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

Radio NZ Interview (New Zealand)

Monday, May 13th, 2013


Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Des Cowley’s verdict: a portrait of the poet and singer that is sympathetic, informed and wide-ranging.
I’m Your Man: the Life of Leonard Cohen
By Sylvie Simmons (Jonathan Cape)

It will come as no surprise to the genuine Leonard Cohen afficianado that music doesn’t feature in Sylvie Simmons’ hefty new biography until around 150 pages in. It’s not because her book overly dwells on his childhood, but instead because Cohen had a significant career as a poet and writer years before he first began putting his words to song. Even then, his earliest compositions songs appeared on albums by Judy Collins and others; his own music career didn’t get jump started till he was in his thirties, when Collins dragged him onstage for his first disastrous appearance in New York in 1967. Cohen, who walked off stage after managing only four lines of ‘Suzanne’, wrote to then girlfiend Marianne Jensen to say he ‘couldn’t get more than a croak out of my throat’. An inauspicious beginning, to say the least, for one of the titans of twentieth century song, still going strong today.

Simmons details Cohen’s early literary career in Montreal and elsewhere during the fifties and sixties, which produced the poetry books Let Us Compare Mythologies and Flowers for Hitler, along with novels The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers. Though he looked set for a successful career as a writer, Cohen already had about him an enigmatic star quality, as evidenced by the National Film Board of Canada’s documentary film Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr Leonard Cohen from 1965. How many other poets found themselves the subject of a film, after having issued only a handful of books? Though he went on to achieve fame with music, Cohen has continued publish poetry throughout his career, most recently with Book of Longing in 2006.

These were the years Cohen spent on Hydra, Greece, living in a modest house he bought with a small inheritance after his father’s death. It was there he wrote, played guitar, and enjoyed an idle life amongst the ex-patriate community that included Australian writers George Johnston and Charmaine Clift. He lived, off and on, with Marianne Jensen, who appears, seated at a desk wearing a towel, on the back cover of Songs from a Room, and who was immortalised in the song ‘So Long Marianne’. Hydra would continue to be an important place for Cohen, as his later life drifted between Greece, France, Canada, and various parts of the US.

Simmons pays particular attention to Cohen’s recording sessions, and the many tours which supported the albums, the latter often fuelled by alcohol and drugs to help alleviate Cohen’s stagefright. From the outset, his music and voice presented a challenge to producers. Though his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen contains several of his best known songs, producer John Simon failed to capture the spare sound that Cohen wanted, adding extraneous horns and strings into the mix. Bob Johnston fared much better with the stunning Songs of Love and Hate; but Phil Spector sessions for Death of a Ladies’ Man were a train wreck, though they at least led to Cohen taking over the reins on 1979’s Recent Songs, one of his most beautiful and haunting recordings.

Columbia’s inability to market Cohen is summed up by head guy Walter Yetnikoff’s statement: ‘Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good’. While Cohen’s albums attained respectable sales in the UK and Europe, he struggled to make the charts in the US; so much so, that Columbia at first declined to release his 1984 album Various Positions there, even though it contained ‘Hallelujah’, since covered by more than 300 artists. Yet, at a time when most sixties artists has been relegated to the scrapheap, Cohen’s star was on the rise. Younger artists like Nick Cave were covering his music, and in 1987 Jennifer Warne released the first of what would become a stream of tribute albums Famous Blue Raincoat. Suddenly, in his fifites, Cohen found himself with a break-out album I’m Your Man, which cemented his status as a cult figure for a new generation.

Simmons provides ample evidence to account for Cohen’s reputation as a ‘ladies’ man’, charting his relationships with Marianne Jensen; Suzanne Elrod, which whom he had two children; French photographer Dominique Isserman; actress Rebecca de Mornay; along with sundry briefer affairs, including Joni Mitchell, and a one-night stand with Janis Joplin after the two met in a lift at the Chelsea Hotel. The latter part of her book recounts Cohen’s growing committment to Buddhism; and the widely publicised saga of his financial affairs, when manager Kelley Lynch drained his accounts and sold off his songbook, without Cohen’s knowledge. As a result, Cohen was literally forced back on the road, prompting a late flowering of performances and recordings, much to the delight of his fans.

