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

“Crazy For Love” (New York Times Sunday Book Review)

Friday, October 12th, 2012

He is poet and prophet, Buddhist bard “born in a suit,” a wandering Jew ever searching. A man of many generations, Leonard Cohen is still debonair, “looking like a Rat Pack rabbi.” His languorous voice grows deeper year by year as he gets us on his wavelength with recurring themes of love, religion, sex and loss.

Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Montreal in 1934, into an upper-middle-class Jewish family. His mother was the daughter of a Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Solomon Klonitzki-Kline, his paternal grandfather, Lyon Cohen, a leader of the Canadian Jewish community. Nathan Cohen, his father, worked in the clothing business and died when his son was 9 years old. Cohen has talked about having had a “messianic” childhood and the strong sense that he was going to do something special, that he would “grow into manhood leading other men.” He was also “well aware that he was a ­Kohen, one of a priestly caste.”

A poet in the 1950s who wrote “Let Us Compare Mythologies” (1956) and a novelist in the 1960s with “The Favorite Game” (1963) and “Beautiful Losers” (1966), Cohen became disappointed with his lack of financial success and moved to the United States to pursue a career as a singer-­songwriter. His first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” was released in 1967 and now, 45 years later, Cohen has put out “Old Ideas,” his 12th studio album, while embarking on a tour that will spin him in circles around Europe and North America.

In 1969 he told The New York Times: “There is no difference between a poem and a song. Some were songs first and some were poems first and some were simultaneous. All of my writing has guitars behind it, even the novels.”

In taking on this artful dodger, Sylvie Simmons, a well-known British rock journalist and the author of biographies of Neil Young and Serge Gainsbourg, bumps up against the inherent difficulty of telling the story of a storyteller. “I’m Your Man” demonstrates that it’s hard to write about a writer whose work is so language- and phrase-specific, so intimate and distant at the same time, perpetually engaged in the dance of seduction.

One reads Simmons’s hefty volume longing for a bit more historical context or counterpoint; Cohen came of age against the backdrop of World War II, the growing sexual revolution, the advent of LSD, and so forth. But once one realizes it is unrealistic to expect the biographer to write with the same gift of voice and precision as the artist, there comes great joy. There is a familiarity to much of Simmons’s material, the sense of being on the inside, as though the reader were sitting at the table during the conversations Simmons reports, and the overall experience is of a thoughtful celebration of the artist’s life.

And, it turns out, she tells us an enormous amount that even I, a Cohen aficionado, didn’t know, including exactly how Jewish Cohen’s upbringing was — he was steeped in Judaism — and that his religious exploration included a brief period as a Scientologist. This detail illuminates the line in Cohen’s song “Famous Blue Rain Coat,” “Did you ever go clear?,” an explicit reference to Scientology that until now was always opaque to me.

It was in London in 1960 that Cohen heard about Hydra, a small Greek island, sunny, warm, a colony of writers, artists and thinkers from around the world. With his inheritance from his grandmother, Cohen bought a house there for $1,500 and began a long relationship with a now celebrated woman called Marianne (Ihlen), not to be confused with the slightly more celebrated muse Suzanne (Verdal), whom he didn’t actually bed — or the second Suzanne (Elrod), the mother of Cohen’s two children, Adam and Lorca.

In the mid-1960s in New York, Cohen met Judy Collins and played her a few songs. She immediately recorded “Dress Rehearsal Rag” and “Suzanne,” and released them on “In My Life” in 1966. A short but fruitful relationship with Joni Mitchell is echoed in Mitchell’s classic songs “Chelsea Morning” and “Rainy Night House,” the second of which makes reference to Mitchell spending the night in Cohen’s mother’s house. Listening to the song again with the knowledge of their relationship adds a newfound resonance. Simmons’s illuminations of Cohen’s artistic cross-pollination give the reader the experience of dipping into cultural ephemera — the kind of extended liner notes that all fans love.

Women play a huge role in Cohen’s life — his need for female affection, along with his difficulty in remaining involved, is the stuff of legend. The biography features some brilliant passages on marriage, Buddhism, therapy and Cohen’s book “Death of a Ladies Man” (1978). In later years, Cohen has frequently quoted a line from his poem “Titles,” which was part of a collection, “Book of Longing”: “My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke / that caused me to laugh bitterly / through the ten thousand nights / I spent alone.” In the mid-1990s a Swedish interviewer asked Cohen about love. “I had wonderful love, but I did not give back wonderful love,” he said. “I was unable to reply to their love. Because I was obsessed with some fictional sense of separation, I couldn’t touch the thing that was offered me, and it was offered me everywhere.”

Other surprises: Cohen’s decision to add stops at mental hospitals to his 1970 European tour, akin to what Johnny Cash did with prisons; and his persistent experience of war. Cohen was in Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, and in 1973 he traveled to Jerusalem to sign up on the Israeli side in the Yom Kippur War. He was assigned to a U.S.O.-style entertainer tour in the Sinai Desert and performed for the troops up to eight times a day.

In 1993, Cohen retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles and in 1996, three years into his stay, he was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk, taking the Dharma name Jikan, meaning a kind of silence. Cohen spent five years at Mt. Baldy, most of it working as the assistant and chauffeur to the Zen master Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

By 2004 Cohen had come down from the mountain and was living in Montreal when, Simmons tells us, he discovered that while he was gone, Kelley Lynch, his business manager and friend, had stolen almost all of his money. Cohen ultimately got a judgment against Lynch, but most of the money could not be recovered. He was broke and forced back on the road, only to find that his fan base had continued to grow and that he’d gone from being a cult hero to an icon, especially in the United States, where there are now multiple generations of Leonard Cohen fans. With his children grown and with children of their own (Cohen became a grandfather for the second time in 2011, when his daughter, Lorca, had a child with the singer ­Rufus Wainwright), it seems that Cohen is ­finally able to allow the love in.

Simmons has deftly narrated Cohen’s evolution, bringing the past into the present and reminding us of the breadth of the journey. “I’m Your Man” is an exhaustive biography, an illumination of an artist who has repeatedly said he’s not much of a self-examiner. Among the book’s side effects is that it sends you back to the source material; as you’re reading, you find yourself craving Cohen’s music in the background. In her interview excerpts, Simmons captures the elliptical nature of ­Cohen’s speech, the wry turns of phrase that are almost like stand-up comedy. Behind it all are a smirk and a wink; you know that Cohen knows how absurd it all is.

And in the end, this biography has the oddest effect: as soon as you finish reading it you feel an overwhelming impulse to go back and begin again, revisiting the story with what you’ve learned along the way. As Leonard Cohen sings in “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

By A.M. Holmes for the New York Times Sunday Book Review

Inside Leonard Cohen’s Fantastic Voyage (Rolling Stone)

Monday, October 1st, 2012

In my secret life (MOJO)

Friday, September 21st, 2012

Searching The Soul of a Soulful Singer (New York Times)

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

Writing about a living subject, Sylvie Simmons says, means having “to immerse yourself in that person’s life to a degree that would probably get you locked up in any decent society.” It can also mean abandoning all hope of objectivity. But despite her simpatico feel for the life and work of her subject, Ms. Simmons’s “I’m Your Man” is the major, soul-searching biography that Leonard Cohen deserves.

As recently as this January, when his“Old Ideas” album arrived, an idiotic news release described Mr. Cohen as “a spiritual guy with a poetical streak.” So even now, nearly 45 years after the release of his first record (“Songs of Leonard Cohen”) and a week before his 78th birthday, Mr. Cohen is not universally understood. Neither is the need for a biography as thorough as this one, perhaps — but Ms. Simmons doesn’t care, and neither will her readers. “I’m Your Man” is a mesmerizing labor of love.

