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

Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man : The Life Of Leonard Cohen (Muso’s Guide)

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Sylvie Simmons‘ hefty and admirably assiduous biography of Leonard Cohen may be considered by far the most exhaustive yet in terms of factual detail, but a critical eye is sometimes frustratingly lacking.

Leonard Cohen’s appeal has lain for almost four decades in his ‘bard of the bedsit’ ability to string an everyman chord through songs of intense personal significance, providing at his ‘Songs Of Leonard Cohen’ and ‘Songs From A Room’ best a depth of emotion to musical arrangements of often the utmost simplicity. His near mythical persona is significantly augmented by the latter-day trademark baritone vocal intimacy, an element which might be said by critics of later records to have single-handedly rescued their over-produced and indulgent muzak. It is informative that the younger Cohen was always resistant to such meddling; Simmons shows that he usually disapproved of his records featuring anything other than his vocals and acoustic guitar. The lyrics were always central; Cohen was a widely published poet long before he turned to music. A reluctance to accept, much less embrace, his status as a musical performer rather than a poet permeates this biography. Fans should be grateful that the pathos of the gentle violin of ‘So Long, Marianne,’ the sprightly accordion of ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ or the ethereal harmonica of the perfect ‘The Partisan’ would never have reached light of day had he had his way and used musical minimalism as little more than a vehicle for his poetry.

Simmons does a supreme job of describing the facts, based on meticulous and immersive research. She grounds us very well in the peripatetic Cohen’s movements from the Montreal of his secular Jewish upbringing to the Greek island of Hydra, to the sink hotels of New York and a remote Tennessee cabin, where he counted amongst his friends a neighbour recently released after eleven years in prison for murder. Friends, colleagues and nothing shy of a plethora of former lovers can barely rouse a negative word between them about a man who, for all his kindly and gentle disposition, left rather a trail of destruction in his pursuit of bohemian paradise and spiritual fulfilment. It is this lack of opprobrium levelled at Cohen which most disquiets the reader. Can no-one find anything bad to say? The inference that all are putty in Cohen’s hands reflects this book’s most serious failing. Even the eponymous Marianne (who moved with her infant son from Oslo to Hydra, then to Montreal to be with Cohen) reflects upon their on-off relationship – during which the travelling Cohen achieved near serial levels of adultery, not least in the celebrated congress with Janis Joplin which lies behind ‘Chelsea Hotel #2′ – without the merest hint of hostility or regret.

The naivety of Cohen’s green fatigues-clad and trouble-strewn 1961 visit to post-revolutionary Cuba represents an idealistic imperative in many of his actions which provide several of the book’s highlights. He responded to the onset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War by travelling to Israel (very shortly after the birth of his first son, incidentally), in order to join its military, eventually settling for performing morale-boosting concerts for the troops. Other memorable anecdotes include arrival on stage in France on horseback, a chance encounter with a young Jimi Hendrix, a one-man prevention of a riot at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, a bizarre stint in collaboration with the lunatic Phil Spector on the ‘Death Of A Ladies Man’ album and a tour of American mental hospitals. As well as being effective simply as lightly amusing vignettes, these episodes also go some way to demystifying the enigmatic Cohen.

As a factual record of Cohen’s life, this biography is unlikely to be matched and on that basis alone can be wholly recommended. The prose is of an uncomplicated and economical style suited to achieve this and to carry through enduring themes like sex, depression and addiction, but the flexibility and flourish it lacks could account for why opportunities for a deeper and more investigative approach are eschewed. This is unfortunate because when Simmons does venture into such territory, she pulls it off well.

