries.) Simmons lists the various musicians who’ve done so, from Nick Cave to Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright to Joni Mitchell (also a lover of his as was Janis Joplin, briefly), Judy Collins to Jarvis Cocker, Jennifer Warnes to U2’s Bono, but doesn’t pick up on the myriad filmmakers who have done so, too. (She lists a few of them to illustrate how Cohen’s music was starting to get out there in the early 70s, but doesn’t follow through on that observation.) I, however, am sure that there is no one, not even The Beatles, who’s been utilized by such a vast array of directors who’ve included his songs in their movies over the decades. That’s an incredibly long list numbering among them Robert Altman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman, Neil Jordan, Allan Moyle, Kathryn Bigelow, Oliver Stone, Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley, who named her second film Take This Waltz after one of Cohen’s better tunes. (The less said about Bird on a Wire, one of Mel Gibson’s worst flicks, the better.) And who else but Leonard Cohen could appeal to both an Israeli filmmaker, Assi Dayan (Life According to Agfa) and a Palestinian one, Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance)? That’s gotta be a first. Obviously Cohen’s music, more than any others, consistently reverberates with so many people of varying ages and nationalities. Cohen songs even regularly pop on TV series – Homicide: Life on the Street, Once and Again and The West Wing, among them.

Most pleasing about I’m Your Man and now I’m speaking as a lifelong fan of Leonard Cohen, is how he comes out on top by the end. Simmons couldn’t have wished for a better outcome as she comes to the conclusion of Cohen’s trajectory but not his life. Nearing the age of 78, at the peak of his health, he is finally enjoying what he does and triumphantly pulling off a world tour which recouped all the money, and more, he lost to his unscrupulous manager. Cohen is still going strong and likely will for many years to come. (He launched yet another successful tour late last year, which continues into 2013.). As Simmons finishes her book, Old Ideas is just coming out to uniformly good reviews, and all those early Cohen critics, including the music reviewers in Rolling Stone, who predicted a short lived career for this ‘depressing’ singer/ songwriter, have been proved soundly wrong. In other words, nice guys don’t always finish last. There may be deficiencies in Simmons bio but, finally, I’m Your Man is the book Leonard Cohen deserves.

“A peek into the cool heart of cultural icon Leonard Cohen” (Ottawa Citizen)

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Many women have fallen for Leonard Cohen, but a fascinating new book about the masterful songwriter says he had trouble loving back, as “romantic relationships tended to get in the way of the isolation and space, the distance and longing, that his writing required.”

OTTAWA — Here he comes again, the old rogue, wearing a hat pulled low on his brow and “looking like a Rat Pack rabbi, God’s chosen mobster,” in Sylvie Simmons’ felicitous phrase.

Who else could it be but Leonard Cohen — Canada’s most acclaimed songwriter and the womanizer many men would give their left testicle to be, just for one night.

Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Biography of Leonard Cohen (McClelland & Stewart, $35), is a thorough and engaging examination of the most fascinating figure on the pop culture landscape.

The book was written with Cohen’s cooperation; she interviewed him several times as well as dozens of others connected to his life. But as Simmons makes clear from the first pages, this ain’t no hagiography.
Simmons undrapes Cohen to reveal a man with a sliver of ice in his heart, a man who drove away the beautiful women who loved him.

The most forgiving of these is Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian model who is pictured draped in a towel on the back cover of Cohen’s second album, Songs From A Room.

Ihlen — the subject of So Long, Marianne, written many months before he left her — says she was fortunate to have Cohen’s love at that point in their lives. “He taught me so much, and I hope I gave him a line or two.”
Cohen was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Montreal. His father Nathan Cohen worked in the clothing business and died when Leonard was nine.

Simmons says that Cohen didn’t cry over his father’s death but grew closer to his mother Masha, the daughter of a highly regarded rabbi and Talmudic scholar.

At 13, Cohen studied a book on hypnotism and soon tried out what he had learned. In one session, he got the family’s maid to take off her clothes.

That incident says a lot about Cohen’s messianic voice and his relationships with women.

