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

“Life of a Ladies Man” (Eye Level with the Stylus)

Monday, March 9th, 2015

I’m not a huge believer in six degrees of separation, but I’ll admit the following would probably reaffirm for those that do that the theory has legs:

As a teen in the 80s, I read Kerrang! avidly.
Sylvie Simmons was a key writer for Kerrang! at the time.
She wrote a brilliant piece on Johnny Cash (republished in Mojo last year) that I mentioned in an earlier post about Live at Folsom Prison.

Sylvie has also written what some are calling the definitive Leonard Cohen biography.
I saw and reported on the Webb Sisters in 2014 for Folk Radio UK; the Webb Sisters are Cohen’s current backing singers.
Leonard Cohen’s son Adam is a singer-songwriter.
I interviewed Adam Cohen last year for Folk Radio UK.
Folk Radio UK published my review of Sylvie Simmon’s gig at the 12 Bar Club last year.
At the gig, I spent ten minutes talking to Sylvie at the bar where she told me about her week living with Johnny Cash when compiling her interview.
Last week I found a 25 year-old cutting in my loft about Metallica from the long defunct Raw magazine. Written by Sylvie Simmons.
It’s not a strict interpretation of the theory, but if I’m right, I’m less than six degrees from Johnny, Leonard, Adam, Metallica and the long deceased inmates of Folsom Prison. More importantly, and unbeknownst to me until recently, Sylvie Simmons has been a constant in my musical life since the mid-80s. And now I’m reviewing her biography of Leonard Cohen. It’s a small, small world after all…

If none of the above were the case, the following review could be viewed as impartially as the previous books on this site but clearly there is skin in this game that cannot be ignored. Add to that the unusual task of reviewing a lauded journalist and songwriter who’s seen both sides of the industry for more years than she would rather I mention and the ratchet is wound tighter than Kanye West at an awards ceremony. No pressure. The reality is, thankfully, a more relaxing proposition; I’m Your Man is everything the cognoscenti says it is and more.

It’s a hefty tome, reflecting the depth and gravitas accorded to a much celebrated poet, singer and songwriter by a media all too ready these days to roll away the stone in the hope of finding unnecessary skeletons. In Sylvie’s case, though she’s not spared the fedora-wearing Canadian any blushes, and at times it’s difficult to like Cohen as a result, the book is as far from sensationalist as it’s possible to get. Like Peter Guralnick, Sylvie keeps the language unemotional, the insight clinical and the momentum a pleasing and accommodating canter; this is, as the subtitle will have you believe, the life of Leonard Cohen, not a series of dramas for Hello magazine.

And what a life. Several lives, in fact; the teenage rebel without a cause wandering the streets of Montreal until dawn, watching ladies of the night and standing outside jazz clubs listening to the music; the precocious poet filled with sexual longing, looking over his shoulder at his father for approval, his mother for succour; the ingenu, filled with equal amounts of confidence and frailty, academically brilliant but emotionally naïve; the songwriter, suffering for his art; the Zen master who disappeared from the world for years on end to learn at the feet of his teacher; the wanderer who finds himself touring the world as a content and fulfilled septuagenarian. Add to that years of alcohol and drug abuse. Serial womaniser, distant father, loyal friend. You couldn’t make it up. ⇒

Sylvie’s research is exhaustive, her style factual without drowning in statistics. Layers are stripped away gently. The text probes and uncovers artefacts as a scene of crime officer picks over their evidence. Rarely does she allow her voice to intrude, preferring to let the reader make their mind up. Occasionally, and rarer than I’d imagined, elements of her original interviews with Leonard are included, usually to reinforce rather than force a position. Pages fly by at a great rate and the picture of this complicated man builds surely and steadily, his inner workings gaining greater clarity, as a camera focus searching for a defined point.