Simmons portrait of the poet and singer is sympathetic, informed and wide-ranging. She interviewed over one hundred people who have lived, associated or worked with Cohen – friends, lovers, musicians, producers – and few have anything but a good word to say about him. But the result is not a simple hagiography. Cohen proved generous in opening up his archives to Simmons, and the result is the most exhaustive and authoritative account of his life and music to date. During my reading, I worked my way through Cohen’s albums in order of release; and came away from the experience with a renewed and heightened appreciation for Cohen’s songs, his poetry and words. I’d be hard pressed to ask more of Simmons’ masterful book than that.

Off The Record

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (The Lumiere Reader – New Zealand)

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Jonathan Cape, NZ$29.95), by Sylvie Simmons, is not just a retelling of one man’s life, but a detailed portrait of the world in which he lived, loved, worked, and wrote. Through a combination of letters and interviews with the man himself, his muses, companions, producers, and family members, Simmons provides us with a comprehensive back-story to so many of the famous Cohen songs and myths.

The early days in Montreal and Hydra—the Greek Island where many writers and artists of the ’50s and ’60s lived cheaply and worked freely—show a determined and driven young writer who always knew he would make good. Cohen says of himself at McGill University, “back then I was very self confident. I had no doubts that my work would penetrate the world painlessly. I believed I was among the great.” But the portrait that’s painted here is less of a self-assured, cocky young man ready to take on the world, and more of a sharply-dressed gentleman, who won over everyone he met.

The fact that everyone seemed to like him in those early days almost becomes implausible—Simmons’s interviews each cover some description or other of Cohen’s sophistication and charm—but it’s a complex story, in which he spends long periods away from his love, the now immortalised Marianne; has a constant collection of young women ‘muses’ and lovers; openly bemoans being tied to the mother of his children and feels drawn to religious conflict. When Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers, is published to little fanfare or acclaim, he feels hard done by. We’ve seen the struggle and torment he has undergone to write this work and his utter belief in its importance. Cohen blamed its poor sales on his publisher, Jack McClelland.

Interest in Cohen’s literary life may have picked up after his rise in pop fame, but it is clear through Simmons’s retelling that it is his writing that Cohen is most proud of. The endearing account of Leonard’s first foray onto the stage in 1967 shows just how used to his own company and playing the guitar in his room he was. When Judy Collins calls him out at a benefit concert at the Village Theatre to sing ‘Suzanne’, a song she had made well-known to the audience, he reluctantly appears from the wings, only to give up half way through and retreat again backstage.

Of course, this changes and we see him more at ease performing on tour, be it the controversial and wild German tour and The Isle of Wight Festival appearance, or the more companionable tours of the late eighties. However, the collaborations involved in performing and recording music are shown to be a huge struggle for this reclusive, precise man of words, as manifested in a disastrous recording experience with notorious producer, Phil Spector.

Among the details fleshing out Cohen’s portrait are many huge and enduring names, especially during the years spent living at The Chelsea Hotel. It’s amazing to imagine all these pop icons—Joplin, Warhol, Hendrix, Nico, Reed, Dylan, Bukowski, Mitchell—living together or coming and going from each other’s rooms. After reading about this time, it becomes impossible not to look for the references and links between artists—songs that talk to each other, are passed from writer to singer, or are inspired by the shared moments.

As Cohen’s imminence to the public eye wanes, so too does the compelling nature of the story. At 550 pages, this biography does start to feel long. The detailed landscape and influential figures start to weigh him down somewhat and it’s no wonder he retreats to Mount Baldy. His Buddhism does come at an interesting time in his life—his name now household, his children now grown—but rings true with the introverted poet we grew to know so well in the first few chapters. However, Cohen does not merely fade into obscurity, and there are continued accounts of him writing, recording, and touring right to the last page.

Despite its length, this is a well constructed biography, with Simmons’s own touches of Cohenesque poetics capturing the mood of the protagonist. When describing a young Leonard Cohen arriving at the Penn Terminal Hotel: “A New York noir movie of a hotel, it was cheap and it looked it: dark brown brick, dark narrow corridors, an elevator just big enough for a man and a corpse.” And later, the Buddhist retreat at Mount Baldy: “The day was hot and dry but a sliver of snow still clung to the mountain top like a broken fingernail on a worn sweater.”