In some ways, Cohen’s life has been a daily battle with words. It took him five years to write Hallelujah, paring back 80 draft verses until each line rang true.

Cohen, who plays Scotiabank Place on Dec. 7, was still a struggling poet when he set out his plan for becoming famous in a letter to publisher Jack McClelland.

“I want an audience,” Cohen declared, promising to make his work accessible to “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography peepers, hair-handed monks and Papists, French-Canadian intellectuals, unpublished writers, curious musicians, etc.”
Cohen was likely half-kidding, but he was right on the money.

In all, Simmons writes, Cohen’s list of future admirers turned out to be “a pretty astute, and remarkable enduring, inventory of his fan base.”

That’s a bit sneery. You could also say Cohen’s fans are those who delight in the masterful songs he has written about religion, sex, love and loss — among them If It Be Your Will, Dance Me to the End of Love, Famous Blue Raincoat, Bird on a Wire, Sister of Mercy and Suzanne.

For a renowned ladies’ man, it’s surprising how frequently Cohen was a flop with chicks.

Nico, the icy blond model who was part of Andy Warhol’s inner circle, spurned Cohen for the much younger Iggy Pop. Judy Collins, who gave Cohen his first break as a songwriter by recording Suzanne in 1966, wasn’t interested in bedding him. Janis Joplin told Cohen she preferred sex with handsome men but would make an exception for him, just once, because she felt sorry for him.

Suzanne Verdal — the Suzanne of the famous song — tells how making eye contact with Cohen was the “most intimate of touches and completely visceral.” But things never went beyond longing gazes.

Joni Mitchell took up with Cohen but ended the affair after a year, dismissing him as “a boudoir poet” who had copped his writerly stance from Camus and Lorca, a Spanish poet.

Still, it was Cohen’s face that she drew across a map of Canada in her song A Case of You. After the affair ended, Mitchell remarked that, “I’m only a groupie for Picasso and Leonard.”

Cohen says he has always longed for the “company of women and the sexual expression of friendship.”
He admits that falling in love with him is no picnic.

“I had wonderful love but I did not give back wonderful love. I was unable to reply to their love.”

Simons writes that for Cohen “romantic relationships tended to get in the way of the isolation and space, the distance and longing, that his writing required.”

That seems to be as true for Cohen now, at 78, as it was in his youth.

“I don’t think anyone masters the heart,” he says. “It continues to cook like a shish kebob, bubbling and sizzling in everyone’s breast.”

Cohen deals with his lady-killer rep in a few lines from Book of Longing: “My reputation /as a ladies’ man was a joke / It caused me to laugh bitterly / Through the ten thousand nights / I spent alone.”

One of the book’s telling moments has Cohen returning from a triumphant 1985 tour to his empty house in Los Angeles. He opens a bottle of wine and heats up a TV dinner.

In his writing, Cohen has a “flair for fusing the erotic with the spiritual,” Simmons writes, but his quest for spiritual enlightenment is genuine and enduring.

Like wolves prowling outside the glow of a fire, depression has pursued Cohen throughout his life. For a writer like Cohen, Simmons notes, depression “means solitary confinement in one’s personal Turkish prison, cornered by black dogs.”

During a tour of the U.K. and Europe in 1970, Cohen gave concerts he paid for himself at several mental hospitals. “Fellow-feeling had something to do with it,” Simmons says. As Cohen puts it, “I’ve always loved the people the world used to call mad.”

After his engagement to actor Rebecca de Mornay ended, Cohen disappeared into a Buddhist retreat in California, where his spiritual guide Roshi, now 105 years old, still serves as a sort of camp commandant.
The rituals of the retreat were a balm for Cohen’s melancholy. He got up in the middle of the night and meditated for hours, striving for non-attachment of the self.

Cohen, dressed in his monk’s robes, did handyman jobs and worked in the kitchen during the day. He earned a state certificate that allows him to work as a chef, waiter, or busboy in California.