It is probably fair to say that the Leonard Cohen story has now been told in as complete a manner as is likely, but if future biographers can combine Simmonds’ exhaustive detail with a greater distance from their subject, a more critical and – at the risk of cheapening the whole affair – gossiping eye, this complex and flawed man, along with those whose lives he touched in more severe ways than he probably knew, will have been done full justice.

by Chris Phillips for Muso’s Guide

Tea and oranges (The Times Literary Supplement)

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Apropos of nothing my partner one day asked: “Who do you love more, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?”. Sylvie Simmons gives her answer on page 5 of her new biography of the latter. “It is no secret that Leonard’s background was privileged”, she writes. “Leonard has never denied being born on the right side of the tracks, has never renounced his upbringing, rejected his family, changed his name or pretended to be anything other than who he was.” Of course, we know who did all of the above: the former Robert Zimmerman.

The unacknowledged rivalry between these Jewish troubadours runs through the book like the scarlet thread that distinguished Jacob from Esau. Indeed, it is tempting to use those feuding twins as archetypes, and characterize Cohen as Mr Smooth and Dylan as Mr Hairy. But a more useful comparison might be between another set of biblical brothers: Moses and Aaron. As a matter of fact, Cohen are a priestly cast who trace their ancestry back to the aforementioned architect of the Golden Calf. This was an inheritance Cohen took seriously. Simmons records that at the conclusion of a concert at the Ramat Gan Stadium near Tel Aviv, Cohen raised his hands to the sky. Then, “Speaking in Hebrew, the descendant of Aaron gave the crowd the Birkat Kohanim, the ‘Priestly Blessing'”. Old Testament themes run deep in the lyrics of both Cohen and Dylan, on occasion the same ones. Both, for example, are drawn to the Akedah or Binding of Isaac; Dylan in “Highway 61 Revisited” – in which God commands Abraham to “kill me a son” – and Cohen in the “Story of Isaac”. Simmons notes the coincidence, and makes a few pertinent comments about Cohen’s version; how he transforms it into a protest about atrocity, both ancient and modern, and how he has altered Isaac’s age to correspond with his own when his father died. But she doesn’t really take the opportunity to analyse the contrasting lyrics and performances fully, and nail down the difference between the two goliaths.

I’m Your Man is subtitled “The Life”, not “A critical study”. As such it is positively encyclopedic.

Leonard Cohen, we learn, was born on September 21, 1934, into a family that was a pillar of the Jewish community, being patrons of the largest synagogue in Montreal. Cohen’s father, Nathan, ran a “high-end clothing business”. His mother, Masha, was a Russian Jew: a Chekhovian figure, according to her son. Both were descendants of rabbis and scholars. Their only son – as he puts it – was “born in a suit”. He also experienced – again in his own words – “a messianic childhood”. Nathan – sixteen years his wife’s senior – had served with distinction in the Canadian army during the First World War, but was thereafter plagued with ill health, exiting the scene when his son was nine. After his death his son lived in a house of women, a young sultan amid an adoring harem.

At his various places of learning Cohen’s silver tongue led him to the presidency of numerous debating and other societies. A tragic Spanish youth gave him guitar lessons, only to commit suicide long before the course was over. Cohen wrote a Bildungsroman, The Favourite Game, and another “novel”, Beautiful Losers. His poetry began to win prizes. Then in 1966 Judy Collins recorded “Suzanne”. The lady made a second appearance a couple of years later on our hero’s own Songs of Leonard Cohen. Simmons meticulously, even religiously, chronicles all the subsequent muses – Anne, Joni, Marianne, another Suzanne (mother of Adam and Lorca), Dominique, Rebecca, Anjani et al – and albums both printed and recorded, as well as all the attendant birth pains and abandonments.

To my mind Simmons relies too heavily on contemporary reviews, but when it comes to the women in Cohen’s life, she has a superabundance of raw testimony. Miraculously, not one of them wishes ill to the ladies’ man they have loved and lost. Cohen is equally forthcoming, though less forgiving of himself. Seeking redemption from his sins of omission and commission, as well as from the depression he inherited from his mother, he braved war zones in Cuba and Israel, exiled himself in the Zen retreat of Mount Baldy, selfmedicated with drugs and alcohol, and embraced as many religions as he did women, including Scientology.