Having drawn on such a wide range of sources, there is potential for any die-hard Cohen fan to follow the footnotes further, but this is already a meticulous portrait of an enduring literary and musical master.

by Saradha Koirala for The Lumière Reader

The Charmed and Troubled Life of a Poet of Our Times (Jakarta Globe)

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Reading about the lives of the rich and/or famous can be an unexpectedly humdrum affair. Biographers may trawl through the life history of the celebrity digging up childhood facts that are probably less significant than the biographer would like us to believe they are. Meanwhile, autobiographers may try to be revelatory but only end up revealing that the person behind the public image actually is not all that interesting.

“I’m Your Man,” a biography of Leonard Cohen written by Sylvie Simmons, suffers from neither of these problems and that is a relief because at 560 pages it is a rather hefty volume. The voluminous nature of this biography is probably a product of both its subject matter and the skill and dedication that the writer was able to bring to the task.

The subject matter is of course the rather enigmatic but hugely influential singer-songwriter Cohen, who might more accurately be described as a poet of our modern times. The writer, meanwhile, is a respected music journalist who has previous biography credits chronicling the lives of Neil Young and Serge Gainsbourg, two popular artists not a million miles distant from Cohen.

Simmons has produced a remarkably thorough book that, although it is huge, is neither labored nor tedious in presenting the details. Ultimately, it is both thoughtful and revelatory, as it helps the reader see and appreciate the factors that molded the poet that Cohen would become. 

Cohen has led both a charmed and troubled life, and this no doubt shaped and guided his artistry.

Born in 1934 into an upper middle class family of Jewish ancestry in Montreal, Canada, Cohen in his early years clearly enjoyed a comfortable family life. The death of his father when Cohen was only 9 years old surely had an impact on his upbringing, but his mother of Lithuanian decent and his older sister did much to make up for this loss. He grew up to become a poet who would enjoy trips to Greek islands — a life of some luxury, to be sure.

The book is thorough in articulating Cohen’s religious influences. Both of his grandfathers were noteworthy in Canadian-Jewish spheres. His maternal grandfather was a Talmudic scholar and rabbi, whilst his paternal grandfather (with the rather cool name of Lyon Cohen), was a leader of the Canadian-Jewish community.

Evidently, Cohen’s upbringing was deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. But later in life he dabbled in Scientology, before leaving the cities behind in 1993 to take to the Californian hills and join the Mount Baldy Zen Center.

This says much of the man’s spirituality. He spent about five years at the Zen center and was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk. All of this religious exposure and exploration of the spiritual undoubtedly helped to craft the gentle, vulnerable and deeply moving lyricism of his music.

Bouts of depression and self-doubt throughout his life would have had similar impacts, but also illustrate the rising and falling, twisting and turning life of an artist. One of the “falls” that Cohen had to face was when he chose to leave the Zen center and return to his native Montreal.

Simmons relates how it was then that Cohen discovered that his business manager, Kelley Lynch, had essentially stolen all of his money. What was bad for Cohen turned out to be good for his fans, as his financial ruin meant he had to hit the concert circuit again to recoup the lost funds.

In less sympathetic hands than Simmons’s, a biography of Cohen could portray him as a fairly scurrilous womanizer, as he has been associated with many women, some famous, over the years. But this biographer was able to weave such relationships into the overall pattern of an artist, his life and work. In this way it is less about womanizing and more about love, and that love is woven into his art.

“I’m Your Man” is a thorough portrayal of the life of a great artist. It is comprehensive without succumbing to idolization.

by Simon Marcus Gower for Jakarta Globe

Holy Man of Song: Andrea Nagel Reviews I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (The Times South Africa)

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

You don’t have to be a fan of Leonard Cohen’s music to enjoy reading music journalist Sylvie Simmons’ book, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, but you may well end up being one by the time you’ve finished.

Simmons is clearly enamoured with the 78-year-old singer and has done a meticulous job of researching the life of this self-proclaimed ladies’ man, detailing the intricacies of his story, but without ever becoming sycophantic.

I’m Your Man is one of a spate of new books about music stars that has been released lately, testifying to our abiding interest in their rock star lives. Bruce, an authorised biography of Bruce Springsteen by Peter Ames Carlin, was published at the end of last year, following on the success of countless others like Life by Keith Richards, published a few years ago, and Mick by Philip Norman, about the life of Mick Jagger, also out last year.