It took four years, but Cohen’s depression finally lifted, with the help from another holy man in Mumbai.
Serenity came to him in his early 70s, just when he needed it most. Cohen learned that his manager had betrayed him and spent her way through his money, leaving him on the brink of bankruptcy. It was the kind of pesky little problem that could “put a dent in your mood,” he joked.

The financial upheaval, Simmons writes, “forced the old monk back on the boards with his begging bowl.”
Luckily, the time was ripe for Cohen to go on tour. In the U.S., the Internet chat rooms were buzzing about Jason Castro’s performance of Hallelujah on American Idol. As well, Jeff Buckley’s haunting version of the song was at the top of the charts in the U.K. and Europe.

Thanks to the rigours of his spiritual retreats, Cohen was in great shape. For the first time since he was a teenager, Cohen had stopped smoking. He also gave up drinking and drugs.

The 2008 tour was an artistic and commercial success, replacing Cohen’s lost fortune and more. Since then, he has been skating along from one triumph to the next.

Simmons mocks Canada’s music industry and cultural elite for giving Cohen so many prizes over the years. Only in Canada, Cohen says, could he win a prize for best vocal.

It’s a fair point. In his homeland, Cohen has won everything but the Stanley Cup.

So maybe the governor general should present Cohen with the Cup when he comes to Ottawa. That’s the sort of gesture that would appeal to Cohen’s puckish sense of humour.

by Bruce Ward for The Ottawa Citizen

“Deconstructing the man” (The Suburban)

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Thousands will pack the Bell Centre on November 28 and 29 to witness a 78-year-old Leonard Cohen belt out the moody classics which have contributed significantly to the soundtracks of many a Montrealer’s life. Although local fans may claim to have more of a shared common experience with Cohen than any of his other fans around the world, the true identity of Suzanne, Marianne and the context behind other songs has nevertheless been long-debated and speculated upon even by the most devoted.

Recently, however, noted rock n’ roll journalist Sylvie Simmons released a comprehensive biography on Cohen which offers firm and definite answers to many of these burning questions. Having already accrued much praise, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, has even had some suggesting that this is one of the best biographies on a popular musician ever written.

“I just wanted to get into the heart and soul of Leonard as well as present the skeleton of his story and get it right,” says Simmons. “I realized very early on, as I think we all did, that Leonard is a lady’s man, that he loved women and that they were very important to his music and his work. I really wanted to speak to some of them directly to get their insights. I didn’t want to peak behind the bedroom door. It was more of a case of finding out who they were and what they could tell me about Leonard.”

In addition to speaking directly with many near and dear to Cohen, Simmons says the man himself was exceptionally cooperative and supportive of the project.

“I think he probably liked the idea of having a woman write a book about him,” she says. “He told me he didn’t want it to be a whitewash, so he clearly wanted someone who was going to go into it with heart as well as diligence.”

Although Simmons first interviewed Cohen in 2001, she says her initial exposure to the singer came when she discovered him on a compilation record released during her adolescence in her native country of England. She’s been a big fan ever since.
“A girl never forgets her first,” she says. “In Britain, he was a star from the outset as he was across Europe. I was surprised when I moved to America to find out that people didn’t know who I was talking about.”

Having written extensively on subjects ranging from Johnny Cash to Serge Gainsbourg, Simmons says she employed a time-tested research process from the onset of the project that would ultimate take up three years of her life.

“It was detective work, mostly,” she says. “I’m kind of used to the system of finding people through various contacts and getting them to talk. Some were more open than others.”

Of the many sources she approached, she says the woman who almost became Mrs. Leonard Cohen proved to be very forthcoming.
“One person who was a delight to speak to but who was very difficult to get hold of was Rebecca De Mornay, the actress, who was Leonard’s fiancée,” she says.

“He never married, but he came very close in this instance. She didn’t want to speak about Leonard because she thought it was somehow disrespectful or a kiss-and-tell. But that wasn’t what I was after.”

As well as pursuing his muses, Simmons also tracked down every living record producer with whom Cohen had worked. There was, however, one notable exception.

“Phil Spector was in prison, and I tried everything other than smuggling myself into a cake, which I’m tiny enough to almost manage,” she says.