And just when it seemed that one of the panaceas had worked, Cohen discovered that his manager had robbed him blind. But did he crumble, did he collapse? On the contrary, he seemed reborn. No longer does he dread touring. Nowadays he is relaxed and avuncular on stage, commands the auditorium like a “Rat Pack Rabbi” (to borrow his biographer’s neat description), and seems ready to dance his audience to the end of time, like Aaron of old.

by Clive Sinclair for <a href=” “>The Time Literary Supplement</a>

“His bedsit manner” (Sunday Times)

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” (Record Collector)

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Five stars

“I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons – review” (The Observer)

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

A masterful biography of Leonard Cohen reveals a selfish man with irresistible charm

This notorious ladies’ man, Leonard Cohen biographer Sylvie Simmons concludes more than once in her enthralling, meticulously researched account, would have made a very good rabbi. Never mind that Cohen – poet, singer, 78 – is also an ordained Buddhist; had attained the grade of Senior Dianetic, Grade IV Release in the Church of Scientology in 1969 before falling out with the organisation; and knows a hell of a lot about scripture. A grandson of a rabbi, Cohen was born into a priestly class in Montreal’s old, thriving Jewish community. But a keen interest in the profane – in sex and drugs, if not exactly rock’n’roll – has made him, instead, one of popular music’s most unflinching sages.

Fans of long-standing will know Cohen as the singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter, whose devastating verses have the tensile strength of haikus. Those of us in his thrall, Simmons included, have no trouble claiming that he leaves Dylan in the dust for skewering the human condition. Songs about break-ups and hard-ons sit next to prostrations before higher powers, often female, just as often, unknowable. With his depressive’s grasp of the puny moral wraiths we are comes an active sense of the absurd, too, and some hair-raising tales.

The time when Cohen single-handedly stopped a riot at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival is well-documented. Less well known is the time his band, only weeks earlier, arrived onstage at a French festival on horseback and were derided for acting like rock stars. Or when, in 1977, while working on the Death of a Ladies’ Man album, producer Phil Spector puts a gun to Cohen’s neck and tells him he loves him. “I hope you do, Phil,” replies Cohen with characteristic dryness.

Latterly, though, Cohen has reached a wider renown as “that guy who wrote Hallelujah”, now a TV talent competition staple, whose many ironies include the fact that its parent album was rejected by his record company in 1983. Hallelujah’s path to ubiquity has so many meanders that there is an entire book devoted to it, due out in December. Simmons explores it here in the context of a long career in which Cohen’s songs often go on to have lives of their own, often for other paymasters. His effusive Russian mother warns him to beware of shysters, a warning that would come to be prophetic.

As befits the authorised biographer, Simmons assiduously tracks all Cohen’s works – the poetry, fiction and music – as components of the same artistic arc, painstakingly interviewing his literary peers, producers and session musicians, as well as the key female figures in Cohen’s mythology – the sainted Marianne Ihlen (So Long, Marianne); the Montreal Suzanne of the tea and oranges; Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his children; and latterday partners Rebecca De Mornay and Anjani Thomas. Dozens get away; the interplay in art of Cohen’s convoluted love life could easily fill another 600 pages on its own.

If Simmons’s book has a weak spot, it is one she alludes to throughout: everyone, but everyone, is putty in Cohen’s hands. Only two people have a bad word to say here about the selfish, philandering, commitment-phobic vagabond who dumps his women to go off and hang out in war zones such as Cuba (Marianne) and Israel (Suzanne Elrod, who’d just given birth to their first child, Adam). The son of his former manager, Steven Machat, confesses he never liked him, but helps him nonetheless.