She may be a fan, very conversant with the most devoted of her subject’s fan sites. But she is no pushover. Ms. Simmons, a seasoned rock journalist whose warm-up to writing about Mr. Cohen was a book about that other grand lady-killer, Serge Gainsbourg, is careful to incorporate the many facets of Mr. Cohen’s complicated story.

“Darling, I was born in a suit,” he tells her, alluding to his prosperous, scholarly Montreal family with garment-business connections. He showed early talent as a hypnotist; obviously, it has never left him.

In his teens he was a plumpish fraternity president and cheerleader who played in a country and western trio. “A square-dance band?” Ms. Simmons inquires, in one of their conversational volleys that she injects throughout the book. “What possessed you?” Well, he seems to have enjoyed playing “Turkey in the Straw.”

Mr. Cohen was a man of letters, both poet and novelist, long before he set words to music. His fellow CanadianMichael Ondaatje was one early, attentive critic of his work. “The gospels diverge on exactly when and where Leonard decided to become a singer-songwriter,” Ms. Simmons writes, but she credits Judy Collins, in her early days as “an aristocrat of the Greenwich Village scene,” as the person most responsible for paving his way to a musical career.

Ms. Collins, one of many trenchant interviewees, says she fell not for him but for his songs. (“That was enough trouble.”) She appreciates “the fact that a Jew from Canada can take the Bible to pieces and give the Catholics a run for their money on every story they ever thought they knew.”

“I’m Your Man” goes on to provide glimpses of a well-chosen few of Mr. Cohen’s relationships with women (that’s all, because this isn’t an encyclopedia); his search for spiritual enlightenment; the experiment in terror that was his collaboration with Phil Spector on “Death of a Ladies’ Man”; the extravagant drug and alcohol use that explains some of his stranger recordings; the financial scandal that robbed him of his savings; and his miraculous comeback — an unexpected fringe benefit of that larceny — as a septuagenarian live performer.

Best of all, there is the wild tale of how “Halleluljah” became his biggest hit, though it has been interpreted as everything from raw erotica to Christmas carol to elevator music, depending on who performs it and how much it is altered. There are so many twists to this story that a whole book about “Halleluljah” is due late this year.

Among those heard from in Ms. Simmons’s book are the women who have found near-mythic status as muses to Mr. Cohen. By far the most gracious is Marianne Ihlen, the Norwegian beauty who met Mr. Cohen on the Greek island of Hydra and lived with him in a simple, serene style he would come to romanticize. (A ravishing photograph of her, wearing a towel and sitting at a typewriter, appears on the back of Mr. Cohen’s second album, “Songs From a Room.”)

“I feel very lucky to have met Leonard at that time of my life,” says Ms. Ihlen, who met him early in the 1960s and heard him singing “So Long Marianne” well before they actually separated. “He taught me so much, and I hope I gave him a line or two.”

The unstated price of such access to Mr. Cohen’s friends and lovers is a degree of discretion on Ms. Simmons’s part. So when it comes to Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children, Adam and Lorca, the author sits back and lets Ms. Elrod do the damage. Fifteen years his junior, she met him at a Scientology class in 1969 — the same year he would meet Joshu Sasaki Roshi, his future Zen master. (Mr. Cohen’s searches for enlightenment have been many and varied; this, too, could be the subject of a separate book.)

Soon enough, Ms. Elrod would be on Hydra, redecorating. “I kept the authenticity of the house,” she says, speaking highly of “its Greek peasant simplicity.” When the two of them wound up in People magazine (really?) she complained that she felt very alone because “the proof of the poetry just wasn’t there.”

The other Suzanne — Suzanne Verdal, she of the tea and oranges that came all the way from China — is in these pages too. Ms. Simmons found her in Santa Monica, where she was at work on her autobiography and still espousing unhappiness about the song“Suzanne” and its fallout.

“Leonard the poet transformed the physical Suzanne into the metaphysical ‘Suzanne’ and made her an angel,” Ms. Simmons observes. “Leonard the magician sawed her down the middle, then put the two parts of her back together — the carnal and the spiritual — and made her more perfect than before. Leonard the composer made a hallowed melody of her, both implausibly intimate and ineffably spacious.” And none of those Leonards saw to it that she benefited from the song’s vast commercial success.

Mr. Cohen did not safeguard his own rights to “Suzanne,” either. A good deal of this book is about the minutiae of his professional life, and arguably some of that material belonged in an appendix. But Ms. Simmons is stubbornly detailed about unpublished and unreleased work, alternative lyrics, studio personnel, tour musicians, documentary footage and musical arrangements.

The arrangements matter because Mr. Cohen fought so long and hard to get them right, particularly on his first album. ”Leonard, poor guy, would be, ‘We don’t want the glockenspiel’ — because on every one of those tracks it sounded like two orchestras and a carousel,” one participant says.

Ms. Simmons is very generous about Mr. Cohen’s recent career. But she is hardly alone in feeling that way; in the words of a recent reviewer in The Independent, “at least the old smoothie’s going down swinging.” When he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010, Mr. Cohen managed to look younger than he had at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame event two years earlier. He claimed to have had “a sublime experience.” The old smoothie posed for a picture with his arm around Taylor Swift before moving on to the next of his overdue triumphs.

by Janet Maslin for The New York Times

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen Reviewed By Dr. Wesley Britton of

Monday, July 15th, 2013

I’m Your Man is not your typical music biography. In large part, that’s because the life and work of Leonard Cohen is far different from anyone else’s story and legacy.

In the beginning, the reclusive and introverted Canadian had literary designs to become a recognized poet and novelist. Learning he needed to spread his wings to earn an income from his art, he began writing songs at the age of 33. Songstress Judy Collins took note. Her version of “Suzanne” launched Cohen’s musical career which was never a smooth course thereafter.

As Sylvie Simmons traces in her own very literate biography, the enigmatic Cohen was rarely a fully satisfied composer or performer. In the recording studio, his very personal vision was often hard to capture due to his perfectionist standards and his continually revising his songs. Until his seventies, he didn’t like touring and rarely felt comfortable on stage. In his private life, he largely sought quiet refuge in rooms off the beaten track where he spent quiet time in simple settings where he could write, move from woman to woman, and wrestle with his artistic demons. While always embracing his Jewish heritage, his religious pursuits ultimately led to his becoming a Zen Buddhist monk with years spent in a remote monastery. As a result, many of his songs are considered virtual prayers, expressing the ethereal realm where the erotic and the spiritual meet.

What Simmons successfully brings together are all the private and public threads of Cohen’s odysseys. She not only presents the creative intentions of Cohen’s projects, their publishing and production historys, the commercial and critical responses to the books and albums, but adds her own insightful analysis of the lyrics and music. It’s surprising to learn that, while continually lionized in his home country of Canada and loved in Viagra Europe, Cohen only occasionally got any attention in the U.S. That is, until later in life when he began earning every award and tribute ever given a poet/songwriter.

Along with Cohen himself, Simmons had access to the deep archives of Cohen’s words and art and was able to interview some 100 participants in Cohen’s life, particularly the women who were so much a part of his work as muses and collaborators. The stories run the range of the time Phil Spector held a gun to Cohen’s neck in the studio to Cohen’s happy discovery of electronic synthesizers which allowed him to expand beyond his admittedly limited proficiency on the guitar. Cohen was a man seemingly never comfortable in his own skin, rarely happy with his own work, and always on the move to avoid romantic entrapments, even with lovers willing to give him space and the freedom to do his own thing. That was until a betrayal forced him to reinvigorate his live performances and quicken the pace of his recordings.