Travelling far and wide on Cohen’s trail, Simmons admits to having “bled and suffered for this book,” even going as far spending time in the Buddhist monastery outside of Los Angeles where the artists took up residence in seclusion for five years during the ’90s.

“I found out that when he came down from the monastery on the occasional weekend and went back to L.A., he would stop by a McDonald’s on the way and get a Filet-O-Fish, which he’d wash down with a good Margaux wine, and watch The Jerry Springer Show,” she says of one her stranger discoveries.

Digging into this period in Cohen’s life also led to more sobering insight. “I had assumed he’d left the monastery because he’d been cured of his depression that kept him up there but he actually left because he was too depressed to stay there and went to another guru I hadn’t even heard about in India,” she says.

As trying as the monastery experience was for her, however, she says it wasn’t much worse than the cold she experienced in mid-winter Montreal.

“That was my first stop,” she says. “First thing I did when I got my advance money was spend it on a plane ticket and a small apartment in Montreal. I came here in winter and my admiration for people who live in Montreal knows no bounds. I thought I would die. I’ve never known such cold.”

Despite the cold, Simmons says the time she spent in Montreal proved crucial to the book’s development, just as the city’s artistic community prove crucial to Cohen’s own career development.

“He comes back regularly and speaks very warmly of the place,” says Simmons. “He said it informed what he did to a great degree, as well as Canada in general. He said that without the grants he was getting from the Canadian government, he couldn’t have existed without falling into the family business.”

Examining the peeks and valleys of Cohen’s professional and personal life as a whole, Simmons says she came to see her subject in a way that she had never anticipated.

“Overall, what I found out was how much of a resilient man he was. You don’t think of Leonard as being a fighter but in a way he really fought for his survival, partly due to his depression and partly due to having all of his money taken away from him and many other points in between. It almost turned the book into a story of redemption, which I hadn’t set out to write.”

Above all, however, Simmons seems especially proud that she “outed” Cohen as a ukulele player in his youth — a musical skill she just happens to share.

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen is now available.

The Suburban

“Cohen bio gives us everything: the women, the drugs, the metaphysics” (The Globe and Mail)

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Leonard Cohen turned 78 last month, a milestone on life’s odometer to which he probably paid little, if any, heed.

After all, as Sylvie Simmons astutely observes in her compulsively readable, exhaustively detailed biography of the Canadian singer-songwriter/poet/ladies’ man, Cohen “always has been old.” It’s just that age now matches sensibility.

Lest we forget, his first studio recording, the dour, canonical Songs of Leonard Cohen, was released in late 1967, when to be young (i.e. under 30) was very heaven and Cohen was 33, the same age, reputedly, as Jesus was when He died and just four months older than Elvis. On its cover, there’s a sepia-toned portrait of a sombre-looking, clean-shaven Cohen wearing a crisp white shirt under a suit jacket and what may be a tie. Garb, in other words, owing more to his upbringing as the scion of a wealthy high-end Montreal haberdasher than to the beads/bells/T-shirt aesthetic of the then-counterculture.

Forty-five years later, we have his latest (and 12th) studio recording, the aptly titled Old Ideas, and what’s on the cover? Plus ça change: Cohen in shades, chapeau, shoes, suit and tie. “Darling,” he informs Simmons, “I was born in a suit.” And undoubtedly he will be buried in one.

Too old then to be a hippie and too young to be a charter member of the Beat generation, and it’s somehow fitting to learn that Cohen’s first band – one Catholic, one Protestant, one Jew – played neither rock nor jazz but square-dance tunes, country and western, under the moniker the Buckskin Boys. Cohen, of course, has always been the best kind of bohemian: his own. Indeed, he’s more secure, comfortable and authoritative in that position than ever. Cool, collected, elegantly self-deprecating, the master of the effortless, often elliptical apothegm intoned almost invariably in a sepulchral baritone, he’s at once the old man you wish your old man had been and the old man you hope you can become. Old and alive, in short, but no fogey.