Even his then-partner Anjani Thomas’s ex-husband, a music industry lawyer, gives Cohen his legal time for free and eventually becomes his manager. How? Simmons posits the young Cohen was a great hypnotist, who practised on the maid. (A 1985 poem, “Days Of Kindness”, apologises to Marianne and her son, Axel.)
With a delicious grasp of karma, the zeitgeist wound its way back round to Cohen in 2004, when a financial betrayal of the greatest magnitude struck. Semi-retired, Cohen was a practising monk at the Mt Baldy centre outside Los Angeles, serving his long-time master, the centenarian Roshi Joshu Sasaki, when he heard through the grapevine that all his money was gone. His trusted longtime manager, Kelley Lynch, had been draining his accounts. A long, ugly legal battle ensued, one that, alone, could yet again fill another tome, involving complex suits and counter-suits, bikinis and Swat teams; Simmons handles it all masterfully.

So the sage reluctantly came down from the mountain and started singing for his supper again. Latterday albums – 2004’s Dear Heather and this year’s Old Ideas – and a valedictory two-year world tour have, belatedly, established Cohen as a household name and earned him more money than he lost ($10m-$13m, Simmons reckons).

Gossips might want to know more about the scene when Suzanne turfs Marianne out of the house on the island of Hydra. Perhaps this might not be the biography that Cohen, the man, deserves. But it is the definitive volume on the guy right at the top of the tower of song.

by Kitty Empire for The Observer

“Hallelujah for the genius of Cohen” (London Evening Standard)

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

When Leonard Cohen was a lust-filled teenager in Montreal in the chaste early 1950s, long before he picked up a guitar, he developed an interest in mind control. Learning from a cheap manual (25 Lessons in Hypnotism: How to Become an Expert Operator), he experimented with some success on the Cohen family pets, before attempting to mesmerise the maid.

Seating her on a Chesterfield sofa, speaking low and slow, he managed to put her in a deep trance.

When he asked her to strip naked, to his delight and horror, she obeyed. No one pronounces the word “naked” like Cohen, after all. “This is what he had been waiting so long to see,” Cohen later wrote in his autobiographical novel, The Favourite Game. “He wasn’t disappointed and he never has been.”

It is tempting to see his art coming together in this moment. We have the deep longing; the surprising power of his voice; the co-mingling of the sacred, the sexual and the silly. (Even the classy leather sofa seems of a piece.) However, as Sylvie Simmons’s delightful biography makes clear, with Cohen, things generally happened a lot more slowly and painfully.

Simmons situates her subject well both in the Jewish tradition (if not a singer he would have made a fantastic Rabbi) and in his generation, that bit older than the brash Babyboomers. He learned guitar from a Spanish flamenco player who — d’oh! — committed suicide shortly after teaching him that rippling finger style. But this was before the guitar had any claim to iconography. Cohen’s first band, a country trio called The Buckskin Boys, had no higher ambition than “cornering the Montreal square-dance market”. He was 33 before he made the transition to songwriting from poetry.

Even as a lifelong fan (I have a strange memory of hearing So Long, Marianne in the cot) I found much unfamiliar here. His lyrics are so resonant in themselves that there never seemed much need to find out who Marianne, Nancy and Suzanne were — but it is a comfort to discover that they were all devastatingly beautiful and all speak of him kindly. Even through his chaotic episodes — his LSD-fuelled tours of mental hospitals; his foolhardy expeditions to war-torn Cuba and Israel — he remains true to his need to weigh the right word, to convey his feelings precisely.

And if the book travels through many stages of despair, it ends on an up beat. Cohen’s lifelong depression only lifted in his sixties, after many arduous years as a Zen monk, studying under his master Kyozan Jushu Sasaki (still alive at 105).

When his former manager, Kelley Lynch, stole millions from him it was enough to put “a serious dent in his mood,” but when he went on tour to earn a pension, it proved to be his making. His monkish habits suit him to a life on the road; his voice is now like worn leather; and the recognition, after so many years being ignored, is validating. Even Simon Cowell is a fan.