So I’m Your Man is one of those rare books, a truly definitive biography. Considering the longevity of Cohen’s career and the difficult to explain choices and complex personality of a conflicted artistic soul, Simmons goes well below the surface to unveil a man with many masks and an often seemingly contradictory metaphysical evolution. You need not be a Cohen fan to benefit from this book, only be a reader interested in the life of a consummate artist and what that means for anyone willing to immerse themselves so completely in their work. Odds are, American readers will find themselves seeking out the albums and books they missed when they were first released. If you are a Cohen fan, this is the mother lode.

by Dr. Wesley Britton of

‘A genre of one’: Leonard Cohen biographer weave strands into portrait of artist renewed (The Commercial Appeal)

Sunday, March 24th, 2013

As Leonard Cohen’s most able biographer, Sylvie Simmons’ opinion of the singer-songwriter doesn’t come as a great surprise. “To me he’s in the pantheon; he’s up there with the greats,” says Simmons, author of the recent study “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (Ecco).

by Bob Mehr for The Commercial Appeal

Old Ideas and New Generations: What Leonard Cohen Means to Us (PopMatters)

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Leonard Cohen endures and conquers. But does he mean something different to Millenial audiences than he did to their parents? Can the legend of Cohen escape its own clichés?

“You plagued me like the moon. I knew you were bound by old laws of suffering and obscurity. I am fearful of the cripple’s wisdom. A pair of crutches, a grotesque limp can ruin a stroll which I begin in a new suit, clean-shaven, whistling. I envied you the certainty that you would amount to nothing. I coveted the magic of torn clothes. I was jealous of the terrors I constructed for you but could not tremble before myself. I was never drunk enough, never poor enough, never rich enough. All this hurts, perhaps it hurts enough.”—Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers

“Darling,” says Leonard, “I was born in a suit.”- Leonard Cohen, as quoted in I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Once, a teacher of creative writing told the class in which I sat that we were not in the business of poetry. Nevertheless, he cheerfully wished any aspiring poets among us the best of luck… on the unemployment line. It was not exactly the most inspiring moment in my educational experience.

I can only speculate on the source of such an attitude; I imagine the teacher in question must have received ungodly amounts of ill-thought-out purple drivel from students who would attempt to justify their efforts as ‘poetic’, until eventually, reaction to the very idea becomes Pavlovian. Still, I can never quite do what I’m told; I dug out all the novels I could find which were written by poets, to see if there was anything to be learnt that I was obviously not going to be taught in class. It never does any harm to be reminded that some people have different priorities.

This is how I came to read Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen’s second (and, to date, last) novel, written before his musical career had even begun. A yellowed paperback edition sat for years on my father’s shelf before I finally picked it up, though I was often tempted to read it; it bore one of those wonderful, infuriating back-splashes that raves about what a incandescent, revolutionary religio-erotic masterpiece it is, without giving the prospective reader the slightest idea of what the book is actually about. In a letter to the editor of the novel’s Chinese edition, Cohen tactfully wrote that it was a book to be dipped into, on and off, and only “if you are sufficiently bored or unemployed, you may want to read it from cover to cover.” As it happened, I was both, so I did.

Superficially, it details the tangled interconnections between a hapless scholar obsessed with the Mohawk saint Catherine Tekakwitha, his doomed wife Edith, and their politically active, sexually depraved friend and nemesis, F. But space does not permit a full and proper description; to say that Beautiful Losers considers romance, friendship, sexuality, sainthood, magic, insanity, Canadian politics, 17th century Jesuits and the history of the Iroquois would still undersell its scope.

Some time before I read Beautiful Losers, I came to the conclusion that Cohen was our greatest living poet. It’s not a glib statement. And this book is, without a doubt, a poet’s novel. The only lines that do not sing are the ones busy being wilfully obscene. In some respects, it fails as a conventional novel—the meandering plot is hardly gripping—but like the best verse, it seems to shimmer with half-imagined meaning, encoded in layer upon layer. One thinks of the writer expelling a lifetime’s worth of style into the book, firing everything simultaneously, leaving his reserves spent. Yet Cohen, as we have since come to appreciate, was only getting warmed up.

I mention all this not just because Beautiful Losers is an underrated little sapphire of a book, but because it’s an apt illustration of how some versions of Cohen have endured, while others have been stuck away in the attic (or, for lack of a better metaphor, Canada) until the culture at large decides it needs them again. On the other hand, the culture always needs Cohen, whose voice belongs to eternity.

The old man’s visibility has been high for the past few years. In March of this year, he will embark on the second leg of his ‘Old Ideas World Tour’, while debate over his work has again been renewed by the dual publication of Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life and Work of Leonard Cohen and Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”. Simmons’ biography, elegantly written and praised by many critics as near-definitive, is is particularly admirable in its recognition of how understanding Cohen the singer requires an understanding of Cohen the poet, Cohen the novelist, and so on. Whether one can get to the bottom of Cohen the human being depends on how much faith you have in the idea of biography.

As excellent as Simmons’ book is, I wonder if studies like these represent an old way of looking at the old man. Today, it is conceivable that those sitting down to listen to Cohen’s music or read his books for the first time are doing what their parents and even grandparents once did a few decades before. Nevertheless, I suspect Cohen means something different to young audiences in 2013 than he did to those in 1989, or 1979, or 1969. What that is, I’m not so sure.

“I’m not interested in posterity, which is a paltry form of eternity. I want to see the headlines… I’m not interested in an insurance plan for my work.”
- Leonard Cohen, CBC interview, ‘Leonard Cohen Considers the Poetic Mind’, 1966

Interest in the story of Cohen has been energised ever since it became apparent the story was not yet over. In 2004, Cohen returned to global headlines when he emerged from his self-imposed exile at the Mt Baldly Zen Centre in California, where he had been living as Zen Buddhist monk for five years, and discovered Kelley Lynch, his erstwhile business manager, had emptied almost his entire savings. Most people expect singers to be ripped off via byzantine contracts and industry legalities, but the act of bald criminality perpetrated against Cohen shocked even the most jaded of us. No one needed it to be explained. A man nearing his dotage, who had lived hard and worked harder for longer than most of us have been alive, had been robbed of almost everything he had.

While Lynch was eventually convicted, Cohen’s money—over $10 million, by most estimates—could not be recovered. With no other options, Cohen went on tour again, something he had given up when he was in his 60s, “just a kid with a crazy dream”, as he put it. A few of us felt a little queasy about revelling in the spoils of an all-singing, all-touring Cohen who had been forced back on the road by thoroughly indecent circumstances; it took a little while to be convinced Cohen was enjoying the experience once again. But these were not tired old recitals. Cohen retained all his powers, and still had things to say. The subsequent adulation came from astonishment, not pity.

For fans of Cohen, it was a triumphant and unexpected return, but for others, it would have been the first time they had seen him, his charm and dignity and talent. For them, this was not a greying, modified version of the Canadian troubadour who had wandered into Greenwich Village like he owned the place and casually informed all the ‘60s folks that a new standard had been set. This was, and it bears repeating, something new for some people, and they should be envied for that. When Cohen is away, nobody does the job for him, and when he returns, we are reminded why. As Jeff Schwager wrote in his article,  “Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas” “There is no precedent in popular music for Leonard Cohen.” (PopMatters, 31 January 12)

Still, those experiencing Cohen for the first time do not come to his work innocent. They are lumbered with the preconceptions and outdated stereotypes of the generations before them (which, paradoxically, are the same generations who probably thrust his records into their offspring’s hands).

Prominent and unique in pop music, Cohen becomes part of the furniture in its history, despite the fact he never quit fit within its grand narratives. Music criticism and pop culture at large too often regarded him with a lazy shorthand written in reductive labels. You probably know the kind of thing: the Poet of Melancholy, the Dark Romantic, the Lothario of Despair… blah, blah and blah. The clichés then become jokes, usually bad ones about slitting your wrists in a bedsit. “I get put into the computer tagged with melancholy and despair,” Cohen once said. “And every time a journalist taps in my name, that description comes up on the screen.”