What emerges is, for the majority of his long life to date, a man consumed by his self. If ever an example of a walking ego was demonstrable, Cohen would be your go-to man. My 2014 interview with Adam Cohen, having now read I’m Your Man, reveals similar traits. Had Aristotle studied the Cohen’s, it’s almost certain he would have had the planets orbiting them rather than the other way around. The self-centred aspect of his personality is most prevalent in his relationships with women, of which there were many. It’s the side of Cohen that offers the least in terms of empathy, despite it being obvious that he needs the relationships as much, if not more, than he needs his own company. The difficulty for the reader lies in fact that his own path often takes a 90’ turn without warning or explanation to anyone.

So Leonard flits from Hydra to Montreal to LA to London, and latterly to Buddhist retreats in the States and India, with little or no communication to those around him who have invested most in him; his partners, his family; friends and colleagues. This dislocation from the social construct seems alien to most of us, but for the most part those around him take these random urges to disassociate himself from their lives as a necessary sacrifice.

Cohen’s elliptical travels fling him boomerang shaped from the bosom of his latest flame, out into the spaces that provide him with a silence, or better still, a lack of noise, sufficient to work within. Once out there, he mines the muse until barren, before winding back towards the world we know. More often than not, he lands somewhere recognisable but not in the same place, picking up his routines from where he’d left them, the only difference a new muse, a new passion; a new pain. If that sounds a little convenient for Cohen, perhaps it is, but the number of people who accepted Cohen in their lives on this basis suggests there’s no pre-planned cover up. Sylvie charts Cohen’s relationships as dispassionately as his other personal traits but at times it’s hard not to feel sorry for Marianne, Dominique, Rebecca, Suzanne and Anjani, even if our sorrow isn’t required.

I started reading I’m Your Man with little knowledge of Cohen’s music. I own Songs From A Room and Songs Of Love And Hate on vinyl, gifted to me by a deceased family member and treasured for that reason. Suzanne, Bird On The Wire and Famous Blue Raincoat are as well known to me as breathing, standards that music lovers absorb via osmosis, but I don’t sit down and listen to him on a regular basis and he wouldn’t be my first choice on a Saturday night. The beauty of this book is that you don’t have to be a fan to appreciate a rich, extraordinarily full life, profiled with care by a writer determined to have the subject spring from the page rather than be held down by the author’s opinion. As a result, I will be exploring more of his work, both poetry and song.

The final chapters have a rhythm all their own, offering up a prayer of a text for a man often viewed as intensely spiritual. His legal and financial travails – how it must have galled him to have been caught up in such a classic artist’s mistake – trigger a renewed sense of purpose that extends beyond indemnifying a bank account. We see many more artists touring and recording into their 60s and 70s these days, so maybe we should not be surprised that Cohen finds 18-month world jaunts and three hour concerts a night a blessing rather than a curse, but even so, for a 76 year old to skip on stage every night and maintain such levels of performance is extraordinary. Sylvie documents this (final?) phase of Cohen’s journey with a light touch that emphasises the clarity he’s found in later life – there’s hope for us all if it’s taken him 70 years to find peace.

When Sylvie takes her leave of Leonard Cohen, he’s working on another album. As biographies, and endings go, it’s unusual to see an 80 year old so energised and embarking upon more work and more touring – Cohen released Popular Problems in September of 2014 – to fuel what appears to be an unquenchable thirst for the routine of the road and the creation of art. I’m Your Man is a journey that’s yet to end, the story of a lifetime spent searching for a freedom; musical, spiritual, physical. It’s a journey worth taking.

by Paul Woodgate for Eye Level with the Stylus

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

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

[4 stars]

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

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

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

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

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

by Brendan Wright for Nudge Me Now

A poignant portrayal of Cohen’s life and career (Southend Echo)

Friday, June 28th, 2013

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie Simmons (The Irish Times)

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

As his fellow musician Will Oldham observed recently, the reason people love Leonard Cohen is that his work is both democratic and transcendent. Given his importance and longevity, Cohen deserves a decent biography, and Simmons, a veteran rock journalist, has written it. I’m Your Man is sympathetic without being a hagiography, thorough and intelligent. Even Cohen’s famously ardent fans might baulk at the prospect of ploughing through 500 pages about the great man, but they needn’t: Simmons may not reveal anything much we didn’t know, but she fills in the background in fine detail. And it’s fascinating: the upper-class childhood in Montreal with the loving but smothering mother; the early years as a poet and novelist; the idyllic years on Hydra with Marianne Ihlen; the numerous affairs with the famous – Joni Mitchell, Rebecca de Mornay – and the not so famous; the drugs; the Buddhism; and the enforced return to touring after being swindled out of all his money by his former business manager, which has given him a new lease of life in his 70s. A treat.