Cohen, now 78, gave numerous interviews to Simmons for the book, only asking her not to make it a hagiography. She doesn’t really keep her word, and has the icky habit of paraphrasing lines of his verse in her prose, treating us to flakes of his life, and so on.

Then again, those who love his music tend to internalise it — and anyway, Cohen remains a step ahead. “Think about this seriously before you answer,” he says, fixing his biographer in the eye as he welcomes her into his kitchen for a final interview. You wonder what is going through her mind, as he asks: “Would you like a scoop of ice cream in your coffee?”

An expert operator, even now.

by Richard Godwin for London Evening Standard

“I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, By Sylvie Simmons” (The Independent)

Saturday, November 17th, 2012

The ageless troubadour of Montreal at last has a biography that does him justice

In a genre where the currency is much debased, Sylvie Simmons, a British-born journalist working from San Francisco, has turned in a fine example of what a rock biography should be. Of course the subject is far more than just a rock star: long before he became “the Bard of the Bedsit”, Leonard Cohen was an award-winning poet regarded as the brightest and best among the new generation of Canadian writers.

Down the years, there have been critical collections and cut-and-paste biographies. This is the real McCoy, written with Cohen’s cooperation – drawing on personal papers and the memories of subject, friends and lovers – but not his approval. He didn’t want to read the manuscript and had just two concerns: that the book not be a hagiography and that its author not starve. Cohen ought to be pleased with the result, which includes extensive notes and a proper index.

With the worldwide embrace of the last decade or so; the awards; the sell-out tours with brilliant musicians led by a dapper, droll, self-deprecating and much lighter-hearted Cohen, it’s easy to forget he was once the butt of endless jokes. Depressing. Unhip. A loser. In 1979, so few people wanted to interview him that I, just out of college, was offered the chance. A long-time admirer, I wasn’t disappointed.

Captain Mandrax, Laughing Lenny… Cohen, whom one might describe as a cunning linguist, was always a poet first and foremost. He simply didn’t make enough money to live as one, even on the Greek island of Hydra (first with Marianne and later Suzanne, though not the one immortalised in song) in the 1960s. Music might solve the problem.

A wanderer, born and brought up in Montreal, he’d intended to go to Nashville but stopped off in New York, where he “bumped into the so-called folk-song renaissance” and realised he’d been “writing those little songs for a while and just playing them for friends”. So he got himself introduced to Judy Collins who, in 1967, recorded “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag”. Now Cohen had a new audience and, before long, a record contract.

Now Cohen, the Lorca-loving poet who learned six chords from a mysterious young Spanish guitarist, who grew up steeped in Jewish life and lore, and whose finely wrought poetry had always been a heady mix of sex and religion, was hanging out at the Chelsea, with Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Nico, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith and Jimi Hendrix.

Reading Simmons’s rich and engaging study, it’s easy to see what drew so many women to this self-confessed ladies’ man. Cohen was empathetic, generous, caring; a seeker whose life-long quest led him to a monastery, where for years he served Zen Master Roshi and was ordained as a monk. The hours of meditation brought him solace. Had manager Kelley Lynch not cleaned him out financially, Cohen might have lived out his life on Mount Baldy. That would have been our loss. To the man with “the golden voice”, we must raise an unbroken “Hallelujah!”

By Liz Thomson for The Independent

Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen: Bossing the music biographies (Metro)

Friday, November 16th, 2012

Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young are amongst some of the best of the music books available in time for Christmas

The baby-boomer pound remains as potent a force as ever, judging from this season’s crop of serious music books, led by autobiographies from Neil Young and Pete Townshend, plus a weighty tome of John Lennon’s letters.

Veteran British music journalist Sylvie Simmons weighs in with what will surely be seen as a definitive biography, this time for the great Leonard Cohen. Given free access to Cohen, his friends, family and archives, I’m Your Man (Jonathan Cape) is about far more than just the man as a musician.