Simmons’ book is so dense with interviews and accounts from Cohen himself, from his family, lovers, music industry associates and fellow musicians that even Cohen aficionados will learn a few new and interesting facts.

Kris Kristofferson, who gets a mention in the book (as do Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Joni Mitchell, Phil Spector and lots of other famous faces whose paths Cohen crossed), could have been writing about Cohen in his song “He’s a Pilgrim”. It goes like this: He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned.

As the song goes on to say, “he’s a walking contradiction”, and Cohen certainly is.

The book starts at the beginning with his birth and early childhood, steeped in Judaism. His youth is defined by the death of his father and the intense love of his beautiful Russian-born mother, who, according to the author, “carried her past in her songs”. He’d also spend hours with his Rabbi grandfather, who developed in him an abiding fascination with spirituality.

Beset by the need to learn about life, by the age of 13 Cohen was wandering the streets of his home town, Montreal, Canada, peeking into bars, hanging out on the docks, and staring longingly at the working girls.

Born a writer, Cohen’s first love was poetry. He also wrote two novels before turning to music because he didn’t think he could make a living from his books. By his own admission, Cohen wanted to be a musician to attract the opposite sex.

“My books weren’t selling,” he tells the author, “they were receiving very good reviews … But I always played the guitar and sang, so it was an economic solution.”

Always a wanderer (he called himself a gypsy) Cohen’s lifelong search for meaning led him to many different houses of worship and into many different beds. Women adore him, and many of his long-suffering lovers reluctantly shared him. His need for female affirmation and problems he had with commitment are well-known and well-documented in his songs.

Simmons has such an extensive understanding of Cohen’s life, her research is so thorough, that the reader goes on the sometimes painful, sometimes joyous journey with him, admiring him, pitying him, loving him and occasionally hating him a little. Along the way we are reminded of the raw beauty of his music, its ability to touch our souls, and the huge contribution he has made to the industry.

By Andrea Nagel for The Times

“New Aspects of Leonard Cohen” (Klassenkampen – Norway)

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Hallelujah and Amen: With unique access to Leonard Cohen, Sylvie Simmons has written the definitive Cohen biography.

I’m Your Man; The Life Of Leonard Cohen By Sylvie Simmons (The Daily Post – New Zealand)

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

The excellent Keith Richards biography Life, published in 2010, set the standard in terms of insights into the life of a world-famous musician.

But this brilliant and entertaining examination of the genius that is Leonard Cohen – songwriter, poet, author – by respected music writer Sylvie Simmons, may well have lifted the bar even higher.

Although much of the interest in Richards’ book was in the many and sometimes hilarious tales of rockstar excess, Simmons takes a thorough look at the life of the man responsible for some of music’s most enduring songs – Suzanne, Hallelujah, Bird on the Wire –  and some terrific modern poetry and writing.

Simmons interviews many people who are close to Cohen, including many of his former lovers.

Cohen’s mixed religious leanings – from his Jewish roots to his fascination with Christ and dabbling in Hinduism and becoming a Buddhist monk – shape him.

Cohen’s writing is all about light and darkness, and with this great book Simmons has managed to fill in all the shades in-between to uncover the magic of one of the world’s greatest modern wordsmiths.

Best Books of the Year (The Listener – New Zealand)

Saturday, December 15th, 2012


With so many anecdotal and selective-memory autobiographies around by musicians, it’s a pleasure to read a serious writer dissecting, illuminating and revealing the life and diverse work (music, poetry, novels) of such a deserving subject as Cohen, who co-operated graciously but never interfered or asked to see the manuscript. Cohen’s a rare one, and assiduous research and insight show why.

by Graham Reid for The Listener

“I’m Your Man: The Biography of Leonard Cohen” (The Age Australia)

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

LEONARD Cohen’s fans surprised the hell out of each other on that last world tour. For decades we’d sat in lonely rooms, quietly relishing an intimate connection rarely mentioned in polite company. Suddenly, there we all were, blinking in our tens of thousands at wineries and entertainment centres as a small grey man blinked back with hat over heart.

How did that happen?