True, Cohen has spent a lifetime battling depression, and for a man who has tried almost every means available to escape psychological desolation—drugs, alcohol, sex, psychiatry and religion—it is both inspiring and reassuring that his most effective solution is, and always has been, his art. He once joked that he had mentioned his drinking problem to one of his backing singers. She responded: “That sounds serious. We better set it to music.” But the idiotic assumptions, bad jokes and tired clichés it attached him to are exactly the sort of thing a new generation of Cohen fans could well do without.  (Victims of depression generally don’t listen to music to make themselves feel more depressed. They listen to music to make them feel better. For an uncounted many, Cohen appears to have done that.)

We should bear in mind that Cohen, now in his late ‘70s, may not be around first-hand for yet another generation to discover; we’re probably the last who will have that honour (though I do have a fond vision of a 100-year-old Cohen, still besuited and still charming the ladies with a smile and bow). That’s as morbid as I’m prepared to get on that subject, but it should put a few things in perspective.

When confronting music that is not their own, the choice of each new generation usually comes down to this; do they want to repeat the experiences of the past, i.e., “My parents got Beatlemania, why the hell shouldn’t I?”, or to take something old and find a new way of appreciating it? Trying on the formative experiences of another era like fancy dress costumes is something almost everyone will enjoy at some point, but after a decade-plus of considering myself a Cohen devotee, I decided that he deserved more than to be another hand-me-down icon, another poster on the wall. He was bigger than that.

You could argue it’s a moot point: that Cohen is Cohen is Cohen, and that there could be nothing more tawdry and artificial than attempting to retrofit him and his work towards the purposes of each new kindergarten class that stumbles across him. When he called his last album ‘Old Ideas’, the symbolism was none too subtle. What old ideas? Love. Hate. Art. Sex. God. You know, all that kind of stuff. Stuff that doesn’t really go out of date. But the songs and poems of Cohen are something more than precious artifacts to be hand down ritualistically from father to son, mother to daughter, friend to lover; however much they remain the same, they will be used for different purposes. It’s up to us to figure out what those are.

“I don’t consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin.”—Leonard Cohen

So, how is Cohen perceived today? Can such a generalisation be drawn? If new audiences know him from his return to worldwide touring and records like ‘Old Ideas’, their next frame of reference is just as likely to be the blistering ‘80s comeback heralded by I’m Your Man (the album that justified the synthesizer) as it is the sepia-toned image of tea, oranges and ‘60s bohemianism that made him a star in the first place. And, inescapably, there is ‘Hallelujah’.

It’s difficult to define exactly how the song somehow took off in popular culture the way it has over the past decade (I refuse, categorically, to say it was because of Shrek). The Holy and the Broken, Alan Light’s new book on the song, reportedly does an insightful job of probing that question. Undoubtedly, it has defined Cohen, at least initially, in the minds of many. But like all songs that rise to that perilous height, it has become somewhat disconnected from it’s author, which is unfortunate.

Weirdly, it is almost unfashionable to say that no version of ‘Hallelujah’, and the message behind it, have been as complex and interesting as Cohen’s. Jeff Buckley’s version is lovely of course, but set the type for almost every cover to follow: one lonely, almost broken voice, articulating its own pain, standing against the darkness. Only Cohen’s version, with its vast, defiant chorus and orchestration, recognised that these themes of prayer, loss and struggle are shared by all of humanity, not just the singer. Plus, to be candid, with his rusted, honeyed voice full of wisdom and regret, Leonard just fucking sounds better.

If people look beyond his best-known composition, it depends on what they stumble across next. No matter where on the discography they approach next though, the appeal may lie in something they cannot quite recognise. Cohen, in manners and appearance if not attitude, is often described as ‘old world’. It’s a telling phrase, as the ‘old world’ referred to never really existed, except in the imagination of those who felt they were not part of it. Cohen’s work summons such a world (or worlds) – somewhere between Hydra in the sun, Paris in twilight and New York at midnight was always my best guess. A place of oceans, islands, towers and ruins. Others will imagine it differently.

Legends, inevitably, will colour perception. A drunken Phil Spector once pressed a gun into Cohen’s neck during a recording session and said that he loved him (Cohen’s response: “I hope you do, Phil”). He quelled a riot at the Isle of Wight Festival with a few softly-spoken, messianic words, and responded to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War by travelling to Israel, intending to join the army. There were two infamous affairs, captured in songs devoted to the women involved—‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’—and enough half-reported others to match Casanova’s memoirs. For some, this image is what they fall in love with. For others, it’s the window dressing.

No matter how we choose to see him, Cohen will not be what we want him to be. The reason the clichés don’t stick to him as easily as they stick to others (for example, I suspect Bono’s reputation as a tosspot of the first order won’t be going anywhere in the decades to come) is because he constantly refutes them. His voice does not belong to an age, but to the ages; each era will make use of Cohen, but will also find it impossible to shape him into something easy and convenient.

Arguably, if we’re considering Cohen’s merits in our glittering World of Tomorrow, the question should be who comes next; who picks up the reins? But countless artists were almost ruined by tag of being the ‘next Dylan’, so however flattering the comparison might be, no one should be manacled with the task of emulating in the future what Cohen has done for our past and present. Learning from him, on the other hand, is a different matter.

I will draw no firm conclusions. There’s no way of teaching a course in Applied Cohen. My hope is that when the millenial generation finally decides that Cohen’s songs belong to them as much as their parents, they find the old man more funny than depressing. Sometimes, it seems like Cohen’s apparent seriousness is used to justify how seriously his old school admirers take themselves. But it should not be a secret—Cohen is a very funny guy, and his humour reaches places that others generally cannot. If we let him, he can often be the one voice that shares a chuckle when we are trapped in the dark places.

I hope we take him as an example that artists can express themselves in all the ways that feel true to them. Popular culture may be more forgiving of multidisciplinary artists than it once was, but in an age where celebrity is conferred for a single viral Youtube sensation, the inclination to try anything and everything, and to keep doing so, has been overshadowed.

It may be a vain hope, but it would be nice if the mistakes of the past were not repeated, and his poetry was even half as well-known and celebrated as his music. This is mainly because I worry that ages without poetry don’t do well, and that this might be one of them. Cohen made significant steps to figuring out how to be a poet in the 20th century, a problem that naturally informs the question of how to be one in the 21st. Today, lot of young people—most of whom have been told that poetry is a ticket to the unemployment line—will be considering that problem, too. But then, must art be tied to commerce, to make the act of making art attractive?

Asking what Cohen ‘means’ to the youth of today is a question that really doesn’t have any single one. The experience of discovering your own belongs to you. To me, Cohen is the man with the spirituality that can move an atheist. He is a gentleman bearing the kind of dignity we should all hope for. He has, time and time again, performed the role of the poet, which is to articulate that which cannot be articulated any other way. And believe it or not, his music can be rather good for dancing, if you’re in the right mood, in the right place, and with the right person. Try it.

My last hope is that we take note of what Cohen has proven countless times: style is something you write for yourself. That is a lesson every generation can benefit from.

by Sean Bell for PopMatters

Review: ‘I’m Your Man’ a generous book about a generous musical legend (Charleston Post & Courier)

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

“Darling, I was born in a suit,” Leonard Cohen tells Sylvie Simmons, author of the delicious new biography, “I’m Your Man.

It’s a charming line from a child of wealthy Canadian garment manufacturers but also an instructive one. Based on the evidence of Simmons’ thorough research, Cohen managed to evolve as an artist and person without discarding bits of himself. The impeccable dresser sits side by side with the bohemian artist; the novelist and poet gets along well with the rock star; the Buddhist monk remains a Jew. With rare exceptions, he seems never to have lost a friend. Simmons is a Cohen fan, clearly. Her access to the man himself, his friends and his archive nourish a crisp, detailed book.

Leonard Cohen was 33 in the don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 ’60s, when his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” came out. Before that, he was a golden boy of Canadian letters, already the subject of a documentary film. Before he was a poet and novelist, he was a BMOC at McGill University (president of his fraternity and the debate team) and beloved son of a prominent family that included rabbis and Talmudic scholars. He eased into the music business by singing an occasional song at poetry readings. Eventually, Judy Collins, “an aristocrat of the Greenwich Village scene,” heard and recorded his song, “Suzanne.” Soon Cohen, or his song anyway, was everywhere.