Instead, it offers a detailed – but blessedly psychoanalysis free – account of the Jewish Montrealer’s development as a poet and writer in the long years before he turned singer.

It also gives due care to all aspects of Cohen’s long life, from his less successful records to his years spent as a Buddhist monk. Poor picture presentation is the only weak point.

by Andrzej Lukowski for Metro

“I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, review” (The Telegraph)

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

At the beginning of this year, Leonard Cohen unexpectedly sprang not just a new album on the world – his 12th – but a new world tour, a mere two years after he had last hung up his stage fedora. That event had itself been a surprising twist in the many that have made up the spectacularly zigzagging progress of the 77-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter.

Retreating to a monastery in the Californian hills for five years in the late Nineties to become a Zen master, when Cohen came down the mountain he discovered all his money had been snaffled by his manager, forcing him back on the road. Affectionately called Laughing Len by the British music press in the Seventies because of his sombre lyrics and sonorous voice, thousands of fans flocked to see the singer perform three-hour sets in a world tour that lasted two years.

You might have thought he had exhausted himself, let alone his fans’ nostalgia and wallets, but despite drily calling his 2012 album Old Ideas, the record flew off the shelves, becoming his highest-charting album ever in the United States. More gigs, receiving five-star reviews, were scheduled to meet the seemingly insatiable demand.

Cohen should be the patron saint of late bloomers or career changers. Born the year before Elvis Presley into Jewish affluence in interwar Montreal, he was for much of his younger years a successful poet, novelist and proto-hippy, hitting 30 before he even picked up a guitar with any real intent. Success came slowly, and in the US not until he was in his fifties. The life of Leonard Cohen, then, offers that rare and fascinating thing for a music biographer: a rock star’s life lived among many other pursuits – especially the pursuit of women.

Cohen did not really struggle. Following the early death of his father, as a boy he was doted on by his eccentric Lithuanian mother and older sister. As a teenager, he became obsessed with hypnotism, teaching himself how to mesmerise pets before moving on to women, persuading the maid to take her clothes off. Later on, guitars and poetry proved more practical and just as successful in the art of seduction.

Cohen’s muses could take up a book in themselves, from the Suzanne who resisted his charms but inspired one of his most famous songs to the one who gave him two children but failed to happily domesticate him. From Joni Mitchell to Janis Joplin and later on the actress Rebecca de Mornay (though not Nico, who resisted his charms), Cohen seems to have been mesmerised by and in turn been mesmerising to beautiful women.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, Cohen could have come across as a tedious womaniser but Sylvie Simmons, who had plenty of practice in her previous study of Serge Gainsbourg, handles the old charmer with aplomb, painting a magnificently detailed and affectionate portrait of the artist without romanticising him.

Cohen’s life is fascinating because it appears both charmed and doomed. As a young man, poetry prizes and sojourns to Greek islands went hand in hand with an insecure existence and the onset of depression. When he turned to songwriting his music was sublime but laboriously produced and live performance particularly was intensely painful. He had brushes with the Beatniks, Warhol, Dylan and the rest of the Greenwich Village singer-songwriters, Nashville, Phil Spector and Nineties alt-rockers, and yet with his suit and hound-dog expression he seemed like a man permanently out of time, living a kind of existential isolation.

Out of this cocktail of suffering and desire, Cohen seems compelled to make music that turns out tender and profoundly meaningful, songs that are to his audience life-changing and hypnotic, delivered in that ever-deepening voice. When redemption comes, and almost miraculously the depression lifts, you want to join in with one of the 80 rousing choruses he wrote for Hallelujah.

Cohen’s long quest to find the meaning and beauty in life, expressed so honestly in his work, has earned him the twinkle in his eye as well as the evident love of the women in his life and of his still growing legion of fans.

by Bernadette McNulty for The Telegraph

“Crying and laughing about it all” (The Spectator)

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

For many biographers of popular musicians, the obvious problem is that the only interesting bit comes when your subjects are in their brief creative pomp. For Sylvie Simmons, the situation is rather different — and not just because Leonard Cohen has been somewhere near his pomp for nearly 50 years. The real trouble is that every other aspect of his life is fascinating too.

