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