Simmons winds her way among the settings and characters of Cohen’s long and mobile career, not least tracking down his many loves.

Although the Beats thought his poetry too formal, they still hung out with him on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s. He was at the Chelsea Hotel when it counted and was a sometime visitor to Andy Warhol’s Factory. Less expectedly, he was also in Cuba for the Bay of Pigs and tried to enlist in the Israeli army during the Yom Kippur War.

Fans are well-aware of Cohen’s retreat to a Mount Baldy Zen monastery in California, where he was ordained as a monk in 1996. Few know of his brief involvement with Scientology in the late 1960s.

Cohen, the consummate survivor, came out of seclusion in the 21st century, when his business manager stole a huge sum: between $10 million and $13 million. The loss sent him on the road.

Looking like a “Rat Pack rabbi,” Cohen recouped his lost savings and then some in a series of sold-out world tours that brought his music to a fresh and age-diverse audience.

Cohen always has written songs of spiritual faith, and Simmons makes a convincing case that he has also kept faith with himself. She supports the almost unanimous consensus of more than 100 interviewees that Cohen is a kind, thoughtful man.

The same adjectives keep cropping up: gentlemanly, honorable, impeccable, generous. With his haunting sadness, excesses of love, Cohen offers himself and his songs: “Here I stand, I’m your man.”

by Catherine Holmes for Charleston Post & Courier

Unmediated: Alan Light and Sylvie Simmons Converse on the Unlikely Yet Enduring Iconhood of Leonard Cohen… (Daily Swarm)

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Unmediated is a new feature here at The Daily Swarm where we take two fascinating eminences in the music world who share something in common, and then force them to communicate via the magic of social media. True to the title, this conversation is unmediated by the presence of a journalistic moderator, and is allowed to veer unmoored into topics however esoteric, disparate, and over extensive as the subjects care to be.

For the inaugural column, we’ve chosen two figures bound together by destiny – both acclaimed authors who have chosen the same unique and individual subject, and approached him with distinctly different strategies. Sylvie Simmons is one of the U.K.’s most cherished voices in music writing, from her sprawling, intensive features in MOJO to books like the first-ever book on Mötley Crüe (sorry, Neil) to her gripping biography of Serge Gainsbourg. Nothing previous in Simmons’ career, however, prepared for the masterwork she published in late 2012. Now based in San Francisco, Simmons spent many years crafting I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohenone of the most trenchant music biographies you’ll ever read. In it, Simmons details the rise, fall, and rise of one of rock’s most enduringly iconic songwriters, scissoring through his infamous mythologies with incredible research and insights.

Strangely, in the same year as Simmons put out her tome, Alan Light, a revered veteran of American music journalism, put out his own take on the Leonard Cohen legend – but from a decidedly different tack. In The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah, Light drew upon critical and investigative skills he’d honed during his stints as the top editor of Vibe and SPIN and an illustrious stint at Rolling Stone to explore the impact of just one song: Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In this idiosyncratically specific exegesis, Light draws out compellingly what transformed this once-unheralded song into perhaps the most ubiquitous standard of recent times, from Cohen’s original to versions alternately rendered by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Bon Jovi, and seemingly every contestant on singing-competition shows. In the process, it becomes an essential view into not just Cohen’s composition, but the various forces of culture, pop and otherwise, that rocketed this song into the collective consciousness in slow motion.

Taken together, these two books become indispensably complementary; reading both of them one after the other, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve finally pieced together the elusive soul of Leonard Cohen’s unlikely ascent into posterity. So, naturally, we wanted to see what happened when we put these authorities together in unloosed conversation via Facebook’s chat function. The oh-so-lightly edited results follow:


Sylvie Simmons: Hello from rainy San Francisco. It’s been weeks since I saw you at that event at Housing Works that you hosted. I was just thinking of that the other day, and Suzanne Vega’s story about Leonard’s hypnotism skills.

Alan Light: Yes, that was a good story – that, and the way that he was able to conjure women in bikinis while reading to her poolside in L.A.

Sylvie Simmons: Just by the sound of his voice, they rose from their sunbeds like Lazarus and walked towards him

Alan Light: It’s always funny for me to hear the “Leonard-as-Lothario” stories since, as you know, my dad was a classmate of Leonard’s in college at McGill University, so I always have that feeling of “Oh, come on – I know what a Jewish Montrealer of that age is really like.”

Sylvie Simmons: Aha. So, as a public service to women who write Leonard Cohen biographies and therefore get to spend time in Montreal, are you going to reveal what that is?

Alan Light: Well, I love my father very much, but it’s hard to envision him in the tormented, Hamlet-like persona we have sometimes heard from Leonard Cohen. The great thing is that my dad is kind of obsessed with his summer camp experience, and the one thing he always wanted to know was which camp Leonard went to – which you answered in your book. In a footnote, you also included that Leonard actually went to my dad’s camp one summer and was bored stiff there!

Sylvie Simmons: The summer camp stories were a delight to me, too. Leonard actually enjoyed summer camp – it was his best friend Mort Rosengarten who found it boring, and still, all these decades on, seemed to resent that Leonard’s mother let him go to a more adventurous camp. These things are very exotic for someone from England, where summer camp was where you went with your parents, not to get away from them.

Alan Light: I loved reading that kind of stuff in your book. You think of Dylan’s quote to the effect of, if you’re really a poet, a poet isn’t someone who takes out the garbage, or goes to the grocery store, or whatever his words were. Still, it’s good to see the regular side of Cohen’s experiences – economically privileged though they were – before the words and music took over. When you’re with Leonard, are you aware of his different personae (the lady killer, the tortured poet), or do you think we have a confused sense of all that?

Sylvie Simmons: Something that kept coming up during the year I spent researching my book was the word “mask.” Just before he went on his first-ever tour, he asked Mort, who was a sculptor, to make him a mask to wear onstage – a mask of himself. Lots going on there… When you’re with him offstage, the person you see is pretty much as you’ll have seen him onstage during these last two tours. He wears a suit, he’s gracious and generous, and there’s a twinkle in his eye. He’ll even dance for you. Have met him over the years as a journalist? Did you meet with him at all for your book?

Alan Light: I have only met Leonard briefly once, and spoken to him on the phone once – nothing extensive. I assumed that he wouldn’t talk to me for my book, but I wanted to get his blessing and support – which, via his manager, he quickly gave. In the end, I didn’t really think it was that crucial that I speak to him. Given the aura around “Hallelujah” at this point, even if he told me “I thought of that line while brushing my teeth,” how would it really add to the legacy? It seems like his stories about writing “Hallelujah” kind of settled into a few set pieces – how long it took, how tortured he was; that seems to be what he has to say. As to the afterlife popularity/phenomenon of the song, my sense is that he’s kind of bemused by it, and really looks at it as something that doesn’t have much to do with him. Does that seem right to you?

Sylvie Simmons: Absolutely. He said doesn’t like talking about individual songs in any depth, anyway; it messes with the magic. I’d interviewed Leonard on the phone in the past – he’s one of those artists that gives good phone – and finally met him in London in 2001, when he was promoting Ten New Songs, his first album since coming down from the mountain. The interview ended up continuing over three days and with a couple of follow-up emails (you know those long MOJO pieces!). It was in one of them he told me his hero was Muhammad Ali – takes a lickin’, keeps on tickin’. Alan Light: Ah, for the days of the three-day interviews The more I thought about it, the more I felt that even if he was someone who actually did interviews, I would still understand if he didn’t want to talk about this. But it was such a fun story to tell – yes, fun, and never fully turned into the torture of, y’know, writing a book – because it wasn’t really a creation story at all. I felt that it was a book that didn’t have to go on to the “Making Of/Classic Album” shelf because the story really is what happened 10, 15, 20 years later.