To do the man justice, you first need to know about the wealthier parts of Jewish Montreal in the 1930s, where the new-born Cohen arrived home from hospital in a chauffeur-driven car. There’s also the fact that he didn’t become a working musician until he was 33, having first been a respected poet and novelist, who smoked French cigarettes with the best of them, among the artists and drifters of two continents. Along the way, his unashamed interest in spirituality has led from synagogue to Scientology, bohemianism to Buddhism — often at the same time.

And then of course, there’s all his women. No wonder that at one point Simmons somewhat exasperatedly quotes Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: ‘A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousands.’

Happily, Simmons — a music journalist of impeccable pedigree — triumphantly rises to all challenges. Certainly, the depth of her research can’t be faulted. She seems to have spoken to almost everybody who’s ever met Cohen, as well as to the man himself — and in one typical passage tells us not merely the name of his boyhood dog (Tinkie) but the name’s history. (‘His mother had originally given it the more dignified name of Tovarich, the Russian word for “ally”, but it was vetoed by his father’). Yet, like all her facts, even that one is there for a reason: in this case, to illustrate how Nathan Cohen, from a long established family of Canadian Jews, was slightly embarrassed by his immigrant wife’s Russianness.

Having got his own way on canine nomenclature, Nathan died in 1944, leaving nine-year-old Leonard and his older sister to be brought up by assorted female servants and their mother Masha, remembered even by her rabbi as ‘very Jewish’. According to Simmons, it was this background that created Cohen’s lifelong desire to be ‘nurtured by women’ — which is one way of putting it. From what we read here, among the very few who ever turned him down were Nico, who stuck to her policy of only nurturing younger men, and, perhaps surprisingly, the Suzanne about whom he wrote his first famous song. Otherwise, the list of his lovers is hard to beat for either quantity or, as the pictures in the book clearly demonstrate, quality.

Some, like Marianne Ihlen, were commemorated in songs, often of farewell. Others were famous in their own right, like Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin in the 1960s and Rebecca de Mornay, 30 years his junior, in the 1990s. Still others, who passed by more quickly, are summarised by Simmons in a neat phrase or two — including ‘the lovely homeless artist who, he found, shared his fascination with St Catherine Tekakwitha’.

But if Cohen may seem to have led a gilded life, it famously hasn’t been a cheerful one. In fact, the nearest the book comes to a single theory is that his long-standing depression was, as he puts it himself, ‘the engine of most of my investigation into the various things I looked into: wine, women, song, religion’.

And, if anybody needs further proof that depression can be unrelated to life circumstances, there’s what happened when Cohen’s finally lifted. In the late 1990s, he returned from an austere five years in a Buddhist monastery — with the odd break for The Jerry Springer Show and the occasional Buddhist nun — and a trip to India as a happy man. (‘He was fully aware of the novelty,’ notes Simmons.)

Not long afterwards, he discovered that his trusted manager had stolen all his money. Persuaded that the best way to earn it back was to go on tour, he got a band together and, in his mid-seventies, knocked them dead from Caesars Palace to Glastonbury. Not only that, but he thoroughly enjoyed himself. The book ends in a blizzard of awards, critical acclaim and inductions into any numbers of Halls of Fame.

By the end of I’m Your Man, Cohen may still come across as pretty mysterious, but that only goes to show Simmons has done her job properly. Meanwhile, the individual elements of the mystery have been calmly unpicked and chronicled in unfailingly lively prose, with a journalist’s relish for the memorable set-piece and a tone that blends obvious affection with a bracing touch of scepticism when required. It’s possible, I suppose, to imagine a less kindly biography of Leonard Cohen — but not, I think, a fairer or a better one.

by James Walton for The Spectator