by Cathy Dillon for The Irish Times

Paperback review: I’m Your Man, By Sylvie Simmons – (The Independent)

Monday, June 17th, 2013

[5 stars]

It’s often a disappointment to read biographies of artists you admire; they can turn out to be much less admirable than their work. This is not the case with Sylvie Simmons’s brilliant biography of Leonard Cohen.

In a meticulously researched book of 500 pages, Simmons hasn’t found anyone with a bad word to say about him.

What’s notable is the longevity of his relationships – he never ditches a friend and, tellingly, has always remained on good terms with ex-lovers. A man of strong affections and loyalties, he’s also courtly, witty, enigmatic, and a consummate artist who takes infinite pains with his work (“Hallelujah” took him five years to write).

The book is full of great anecdotes – in his early teens, he experimented with hypnotism on the family maid and asked her to strip, which she duly did – consolidating a fascination with nakedness which found its way into many of his songs. When his son Adam was in a coma after a car accident, Cohen sat and read to him from the Bible for three months; when Adam finally opened his eyes, his first words were: “Dad, can you read something else?” When his manager cheated him out of all his money, Cohen responded drily: “It’s enough to put a dent in your mood,” and added, “fortunately, it hasn’t.”

Simmons does full justice to every aspect of Cohen – his Jewishness, his Canadian-ness, his fascination with religion, his poetry, novels, and above all his songs and concerts.

Buy this book and keep it by your Leonard Cohen albums.

by Brandon Robshaw for The Independent

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons (The Bookbag)

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

[4.5 stars]

If you or I wanted to write a story about an imaginary figure who began as a novelist and poet, then became acclaimed as a singer-songwriter in the swinging sixties, made and lost a fortune, became a monk, and returned to a musical career at an age when most mortals are well into retirement, and found himself not only more popular than ever but also playing to the largest audiences in his entire life, it would be dismissed as total fantasy. Nobody could make it up – and nobody needs to, because in a nutshell that is the life (so far) of Leonard Cohen, the subject of this biography and surely one of the music business’s most unique figures.

In 500 pages, Sylvie Simmons has written an engrossing account of the life and times of Canada’s greatest export. From his Jewish ancestry, birth and fairly comfortable middle-class upbringing in Montreal, to a university education from which he graduated with a BA, and the publication of his first book of poems, his has been an astonishing career. I was one of those whose musical tastes were formed in the sixties and was spellbound by his first two albums, released in an era when he was one of the few if not the only singer-songwriters whose name could be mentioned in the same breath as that of Bob Dylan, another great admirer, and when everyone who knew his work either adored him or couldn’t abide him because his songs were apparently far too miserable. There was no middle way.

This weaves a steady course through his fifty years of literature, music and performance. As well as telling his life story the author analyses his work skilfully, as an author whose main themes are religion, sex and literature, as someone whose writings might often have been banned as obscene or at least relegated to the top shelves if not so subtly expressed, and as someone who has often championed the underdog, or the ‘beautiful loser’. She describes the genesis of all his major works, with considerable detail on the contents, recording and general public and media reaction to each album, and the long-running connection with Jennifer Warnes, who started as one of his backing singers and wound up having a very successful solo career partly through making an album of his songs. Throughout it all Cohen comes to life as a perfect gentleman, considerate to all, one who has had his share of romantic disappointments, success and failure. Remarkably, he has had the most faithful fan base not just in Canada but also in Britain in Europe, where record sales have always dwarfed those in a frequently unreceptive America. She also testifies to his dry wit and humour which belies the image he had in the early days of making music only fit for listeners to slit their wrists to. Those who had only a superficial acquaintance with his oeuvre were entitled to their opinion, but anyone who looked and thought about it in depth would rapidly realise that there was far more to it than that.