Sylvie Simmons: It’s a wonderful story. When I was writing my book and got to the part on “Hallelujah,” I realized that the story of the song had a life of its own – I found I was writing page upon page about it. I had to cut it down, but it’s still a lengthy passage. I was so pleased when our mutual agent told us you were writing a whole book about it.

Alan Light: Ha! And of course, when I got your book, I breathlessly went to the index to see how much of the “Hallelujah” story you got into. I was curious, though – given that, as I mentioned, it seems like when Leonard has spoken about the song, he kind of falls into similar stories, was it a challenge to get him to break from familiar patterns and accounts? Or because he speaks so infrequently, did it feel like he was telling you things that were fresh?

Sylvie Simmons: I know what you mean. Which is why, before I interviewed Leonard for the book, I interviewed more than a hundred other people, from every strand of his life – his rabbis and fellow monks, musicians and producers, editors, lovers, etc. – and did the usual due diligence in checking their stories. At the very end, armed with all this information, I had not just a good idea of his life, but of what it was specifically that I needed from my conversations with him. I remember these occasions where I’d be sitting with him in his kitchen, Leonard at the stove cooking rustling up something or other to eat (he seemed determined not to let his biographer die of starvation on his watch) where I’d feel like Detective Simmons: “What were you doing on the night of April 1st 1968?” And when he’d come up with a reply, I’d be like, “Now, now, I have evidence you were in Studio B at Columbia, recording a song that was then titled “Come On, Marianne,” and so on So it was a very different experience from a journalist interview with him, where your requirements are somewhat different.

Alan Light: I absolutely get that – I mean, the guy is 78 years old and has been a public figure since the early ’60s (or, per my dad, at least a semi-public figure since his days as a folksinger and president of his fraternity in college ). It’s understandable if he has ways that he recalls his history. It reminds me of how I approached my work on Gregg Allman’s memoir last year: the more targeted and specific I could come to a session, the better the results. One really amazing thing about talking to all these different people who sang “Hallelujah” was how much thought every single one of them had given their performance. You expect a certain level from Bono or Rufus Wainwright or whoever, but even the “American Idol”/“X Factor” singers had strong ideas about the song that they were eager to discuss; it really felt like not one person approached it blithely or casually. Sylvie Simmons: That’s really interesting, that no one at all approached Leonard’s song casually. That’s something that extends beyond his work and into the person. I noticed that several people I’d speak to, who’d worked closely or spent time with Leonard for long periods, would adopt a tone of voice and a certain phraseology when talking about him.

Alan Light: It was really striking, actually. As you say, those around him certainly take him and his work very seriously, but I really did find that everyone who tackled the song, no matter what the context, had a strong sense that they were diving into waters that were deep and significant. Adam Sandler notwithstanding. So, did you do all your own fact checking on that kind of precision date/studio/etc. stuff? One great thing we did with the Gregg Allman book was to hire the very lovely guy who runs the Allman Brothers fanzine to look over all of that stuff; that way, we could really finesse it into accuracy without having to tear it all up at the very end.

Sylvie Simmons: I did most of the research and fact-checking myself, but – and something similar happened when I wrote my book on Serge Gainsbourg – along the way you acquire a kind of unofficial team of experts who offer their services.

Alan Light: It’s admirable of you. Maybe I’m hypersensitive to it since I started my career as a fact checker, but keeping the dates and details straight of however many dozen versions of “Hallelujah” I had to deal with, there’s no way could I have gotten it right without some assistance. So, I have to ask, since everyone asks me: Why do you think that of all the great Leonard songs, “Hallelujah” is the one that connected the way that it has?

Sylvie Simmons: Ah, see, it’s much easier when you write a comprehensive biography. They just ask you, “Why Leonard Cohen?” And the follow-up question, post-Petraeus, is “Did you…?” After I hit reply with this, I’ll answer your “Hallelujah” question as briefly as I can manage on a rainy afternoon…

Alan Light: “Post-Petraeus”: nice reference!

Sylvie Simmons: So, what made “Hallelujah” work? The one-word chorus certainly helped, particularly when that word automatically promotes an instant and often deep response in a great many people. For many, it’s an all-purpose ecumenical hymn, yet one with so many interpretations.

Alan Light: Fair enough. My two quick answers: that chorus and its sense of powerful but non-specific spirituality obviously feed a great hunger in people’s lives. And then there’s the great strength in Leonard’s writing that no one ever talks about: melody. That irresistible and elemental combination of notes connects with listeners well before the complicated imagery of the verses. It’s so easy to get hung up on words when you’re talking about this guy, but melody is how everyone first responds to any song. You will appreciate that the solo instrumental version by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro was the “Hallelujah” I probably returned to most often, if only to clear my head and remember what was most important here…

Sylvie Simmons: Ah, Jake – the man who has ruined it for us mortals who also play ukulele. The Jeff Buckley version was always my favorite; I’ve upset a few Leonard Cohen fans by saying that I prefer his version to the original. Buckley understood the strength of the melody. He sang it like he was in cathedral. Anyways, you’re right that music critics tend to focus more on Leonard’s words than on his melodies – being in the word business, that’s one of the hazards; also Leonard having been a published poet before he moved into music, his words do invite closer-than-average attention. It was interesting, in talking to Leonard, that he seemed to feel there was no difference between word and song. When he first read Lorca’s poetry at age fifteen, for example, what went through his mind was the music of the synagogue. Of course I did talk about his melodies in the biography, and that space in the melodies that seems to give other singers permission to sing them.

Alan Light: Of course you did, because you know what matters.

Sylvie Simmons: I forgot to mention that one of the great unexpected delights of writing this book was discovering that Leonard, as a child, had been a ukulele player. Over to you for the last word on the greatest unexpected delight from writing your book.

Alan Light: Oh, you must have exploded when you heard that he played your instrument! As for the greatest pleasure, without question it was talking to the real people, the civilians, who have used “Hallelujah” in weddings/funerals/religious services – who have turned to this song at the most critical and memorable moments in their lives. It’s easy for the likes of you and me to get cynical and feel like music doesn’t mean what it used to – that it’s gotten so commodified and isn’t really important anymore. But then you hear what this one song really means to people and how they needed it at these times, and you remember that music still does something that nothing else in our culture can do: when you need a feeling, a certain emotion for a certain event, a song can deliver things that nothing else can. It’s really and truly gratifying to see that, after all the years we have put into thinking and talking and worrying and rejoicing about this nonsense.

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

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

“I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (Jewish Book Council)

Friday, January 11th, 2013

Now seventy-eight and still recording and touring, singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen was born in 1934 into a prosperous family that was at the very heart of the Montreal Jewish community. By the time he was ten, Leonard’s father had died. At the age of thirteen he was already spending his evenings in clubs and cafes. At fifteen he discovered the magic of poetry and purchased a guitar. After some initial lessons, he played that guitar obsessively, not stopping until he felt he’d mastered a perfect rendition of a song, a method that also found its way into his writing. A published poet at twenty, Cohen rapidly became an established member of the Canadian literary community. Eventually, he started putting words and music together, slowly making his way toward becoming a Canadian national treasure. Leonard Cohen has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is also the recipient of Canada’s highest civilian honor, a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Living variously in New York City, the Greek island of Hydra, Los Angeles, and Montreal, among others, Cohen meandered through numerous professional incarnations, several serious relationships with women and a fascinating variety of spiritual adventures. Along the way, he fathered two children and accumulated, lost, and eventually partially recouped millions. He has always essentially remained a Jew, but his fascination with Catholicism has made its way into his writing and he is an ordained Buddhist monk who has enjoyed a longtime close relationship with his mentor, Roshi.

