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