That said, Simmons makes it clear that Cohen was very much a sixties (man)child. While no rock and roller, he most definitely rocked and rolled, consuming drugs, booze and women with the gusto, it seems, of someone almost 10 years his junior, someone like Mick Jagger.

Yet for all these indulgences, Cohen never failed to keep one eye cocked on the metaphysical, embracing more spiritual “practices” (including Scientology in 1969) than a Hermann Hesse character. His saving grace has been that it has all been done without any doofusness or loss of dignity, at least in the public realm. There was no shame in being a Leonard Cohen fan in 1972. There’s no shame in being one 40 years later. That’s why he’ll always be a Leonard, never a Len or a Lenny – of this world but not entirely in it.

No doubt the adjective “definitive” will soon be affixed to I’m Your Man. But that’s a term probably best reserved for one of the several biographies that surely will follow Cohen’s death. Right now, the singer-songwriter/poet is too much “the artful dodger,” elusive and reclusive, to be definitively pinned. Certainly I’m Your Man is the most comprehensive Cohen biography to date. More than three years in the writing, it contains the fruit of interviews with dozens of Cohen intimates and associates, plus a high degree of involvement from the artist himself (not least the loan of 16 photographs from his personal collection).

True, Simmons failed to get interviews with Joni Mitchell (Cohen’s lover in 1966), Jennifer Warnes (whose superb 1987 album of Cohen covers, Famous Blue Raincoat,helped set the stage for Cohen’s latter-day apotheosis) and Esther Cohen (at 87, Cohen’s sister and only sibling). Also, in terms of literary interpretation and appreciation, Cohen is probably better served by Ira Nadel’s path-breaking Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen, from 1996.

But this is cavilling. For aspiring Cohenheads, I’m Your Man will be the go-to text for the next few years as it has all the key stuff – about the two Suzannes, life on the Greek island of Hydra, hanging with Irving Layton, freaking with Phil Spector during the 1977 recording of Death of a Ladies’ Man, monking about with Sasaki Roshi on Mount Baldy, romancing Rebecca de Mornay, the triumph of Hallelujah.

For those already marinated in Cohen lore, there are, it’s true, no big reveals, nothing about a secret marriage or additional siblings for son Adam and daughter Lorca; what it does have is just enough quirky tidbits to keep the pages turning: I’m still getting my head around Cohen telling his biographer about the time in 1967 he found himself in some unidentified New York club jamming with … Jimi Hendrix (!) on Suzanne (!).

While the British-born Simmons, whose credits include well-received biographies of Serge Gainsbourg and Johnny Cash, has an obvious affection for and rapport with her charismatic subject – she calls him “Leonard” throughout – the book is no hagiography. Yes, she acknowledges, Cohen often has been hobbled by depression, episodes of which she elucidates in often painful detail (admittedly, the episodes have gotten fewer and farther between in the past 12 years or so). But blessedly, these aren’t offered as excuses for Cohen’s sometimes jerkish behaviour toward women or the cavalier approach he once took to his business affairs or the tendency to head for the airport whenever whim would strike. It’s part of Cohen’s charm that he would, of course, be the first to confess the many holes in his holiness.

There’s nothing experimental or eccentric about Simmons’s writing or the way she structures it. She simply starts at the beginning (with a newly hatched Leonard being driven from the hospital to his Westmount home in a chauffeured limousine), then plows through the years until she and a suit-wearing Cohen find themselves, in mid-December, 2011, at Cohen’s nondescript Los Angeles home, talking about this and that, including Cohen’s intention to release a follow-up to Old Ideas. The book’s only “arty” motif occurs every second chapter or so, when Simmons reproduces, in italics, a conversation she has with Cohen that’s relevant to the chapter’s proceedings.

That this chronological march rarely flags is a testimony to Simmons’s way with words. The elevator in the Penn Terminal Hotel, one of Cohen’s favourite New York dives in the late 1960s, is described as being “just big enough for a man and a corpse.” Two of Cohen’s favourite drugs (besides hashish, opium and acid), the sedative Mandrax and dexamphetamine, are “as handsome a pair of pharmaceuticals as any hard-working writer could wish to meet.” Cohen’s fondness for fedoras, sharp suits and shiny shoes makes him look like “a Rat Pack rabbi, God’s chosen mobster,” while “the gospels diverge,” Simmons writes, “on just when and where Leonard decided to become a singer-songwriter.”