Leonard Cohen’s songs are iconic. Crossing national boundaries, they have been part of the soundtrack of our lives and yet most know little of the man who wrote them. This book goes a long way toward filling in the details. Author Sylvie Simmons compiled a vast amount of information and I’m Your Man is clearly a work of love. Evidently, so much so that she couldn’t bear to leave anything out. The book is fascinating, but so long and detailed that it sometimes feels more like a Ph.D. thesis than a biography. Don’t be intimidated. The more I read the more I wanted to read. It’s well worth the effort.

The Voice of the End of December: On Leonard Cohen’s Life and Music (Los Angeles Review of Books)

Monday, January 7th, 2013

BY 1967, IT HAD ALREADY BEEN 11 years since Leonard Cohen published his first volume of poetry. He had also written two novels, and was famous enough back in his hometown of Montreal for the Canadian National Film Board to produce a biography of him called Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. But when he appeared with Judy Collins at a concert in New York’s Central Park that summer, few in the audience knew much about him. Some knew that he wrote “Suzanne,” a stunning song Collins introduced to the world on her 1966 album In My Life. What almost no one knew was what Cohen himself actually sounded like, since he had yet to release an album.

This reviewer is often reticent to read biographies about artists, so it was something of a relief to find my misgivings about the genre shared by a biographer: Sylvie Simmons, who wrote the new one of Cohen, I’m Your Man. To write biography, she says, “particularly of someone still living, is to immerse yourself in that person’s life to a degree that would probably get you locked up in any decent society.” With political or historical figures, at least, there’s the argument for the public’s need to get the facts straight, but this doesn’t necessarily hold for artists or performers. My justification for reading I’m Your Man was that, if nothing else, Simmons’s book might set me straight on some details of that long ago evening in Central Park when we all first heard Leonard Cohen. That the book proved up to the task is a fair measure of how thorough a treatment of his career she’s written.

It turns out that the Cohen appearance in 1967 took place in July, at the Rheingold Festival, which I more innocently had remembered as the Pepsi Festival. Cohen was “terribly nervous,” according to Simmons, this being more or less only his third public appearance as a singer. The crowd would have naturally been quite familiar with Bob Dylan, so the idea of the folk singer/songwriter who didn’t necessarily have a conventionally “good” voice was not new to them. But to my memory, that night Cohen took the phenomenon to a new level.

For years, the contrast between his finely honed lyrics and rough voice constituted one of two striking polarities in his music; the other being his continual juxtaposition of the pursuit of wisdom and the pursuit of women. But as decades have rolled on, the former dichotomy has smoothed out some. His voice may well still be considered an acquired taste, but one perhaps more easily acquired. As it has deepened, you might say the voice and the music have grown together.

The quality of his lyrics, however, has not changed. As a record label head put it, “You finish listening to a song of Leonard’s and you know […] he didn’t let that song go until he’s finished with it.” Not so surprising, perhaps, in one who had been publishing poetry for a decade before he recorded music. And, with considerable success: his Selected Poems 1956–1968 sold 200,000 copies, Simmons reports. But still, virtually no one makes a living from their poetry, so Cohen, then living intermittently on the Greek island of Hydra, plucked a string from the lyre of the oldest Greek poet of them all, Homer, and added music to the act.

When Cohen surfaced as a singer, the “Canadian Bob Dylan” thing happened immediately. Of course, there were new Bob Dylans being discovered with some regularity at that point, but still, it does seem that if there’s a “Beatles or Rolling Stones” debate for the “singer/songwriter” generation, it would come down to Dylan or Cohen. By the time the 33-year-old Cohen first sang with Judy Collins, the then 25-year-old Bob Dylan had already recorded — in four years — the seven albums that made him the “Bob Dylan” to which everyone else would be compared. Cohen’s career has run quite a different course.

For many listeners of a certain age, i.e., those approaching Cohen’s age, “Suzanne” remains the highlight of his career, perhaps even the only song of his they could name. He wasn’t exactly the kind of musician you would hear regularly on commercial radio. His first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out at the end of 1967 and reached number 83 on the Billboard charts. Next year’s Songs from a Room did a bit better at number 63, but he would not match that sales level for over 40 years. He went 30 years without a studio album that even cracked the Top 200. When he improbably collaborated with “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector on his 1978 Death of a Ladies Man, he had reached the point where there were not that many people taking notice of how truly bizarre this match was. (Spector is currently in jail for murder, and Cohen does tell Simmons he recalls the presence of guns at the recording sessions.) The line from “Suzanne” — “He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone” — seemed to about sum up his relationship with the American public.

Such was not the situation everywhere, though. Not surprisingly, he’s always been more popular back home in Canada, but he was also much better known throughout northern Europe, Australia and most notably, the United Kingdom, where his second album went to number 2 on the charts. In the US, however, his stock sank so low that his label, Columbia, wouldn’t even release his 1984 album, Various Positions. Ironically that album, released by a small label in 1986, contained “Hallelujah,” a quintessential Leonard Cohen song about the ineffable — which at this particular moment might be the woman in the dark dress at the other end of the bar. In 2001, Rufus Wainwright sang it on the soundtrack of Shrek. Since apparently every American below a certain age has been compelled to see this film, the song has become Cohen’s mostly widely known, with over 300 cover versions. The song also happens to be brilliant — at least in this listener’s opinion.

The year Shrek came out, Cohen reached Billboard’s Top 200 Albums once again. When people started taking another look at him and what he’d been up to for all these years, it turned out that not only had he never gone away, but he had been turning out great songs all along. Just not very quickly: he has only released 12 studio albums (to Dylan’s 35).

Simmons does a solid job of walking the reader through both Cohen’s musical archive and his life story. The true fan looking for the Marianne of “So Long, Marianne,” who lived with Cohen on the island of Hydra and was pictured on the cover of his second album, will find her here. I’m Your Man may also straighten you out on your Suzannes: The mother of his children, Adam and Lorca, is Suzanne, but she’s not that Suzanne. (The Suzanne who fed him tea and oranges that came all the way from China lives near Santa Monica, by the way). Cohen got his blue raincoat during a stint living in London. And while this is nothing like a “tell-all” book, given Cohen’s recurrent themes, you can hardly blame Simmons for telling about some of the other women he’s kissed. (Joni Mitchell, yes; Nico, no — but not for lack of effort on his part; Suzanne of the song, no.)

The real news out of this book, though, is that Cohen may no longer be the sort of person you’d expect to find at a Leonard Cohen concert. For decades, he has been the voice of “four in the morning, the end of December.” Simmons calls his Live Songs “perhaps the most somber live album ever” — its liner notes include a letter to Cohen from a woman who killed herself in a mental institution. After Johnny Cash famously sang at Folsom Prison in 1968, Cohen’s band played mental institutions on their 1969 European tour — a lot of them, Simmons says. Cohen once told another writer he had “the feeling that the experience of a lot of people in mental hospitals would especially qualify them to be a receptive audience for my work.”

But that was then. If you’ve actually seen him on tour over the past several years, you’ve already witnessed the change. He regularly tells his audiences how, although he has spent considerable time pursuing the knowledge of various religions and philosophies, somehow “cheerfulness kept breaking through.” That pursuit had taken him in quite a different direction after his last tour in 1993, when he moved to a monastery on Mt. Baldy, about 50 miles from Los Angeles, and was actually ordained a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996. Death of a ladies man, indeed. He went to the mountain to spend more time with Roshi, a monk whom he’d come to consider his teacher, who was then nearing 90 years (Roshi is 105 years old today). But after five years, this too would pass, for as Roshi told him, “You can’t live in God’s world. There are no restaurants or toilets.”