Nobody sustains a career lasting half a century without ups and downs. Interest in Cohen was waning around the mid-eighties, when he embraced the new technology, and more or less swapped his acoustic guitar for a basic Casio keyboard with which to write melodies on one finger – and the subsequent result proved to be one of the best-selling records of his career. At last the man was cool, even performing at a Prince’s Trust Concert in London by special invitation of the Prince of Wales, who gave a television interview saying why he was such a fan. Even stranger and even more engrossing is the account of his five-year period of seclusion when he was ordained as a Buddhist monk, and everyone thought that there would be no more new records or books.

Then came the day in 2004 when his daughter advised him to check his bank accounts, and he discovered that his longtime business manager had been misappropriating funds on a massive scale for some years. There was no option but to return to worldwide concert tours once more, something which at the age of seventy he viewed with mixed feelings. Out of the business problems came forth good, for as a result he was soon playing to the biggest and most age-diverse audiences of his career, with show after show sold out well in advance. Thanks to a little help from ‘The X Factor’, a cover version of his song ‘Hallelujah’ became the British Christmas No 1 in 2008, with a second version hot on its heels in the singles chart and, thanks to downloads, his own recording entering the Top 40 as well. Even more gratifying were the honours that came his way, including induction into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Prince of Asturias Award for literature, and his native country’s finest civilian award which made him a Companion of the Order of Canada.

This is a very fine book about a very impressive character, and by the time I had finished it, I not only felt better acquainted with his work as well as reminded about his early albums which I played and adored at school and badly needed to give another listen, but also felt I almost knew the man, who comes across as unfailingly self-modest and thoroughly likeable. My only disappointment is that, despite several pages of reference notes at the end, there is no bibliography or discography of his published and recorded works – a strange omission. As a result, be prepared to read this book with ready access to the extra information online. That apart, it’s a first-class read.

by John Van der Kiste for The Bookbag

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie Simmons (Absolutely Fulham)

Friday, March 1st, 2013

Hallelujah, it’s not all doom & gloom (Totally Jewish)

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

A new Leonard Cohen biography reveals him to be a true gentleman, writes Rebecca Wallersteiner.

“It took me three years to write I’m your Man – with blood on every one of its six hundred pages,” says author Sylvie Simmons of her new definitive biography of music legend Leonard Cohen.

And I have to say it was worth every drop of her blood, as I couldn’t put down her riveting, uplifting and stylishly written book.

A leading music journalist, Simmons has previously written the acclaimed biography of Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes and contributes to The Rolling Stone.

Based in San Francisco, though born in the UK, she has been fascinated by Leonard Cohen since her teenage years.

“I recall first hearing Leonard in 1968, which incidentally was also the day I hit puberty. His voice had a special intimacy and although his words were enigmatic, particularly to a young girl, I somehow sensed that he was a man who knew something important and was to be trusted. I read his poetry and novels and memorised every one of his albums, before becoming a music critic in 1977,” says Simmons, who enjoyed exclusive access to the talented singer and songwriter.

Her meticulously researched biography tracks Cohen’s artistic output – his music, poetry and fiction and also his fame, depression and colourful love life.

It is packed with fascinating interviews with everyone from poets, musicians and professors to rabbis, Buddhist monks and muses galore.

Former lovers speak affectionately of him, suggesting that despite being an irresistible lady’s man, he always behaved like a gentleman. We even meet the mysterious Suzanne who inspired his most acclaimed song of the same name.

She tells Simmons that she indeed served the poet tea and oranges in her rundown apartment by the St Lawrence harbour – although they were never lovers – and he only “touched her perfect body with his mind”.

We also meet the beautiful, long suffering Marianne Ihlen (So Long, Marianne), who lived with Cohen on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra, as well as Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his children, the folk singer Joni Mitchell, with whom Cohen had a stormy relationship, and Nico, a mysterious blond, German singer, who hung out with Andy Warhol’s glamorous Factory set.

Simmons takes us to New York’s Chelsea Hotel, in its late 1960s hey-day, where, early one morning he ran into Janis Joplin, another wandering soul, in its run-down corridors.