Simmons never really offers or strives for a firm account of what makes Cohen tick, favouring instead intimations and suggestions. After reading her, a Freudian would probably declare the determining facts in Cohen’s life to have been the death of his father, Nathan, when the artist was just 9, and the unqualified, if sometimes suffocating love of his mother, Masha. The last for Freud was “the most important condition for a man’s success in life,” while the first freed Cohen from the Oedipal conflicts he would inevitably have faced in his teens and 20s (i.e., “Son, when are you going to put down the guitar and start making some real money?”).

Cohen himself, of course, has never made the drawing of such conclusions easy. He’s a dancer, in life and in art, of what Simmons calls “the paradox of intimacy and distance” – a dance whose many twists and turns she captures so vividly on her blackened pages.

by James Adams for The Globe and Mail

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

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Leonard Cohen has been in the public eye for five decades as a poet, songwriter and a singer. Cohen’s life and career have been fluid and full of change throughout all those decades. ‘I’m Your Man, The Life of Leonard Cohen’ by San Francisco writer Sylvie Simmons is a comprehensive account of Cohen’s story from growing up in Montreal, Canada to traveling to England, Greece, New York City and beyond.

Cohen fans have been waiting a long time for this book, containing interviews by the better known women in his songs like Suzanne and Marianne as well as interviews by the notoriously shy and private Cohen himself. More importantly even those who are not necessarily Cohen fans will be interested in the names and places in this book.

Cohen’s arrival and participation in the Greenwich Village folk explosion in late sixties New York is an amazing history with a cast of characters that will be familiar to anyone who followed the scene in those days. Well-known California singer/songwriter Jackson Browne appears as a 17 year old kid backing up a woman named Nico, whom Leonard was smitten with. She would perform in the small coffee houses in the Village singing songs by a young Tim Hardin and others and even doing a version of Cohen’s Suzanne. Included in her set was a song that a young Jackson Browne, her guitarist and lover had written as a teenager called These Days. Tales of Judy Collins who had recorded Suzanne, Joni Mitchell and David Crosby who took Joni home to California and recorded her. All part of the history with some back stories we didn’t know. How Cohen met Janis Joplin in an elevator at the Chelsea Hotel in New York and slept with her. She was actually there to see Kristofferson.

The problems he had recording his first album are well documented. We also learn how Cohen decided to become a songwriter. Economics. He couldn’t make a living as a poet but realised that songs would get airplay and sales and generate a decent income. His youth in Montreal. His first band The Buckskin Boys, named because they all had buckskin jackets. They played at local squares dances! His lifelong friendship with Irving Layton. Everything you ever wanted to know about Leonard Cohen is in this book. You’ll learn of his many loves, the deceit in certain financial situations, his rebound back to where he is now. The personality of the man. His dual careers in music and literature.

You’ll learn he is man of spirituality, emotion, grace and intelligence. A true gentleman who holds the door for a lady and still stands when she enters the room. A man who wants you to be comfortable in his presence as he hides his own discomfort playing with the Greek worry beads hidden in his pocket. You’ll learn of his deep commitment to Buddhism. This is the definitive biography of our Canadian national treasure and offers new perspectives on Cohen and his life.

So I’ll end with the words Leonard Cohen has heard most his life “Ladies and gentlemen…. Leonard Cohen.”

by Don Graham for Cashbox Magazine

“I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (Indigo Books)

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

The definitive biography of one of the most emigmatic, beloved, and celebrated artists of our time.

Leonard Cohen’s extensive and successful recent worldwide tour has demonstrated that his popularity across generations and borders has never been greater. Cohen’s life is one of singular mystique. This major in-depth biography is the book Cohen”s fans have been waiting for. Acclaimed writer/journalist Sylvie Simmons has interviewed more than 100 figures from Cohen’s life and work, including his main muses; the women in his life — from Suzanne and Marianne to Rebecca de Mornay and Anjani Thomas; artists such as Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, David Crosby, Judy Collins, and Philip Glass; his record producers; his closest friends, from childhood to adulthood; and many of the spiritual figures who have influenced his life.