So far as worldly matters went, though, the business end of the music business was never one of Cohen’s strengths. By the time “Suzanne” came out, he had somehow sold off the rights to it. In 2004 he learned that his manager had swindled him out of most everything he had. The swindle would ultimately send him back on the road to recoup his losses. In 2006, he finally published another book of poetry, Book of Longing, his first in 22 years. He even sang “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne” at a bookstore signing in Toronto, where 3,000 fans showed up. It would take a couple more years for his return to actual concert performances, starting very tentatively at a 700-seat theater after four months of rehearsals. His little winning streak has been going on for over four years now, to the point where it looks like the victory lap of a lifetime. We assume that the man who wrote the line, “There is a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in,” appreciates the irony. 
For the past five or so years, I have been pleased to be part of one of the more unusual byproducts of Cohen’s career: the Conspiracy of Beards, a 20–30 member all-male a cappella choir that sings only his songs (see page 348, I’m Your Man). After his return to the road, one of our people contacted his people and arrangements were made for us to sing in the lobby of the Oakland Paramount Theater before his three shows there in October 2010. The lobby was beautiful and all, but otherwise the gig wasn’t much; our potential audience were official Leonard Cohen Fan Club members who were granted early admission, the main benefit of which seemed to be first crack at the T-shirts for sale. The Webb sisters, his back-up singers, had to be pulled away from listening to us one night so they could get to another engagement, but unless he came in disguise, Leonard’s curiosity never got the better of him.

I would no doubt have stayed a disappointed man, if not for Simmons’s description of Cohen’s relatively contemplative mode of life on the road this time around. Where his band once went though an airport holding hands because they were all tripping and didn’t want anyone to get lost, now it’s led by an ordained Zen Buddhist monk who’s not likely to come on stage on a horse again or invite the entire audience back to his hotel either. So if Leonard should read this, I want him to know that I’ve let it go. And, by the way, if you haven’t seen him perform live: do it.

by Tom Gallagher for the Los Angeles Review of Books

Leonard Cohen is Your Man (Writer Working)

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

I feel cheated, and by my own self. Leonard Cohen was a major part of my life, and I didn’t even know he was there. Talk about clueless.

Born in Montreal, just a few years before I was, he was raised among the well-to-do Jews of that community. As an adolescent, he became a wanderer of the nighttime streets (a habit he never discarded), then (events overlapping) a poet. Not a particularly successful one at first, though he did become part of the beat community—to the extent there was one—in Montreal. He began singing and playing the guitar more or less by accident as recreation more than an art. In fact, he valued the music more for its ability to attract women than for anything else.  Start with this combination of poetic talent, a few accidents of circumstance, a lack of ability to settle into any occupation or stay with any single woman (he always had to seek another “muse.”), add drugs and wanderlust, combine them with genius, and you have one of the most remarkable men and remarkable careers in the history of the arts.

I’m Your Man is not only the story of an amazing life, but a beautifully written book more than worthy of its illustrious subject. Sylvie Simmons can write like this:

He… dissolved all boundaries between word and song, and between song and the truth, and the truth and himself, and his heart and its aching.

All the heavy labor, … the highs, the depths to which he had plummeted and all the women and deities, loving and wrathful, he had examined and worshipped, loved and abandoned, but never really lost, had been in the service of this. And here he was, seventy-six years old, still shipshape, still sharp at the edges, a workingman, ladies’ man, wise old monk, showman and trouper once again offering up himself and his songs: “Here I stand, I’m your man.”

And she does so over and over. She plainly loves her subject, but doesn’t blink at the uglies—the relentless womanizing, the various addictions, the continuous impulse to act against his own best interests. She’s conducted prodigious interviews, mined an Everest of material, but keeps the narrative moving through all the detail. She sees to the heart of it all, and we never lose sight of the man. Right in the middle of recounting some piece of backstory, she’ll fold in a paragraph or a page of an interview with Cohen, makes it so integrally part of the narrative that the switch from third to first person flows without making a bubble on the surface of the storytelling stream.

Leonard would later immortalize the horse in the song “Ballad of the Absent Mare.” …

“I was pretty much a bust as a cowboy [laughs] But I did have a rifle. During winter there, there were these icicles that formed on this slate cliff… and I’d stand in the doorway and shoot icicles for a lot of the time so I got quite good.”

And who is this man she’s talking to, and why do I feel cheated? Cohen is a contemporary of Bob Dylan’s, and I know quite a lot about Dylan and can quote a number of his lines and verses. He’s one of my icons. As far as I can tell, Cohen is a better poet, has certainly sustained his quality for longer. A better musician, too. Yet, the first I heard of him was when my Canadian son-in-law gave me a CD as a way of introducing me to some of Canadian culture the Christmas after he married my stepdaughter a few years back. I wish I could say I was immediately taken. The lyrics sounded interesting, but the rumbling, almost chanting voice put me off, dense fool that I was. Am. The book has inspired me to go back and listen again. Then download some more. I didn’t get it. I’m starting to.

And who else is this man?

One who’s written countless songs covered by countless artists of many styles: “Suzanne,” “Hallelujah,” “Bird on a wire,” “Ain’t no cure for love.” I never knew they were his. He’s also a man who lived his convictions, even as they changed. His records never sold in the U.S., popular though he was in Canada and Europe, so maybe I have a tiny excuse for my ignorance. Every time he started to experience some success as a celebrity (or as a “husband”) he walked away from it, found a bare room, and started writing again. He was, for example, nearing sixty, firmly moored in the middle of Hollywood with a gorgeous movie star fiancée, yet walked up the hill to a monastery on Mt. Baldy, where he spent years in meditation, producing almost nothing public, though he kept writing, encouraged by his favorite monk.

Then there was his money—millions by this time—stolen by someone he trusted. Trusted too much. So he had to go back to work, which he did as gladly as he had left it. Somehow he had found some happiness in his dark world. And celebrity came again. Even in America, where he was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame along with Chuck Berry. Two different souls? He didn’t see it that way.

“Roll over Beethoven and atell Tchaikovsky the news”: I’d like to write a line like that.

And that universality is just one of his grand secrets.

On the last page of  I’m Your Man, we leave Leonard in L.A., a successful man with two kids, grandkids, pushing 80, and working on his next album. Having no intention of retiring. I hope he waits for that long enough for me to catch up with him. I’m way behind.

by Carl R Brush for Writer Working

“True Originals: Biographies That Defy Expectations” (NPR Books)

Monday, December 17th, 2012

It’s probably not true that truth is stranger than fiction, but in the hands of a great biographer, it can be just as compelling. Novelists can create unique and unforgettable characters — there’s never been anyone quite like Jane Eyre or Ignatius J. Reilly — but there’s no shortage of fascinating literary protagonists who just happened to exist in real life.

This year brought us some brilliant biographies of world-famous leaders like Lyndon B. Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, but this list focuses on books that chronicle the lives of some true originals from many different walks of life. From a spy turned chef to the highest-ranking black military leader in European history, the subjects of these biographies spent most of their lives well off the beaten path and gained fame for their stubborn refusal to conform to other people’s expectations. You could say the same thing about the biographers. These books are written with extraordinary style and originality, by masters of the craft who can spin a tale as adroitly and memorably as any novelist out there.

I’m Your Man
The Life Of Leonard Cohen
by Sylvie Simmons
Hardcover, 570 pages

“Like a bird on the wire,” sings Leonard Cohen in one of his most famous songs, “like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free.” It’s a bit of an understatement. The legendary writer and musician has done everything his own way — Cohen began his career as an obscure, somewhat transgressive poet, and eventually became Canada’s greatest, most original singer-songwriter. In I’m Your Man, music journalist Sylvie Simmons does a wonderful job explaining how the scion of “one of the most prominent Jewish families in Montreal” became the world’s unofficial poet laureate of “survival … sex, God and depression.” It’s a startlingly effective biography — Simmons seems to understand her subject almost instinctively, and she shares his somber outlook tempered with a wry, but playful sense of humor. Cohen’s life wasn’t always easy, Simmons writes, but his darkest moments made him who he is now. Or as Cohen himself once sang: “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

 by Michael Schaub for NPR Books