Despite Cohen’s extraordinary life, his background was traditional. He was born into a prominent, close-knit and loving upper middle class family in Montreal’s thriving Jewish community.

“Cohen’s ancestors had built synagogues, founded newspapers and businesses in Canada,” says Simmons. His father, Nathan, ran a thriving clothing business providing his family with a large house, chauffeur and Irish nanny in Montreal’s affluent district of Westmount.

Aunts and uncles lived nearby and in many ways Cohen was the archetypal Jewish son – well-mannered, diligent, thoughtful and decent. His mother, Masha, sang the Russian and Yiddish folk songs she had learnt in her childhood.

“My mother laughed and wept deeply and carried her past in songs,” Cohen told the author. He grew up to be more like his mother, who was warm, emotional and creative, than his reserved, kindly father, who tragically died at the age of 53, when he was just nine. His father’s early death gave the teenage Cohen more freedom than most other Jewish boys in his neighbourhood and he roamed the streets of Montreal’s poorer neighbourhoods until the late hours.

Simmons analyses Cohen’s wide-ranging influences from the poetry of Lorca to Hebrew prayer and his experimentations with Judaism, Christianity, Scientology and Zen Buddhism.

When you learn there are eminent Rabbis on both sides of his family, his spiritual quest and lack of materialism become less surprising. His maternal grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klonitzki-Kline, was the principal of a school for Talmudic study in Lithuania.

On his father’s side, his great-grandfather, Lazarus Cohen, had been a teacher in a rabbinical school in Wylkowyski, before emigrating to Canada in 1860.

His younger brother, Tzvi Hirsch Cohen, then joined him and became Chief Rabbi of Montreal.

Although Leonard Cohen chose a different spiritual path to his devout ancestors, it is likely they are never too far from his thoughts. He has now found the religious fulfilment he spent most of his life searching for, in a monastery outside Los Angeles.

After five years in seclusion in the 1990s, he became ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk, only emerging from semi-retirement after finding that his manager had embezzled his money.

Still lean, handsome and hawkish and in his seventies, Cohen then began touring the world, giving performances to rebuild his fortune.

Packed audiences across Europe, Canada and Israel welcomed him effusively – with many of his fans being young enough to be his grandchildren. In Israel, tickets for his Tel Aviv concert sold out within 24 hours and Cohen generously gave the proceeds to charity.

I ask Simmons if she plans to speak at Jewish Book Week? “If all goes well, there are plans to Skype me from San Francisco onto a screen in London,” she enthuses. Having sold like hot cakes, the tickets to The Words and Music of Leonard Cohen event on 23 February have already sold out – but no doubt, those lucky enough to have a place are going to be in for an absolute treat.

by  Rebecca Wallersteiner for Totally Jewish

Hallelujah, it’s not all doom and gloom (Jewish News)

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Loving Leonard Cohen (The Oxonian Review)

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

On 18th September 2009, I received the following poem from a friend, who had replaced Frank O’Hara’s original “Lana Turner” with “Leonard Cohen”:

Leonard Cohen has collapsed!

I was trotting along

and suddenly I see a headline

LEONARD COHEN HAS COLLAPSED!

there is no snow in Hollywood

there is no rain in California

I have been to lots of parties

and acted perfectly disgraceful

but I never actually collapsed

oh Leonard Cohen we love you get up

It reached me before the news reports had. The incident, highly publicised at the time, occurred during a concert in Valencia, Spain (the country of his beloved Frederico Garcia Lorca) while Leonard was singing ‘Bird On The Wire’. At the time, it was common knowledge that Leonard had been defrauded of $10 million of his earnings by his manager, Kelley Lunch. He was forced to return to touring to make up for the lost funds instead of “sitting in a sunbeam at the kitchen table with Anjani, smiling and eating bagels” in his old age.