The longest stealth campaign in music biz history is one explanation. In pop culture’s terms of reference, the 78 years covered by this latest and largest biography begin in a world of antiquity. Cohen’s earliest published poems pre-date Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road, let alone Heartbreak Hotel.

In his own mind, he was a romantic hero by the end of World War II. As a 13-year-old boy he would walk the lonely streets of Montreal in the wee hours with his impeccably tailored collar (his wealthy family’s business) turned up against the sleet, ”a history of injustice in his heart, a face too noble for revenge”, as he wrote not too long after, ”loved by two or three beautiful women who could never have him”.

Sylvie Simmons’ access to such brilliantly self-mocking words – spoken, written, published and otherwise – is a boon and a gauntlet to her as biographer. Self-knowledge is Cohen’s stock-in-trade and the unflinching truth, hard won and lightly given, his raison d’etre as an artist. His letters and interviews are so charming and insightful that knowing when to stop quoting them may have been her hardest task.

Her skill is in adapting such sources – Cohen’s poetic peers and lovers naturally share degrees of his clarity and eloquence – to place us in vivid scenes from his extraordinary life. The sheer breadth of these, from the early-’60s hash-smoking, partner-swapping literary enclave of his Greek island home to his quiet farewell to lifelong depression at the feet of a Hindu mystic early in the new century, might make any 78-year-old sigh with envy.

Seemingly within a breath of his decision to pursue the singer’s vocation as a relatively old man of 33, we are plunged loins-deep into the Chelsea Hotel orgy of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, where Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin are instant equals, if not exactly friends for the lone, drifting foreigner with his sharp suit and cheap typewriter.

At various points of departure – from countries, from relationships, into LSD binges and war zones and crises of confidence – Simmons’ core suggestion is that ”Leonard seemed to thrive on this paradox of distance and intimacy”; that the tension between his romantic distance from the world and his consuming passion to engage and inspire it is the engine driving his life and work.

Her subject beats her to that revelation, too. In his debut novel of 1963, The Favourite Game, Cohen’s alter ego writes to a lover: ”If you let me I’d always keep you 400 miles away and write you pretty poems and letters … I’m afraid to live any place but in expectation.” It’s a place ripe for God, Simmons observes.

Her story gives equal weight to Cohen’s artistic pursuits and his spiritual quest, from the intellectual Judaic discourse of his upbringing to the Zen Buddhist retreat on Mount Baldy, California, where he was ordained a monk in 1996. Even there, the exquisite tragicomedy of his life’s work is reflected back at him: ”You can’t live in God’s world,” says his Japanese master, Roshi. ”There are no restaurants or toilets.”

Simmons’ portrait of Cohen endorses what most of his fans know, from his crippling perfectionism as a writer and recording artist to a devotion to beautiful women that is religious in its own right. It’s telling that lucid input from a wealth of collaborators and long-term lovers, from Marianne and Suzanne (not the one in the song, as it happened) to Rebecca de Mornay and Anjani, is almost unanimously affectionate, without ignoring passing stains on his perceived sainthood.

Ultimately, it’s the artist’s sheer dedication, over so many years, to reconciling such extremes that leads us to gasp over skeletally produced CDs and slim volumes in lonely rooms, and to stand in rapt ovations in wineries and entertainment centres.

by Michael Dwyer for The Age

“I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN” (The Melbourne Review – Australia)

Friday, December 14th, 2012

For those not yet enamoured of Leonard Cohen, your time is up. Sylvie Simmons weaves this riveting personal history using numerous interviews – Cohen included – together with the settings of Montreal (first its leafy suburbs, then its poets), New York (the Chelsea Hotel and Warhol’s set), alongside myriad lovers and the trajectory of musical stardom. She then layers it with Cohen’s own literary and musical poeticism to produce a textured and enigmatic study.

Her subject is magnetic, self-exacting and abundant in conundrums: a committed Jew of rabbinic stock who loves Jesus and attains the title of Zen Buddhist monk; a poet cowed by his search for truth and beauty, and yet sure of his genius. But invariably it is to his offerings of the sublime, his ‘rags of light’, that we are drawn. As Simmons notes, Cohen has always been brilliant at the art of deflection, but it is in his art that notes of ambivalence, struggle and pleasure take form. And it is to his work, with its dark staggering grandeur, that we turn at the end of this wild ride.

by Tali Lavi for The Melbourne Review