Cohen, notoriously private, has granted interviews himself. Thoroughly researched and thoughtful, penetrating and lively, fascinating and revealing of stories and facts never read before, I’m Your Man offers new perspectives on Cohen and his life. It will be one of the most talked-about books of the season, and for years to come.

by Heather Reisman for Indigo Books

“Leonard Cohen’s tale of redemption” (Macleans)

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

One of the first times Leonard Cohen ever played before a vast audience was in Central Park during the Summer of Love, in 1967. He was 42. A groan went up from the crowd as folk diva Judy Collins, the one people were waiting to see, brought her unknown protege onstage to sing Suzanne, the song she had made famous. “Tonight my guitar is full of tears and feathers,” he said quietly. Mortified by stage fright, Cohen made his way through the song as an audience of thousands fell under his spell. That night he celebrated in his room at the Chelsea Hotel with a 23-year-old blond from Saskatchewan he had just met at the Newport Folk Festival: Joni Mitchell.

That’s one of the evocative moments conjured by author Sylvie Simmons in I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, the most discerning, intimate and definitive biography every written about Canada’s pre-eminent singer, songwriter, poet and monk. It’s the portrait of an artist raised in Montreal’s Westmount by a widowed mother who was clinically depressed; a devout student of seduction who studied a hypnotism manual after hitting puberty; a melancholy poet who learned guitar from a Spanish teacher who committed suicide after three lessons; and a traveller whose homes have included a Greek island, a mountaintop monastery, a Tennessee cabin and endless hotel rooms.

The book is a saga of sex, drugs and meditation that explores Cohen’s epic struggle to preserve his art from the pressures of showbiz. Simmons tracks his odyssey through a ’70s minefield of failed studio sessions and acid-fuelled performances, through years of monastic exile, depression and calamitous financial ruin—to the miracle of his rebirth with an arena tour, which has occupied the better part of the past four years and returns to Canada next month, that has the 78-year-old bard playing three-hour shows to rapturous acclaim. “Here he is, bouncing around the world, skipping onto the stage, grinning from ear to ear,” says Simmons. “What I hadn’t expected is that the book would be a tale of redemption.”

A veteran music journalist based in San Francisco, the British-born Simmons obtained Cohen’s blessing for her book, had access to his archives and interviewed him. But the biography is not officially authorized. “He didn’t ask to see it,” she says, “and I don’t think he’s even read it.”

Although Cohen’s life has been well documented, Simmons unearths a trove of buried or untold stories. He casually mentions to her that he once jammed with Jimi Hendrix (“He was very gentle. He didn’t distort his guitar,” he tells her.) She learns that, in 1970, Cohen performed in British mental asylums at his own expense. In 1974, days after dating Brigitte Bardot in Paris, he toured Israel blitzed on a strain of LSD called Desert Dust that was so potent it has to be licked off the point of a needle. And in a late-night session recording Death of a Ladies’ Man with Phil Spector, the drunken producer pushed the muzzle of a gun into his neck and said, “Leonard I love you,” as he cocked the trigger.

Simmons delves into Cohen’s four-decade friendship with Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who is now 105. But she discovers that his lifelong depression lifted only with the help of an octogenarian Hindu guru named Ramesh Balsekar. In 1999, Cohen left Roshi and spent several years engaged in a talking cure with Balsekar in Mumbai.

Cohen has also cured his commercial frustrations. Though always popular in Canada and Europe, in the U.S. he was best known through surrogate stars. Judy Collins first put him on the map in the ’60s. Jennifer Warnes made a hit album of his songs in 1987. And years after his song Hallelujah first appeared on one of his most obscure albums, a pantheon of singers, from Jeff Buckley to k.d. lang, made it a pop anthem for the 21st century. Now, with Cohen’s tour thriving, U.S. audiences have finally discovered the genuine article.