Even at the start of his career, writes Sylvie Simmons in her new biography, “Leonard had never really toured but he knew he did not like touring”. For a man on and off the road since the sixties, this is an unexpected characteristic. He had a problem with stage fright, but “mostly he was afraid for his songs. They had come to him in private, from somewhere pure and honest, and he had worked long and hard to make them sincere representations of the moment. He wanted to protect them, not parade and pimp them to paying strangers in an artificial intimacy.” Later in the biography, Simmons returns to his complicated relationship with touring, which he viewed “at best as a necessary evil, foisted upon him by his record contract […] his insecurities as a singer and a musician made his fear of failure more acute.”

Turning seventy-nine in September this year, small and always sharply dressed in a suit, Leonard is still out touring, though no longer tied in by contracts and financial woes. His work ethic, as described by Simmons, was hardly that of a rock star, even in the heat of his amphetamine-fuelled tours. She attributes Cohen’s militaristic discipline in his writing to his Buddhist spiritual training. She also alludes to his perfectionism, suggesting the addictive appeal that the “heightened existence” of touring—reworking the same material until it is immaculate—might have on someone whose vices of amphetamine, cigarettes and alcohol had been left lingering in the past.

Simmons’ narrative is cut as elegantly as one of Leonard’s suits: lovers, poetic and musical careers, recording history, and personal and spiritual journeys are all included, with an impressive equality of attention devoted to each period. The biography, masterfully written and fastidiously researched, moves at a pace that beats with a regularity unaffected by content. No section of Leonard’s life is monotonously slow, not even the five years he spent in Mount Baldy monastery serving and later being ordained as a Buddhist monk. Simmons’ book offers a pleasing and complete depiction of a celebrity who, for the most part, removed himself from the limelight when he was able. It is a book that, as she claims in her afterword, Leonard “did not ask me to write and did not ask to read”, but that “neither of which appeared to inhibit his support”.

And indeed, the ‘Leonard’ that Simmons depicts is supportive but also humble, self-deprecating, extraordinarily generous with his time and money and, unsurprisingly, mysteriously seductive. Yet the work is not shrouded in a veil of mystery, nor judgement for that matter. From his bohemian, non-committal sex-life to details of his finances and the complexity of his relationship with G-d (as he reverently writes in ‘Poems of Longing’) and himself, we feel we are being presented with an accurate and honest portrait of Leonard as he is. And like the countless men and women in his life, we find ourselves ready to fall at his feet. Simmons does leave some things to the reader’s speculation and certain things are mentioned in passing, but there is never a sense of distance from her subject. We find ourselves standing in the kitchen with Leonard in his underwear:

Leonard was in his underwear – boxers, nothing too risqué, and a T-shirt, kind of a Billy Wilder morning outfit – and he was chewing a boiled hot dog into tiny little bits and spitting it out and putting it on a toothpick and feeding this little bird that he’d rescued from the front yard that had fallen from a nest.

In between these endearing anecdotes, Simmons has managed to capture the man as he presents himself: above all a lover but also a partner; a boxer (or a fighter at least); a doctor (there’s the famous episode when he cures Hank the cat); a driver (he was a chauffeur to his Japanese Rinzai Zen master, Roshi, well into his sixties) and of course a caring father to Adam and Lorca Cohen (named after the poet), reading them Bible passages in times of trouble.

About a third of the 500-page book is devoted to L. Cohen, the poet. There is no attempt to ‘foreshadow’ his great musical career, the beginnings of which were somewhat rocky though not unromantic. The most famous of Cohen’s songs—’Suzanne’, ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Lover, Lover, Lover’, ‘Sisters of Mercy’—are contextualised with anecdotes of real places and real people. The original Suzanne was not his partner (there were two), but a “demure seventeen-year-old, ‘just out of an Ontario boarding school, with a future dream of bohemian heaven.’” ‘Our Lady of the Harbour’ was also real—a church in Montreal. At the time, Leonard was with Marianne (the Marianne; there was only one). They didn’t sleep together, though he spent the night. Suzanne, like most of the subject Simmons interviewed, was honest and eager to share her account of her time with Leonard. Often Simmons takes it upon herself to summarise interviews into short anecdotal asides. In her discussion of ‘Sisters of Mercy’, Simmons reminds us that the girls are not lovers, but nuns. In reality, the story was different:

Leonard wrote the song during a blizzard in Edmonton, Canada, after encountering two young girl backpackers in a doorway. He offered them his hotel bed and, when they fell straight to sleep, watched them from an armchair, writing, and played them the song the next morning when they woke.

The flowing narrative is interspersed with transcriptions of interviews with Leonard, denoted in italics. There is little, if any, disjunction between them and the content. Discussing his 1969 album ‘Songs from a Room’, Simmons writes:

It was right that ‘the Bard of the Bedsit’ came to us naked, with very little baggage besides these strangely comforting songs that seemed to be written from a life led in the long dark hours before dawn, by someone whose word you could trust.

‘I think that element of trust is critical. Certainly I think what draws anyone to a book or a poem or a song is that you trust the guy, the woman.’

– You too? Is that what draws you to others’ work?

‘I never put it that way but yes, I think that’s so […] you trust the voice.’

You also have to trust the biographer to convey that voice. With her background as a music journalist and her acclaimed biographies of Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young, Simmons is well positioned to offer not just the back story but also a critique of Cohen’s albums and their reception, as well as an analysis of the countless tribute albums and covers. Leonard, she documents, was perfectly content with the rest of the world singing his songs. Cohen was as generous with his song-rights as he was with his sexuality, perhaps to his own financial detriment. Both intensely isolated and spiritual, he was also a man of the flesh. You trusted him because he gave himself—mind and body—away.

An example of his unconventional sexual practices can be found during his early touring days in an episode fuelled by atmosphere, substance and, oddly, embarrassment. Ron Cornelius, Leonard’s then-lead guitarist, recalls a concert in Frankfurt in 1972 where Leonard lay beneath bodies of fans on stage as the band played on: “There were people all over him, writhing like a pile of worms. He just lost it, he just got so sexually involved with the crowd that he took it to a new level.” In addition to these bodies, there were countless women.

Cohen’s album, ‘I’m Your Man’, details, with care and tact, the “procession of women” who offered themselves to Leonard and to whom he offered himself. Suzanne Verdal (his muse); his long-time partner Marianne; Suzanne Elrod (mother to his children); Joni Mitchell; his very publicised affair with Rebecca de Mornay, as well as countless other girlfriends, one-night stands, and muses, including his most recent partner, Anjani Thomas, are all treated with equal respect and significance in Leonard’s life, despite the fact that many of these encounters took place in cheap hotels. “Women had always played a part in Leonard’s songs”, writes Simmons, and he was always delighted to hear his works sung by a female voice. Women, in some ways, governed his life. Even when leaving his revered master at the Mount Baldy Zen Centre in Los Angeles, he blames a woman, signing off with “Jikan, the useless monk bows his head”:

Dear Roshi

I’m sorry that I cannot help you now, because

I met this woman.

Please forgive my selfishness

Simmons portrays Leonard’s spirituality as stemming from his rootlessness, both in his relationships and his geographical movements: his early days in Hydra, followed by incessant flights between LA, New York, Greece, Montreal and later, India, even when he wasn’t touring, were at once calming and restless. His privileged upper-middle class background, love of Lorca, and a deep devotion to the Jewish tradition placed him at a cultural intersection that enabled a number of possible directions. He engaged with many of these and Simmons explores them with a non-judgmental eye. This background fuelled Cohen’s rejection of materialism and facilitated an acute self-awareness, manifested in an inclination for fasting and deep depression that kept his face thin and his spirit gaunt over the years. He could have been a great Rabbi of the twenty-first century, but he chose to be a poet. Or, as he says in one of his poems, “this thing that has to sing”.

Like those she interviewed, Simmons graciously offers personal emails and exchanges she had with Leonard that offer a compelling depiction of his non-celebrity life. When asked who his hero was, he replied in an interview that it is a designation he has difficulty with. However, he followed the interview with an email:

i forgot

my hero is muhammad ali

as they say about the Timex in their ads

takes a lickin’

keeps on tickin’

He could have very well been speaking about himself, but his humility would have held him back. And so Leonard’s own story goes: takes a lickin’, keeps on tickin’.

by Judyta Frodyma for The Oxonian Review