The cure for love, meanwhile, may continue to elude him, though not for lack of trying. Among his countless paramours, the book zeroes in on four unmarried partners: Marianne Ihlen, Suzanne Elrod (mother of his two children), Rebecca De Mornay and Anjani Thomas. Then there was Joni, who once said, “I’m only a groupie for Picasso and Leonard.”


Joni Mitchell, like Leonard, was born and raised in Canada. But the landscapes they grew up in were very different—Leonard’s urban and cosmopolitan, Joni’s filled with vast prairie skies. Joni, the daughter of a Canadian Air Force officer, had been raised in a small town in Saskatchewan. She was a talented painter, and when, as a child, she contracted polio (in the same epidemic in which Neil Young, another small-town-raised Canadian, also contracted it), during her long, lonely convalescence she also discovered a talent for music. She taught herself to play the ukulele, then guitar, excelling at the latter and inventing her own sophisticated tunings and style. In 1964 Joni quit art school to be a folksinger, moving to Toronto and the coffeehouses around which the folk scene revolved. In February 1965 she gave birth to a daughter, the result of an affair with a photographer. A few weeks later she married folksinger Chuck Mitchell and gave the baby up for adoption. The marriage did not last. Joni left, taking his name with her, and moved into Greenwich Village, where she was living alone in a small hotel room when she met Leonard. It was an intense romance. At the outset Joni played student to Leonard’s teacher. She asked him for a list of books she should read.

“I remember thinking when I heard his songs for the first time that I was not worldly,” she said. “My work seemed very young and naive in comparison.” Leonard gave her some suggestions, including Lorca, Camus and the I Ching. But he was quickly aware that Joni needed little help with anything, particularly her songwriting. They each wrote a (very different) song called Winter Lady—Joni’s appears to have been written first—and Joni wrote two love songs referencing Leonard’s song Suzanne: Wizard of Is, with an almost-identical melody and near-quoted lines (“You think that you may love him,” she wrote of the man who speaks “in riddles”) and Chelsea Morning, set in a room with candles, incense and oranges, where the sun pours in “like butterscotch” instead of honey.

Leonard took Joni to Montreal. They stayed in his childhood home on Belmont Avenue. In her song Rainy Night House she described the “holy man” sitting up all night, watching her as she slept on his mother’s bed. They painted each other’s portraits. Leonard’s was the face Joni drew on a map of Canada in her song A Case of You, in which a man declares himself to be as “constant as a northern star.” When it turned out he wasn’t, Joni wrote about that too, in That Song About the Midway and in The Gallery, in which a man who describes himself as a saint, and complains of her description of him as heartless, pleads with her to take him to her bed.

For the first time the tables were turned: Leonard was the muse for a woman. Not just any woman but one whom David Crosby—who also had an intense and short-lived love affair with Joni Mitchell in 1968—calls “the greatest singer-songwriter of our generation.” Within a year Leonard and Joni’s affair was over. Leonard told journalist Mark Ellen, “I remember we were spending some time together in Los Angeles years ago and someone said to me, ‘How do you like living with Beethoven?’ ” How did Leonard like living with Beethoven? “I didn’t like it,” Leonard said, laughing, “because who would? She’s prodigiously gifted. Great painter too.” As David Crosby says, “It was very easy to love her, but turbulent. Loving Joni is a little like falling into a cement mixer.”

In later years Mitchell seemed keen to distance herself from Leonard artistically. “I briefly liked Leonard Cohen, though once I read Camus and Lorca I started to realize that he had taken a lot of lines from those books, which was disappointing to me,” she said in 2005 of the man she had once described as “a mirror to my work,” someone who “showed me how to plumb the depths of my experience.” She would go on to describe him as “in many ways a boudoir poet”—a grander term than “the Bard of the Bedsit,” one of the nicknames the U.K. music press would later give him, but reductive nonetheless. Any close inspection of Mitchell’s songs pre- and post-Leonard would seem to indicate that he had some effect on her work. Over the decades, Leonard and Joni have remained friends.