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” (MSN Entertainment)

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Leonard Cohen already had a biography, a pretty decent one by rockbook standards. Published in 1996, in the middle of a prolonged monastic retreat that appeared to put an end to the 62-year-old’s public life, Vancouver English professor Ira B. Nadel’s Various Positions is strong on Cohen’s Jewish identification and poetic career if not so hip about the music that’s why the book happened. But in I’m Your Man Sylvie Simmons blows Nadel away. Up there with such recent competition as RJ Smith on James Brown and Chris Salewicz on Bob Marley, she’s constructed a hard-thinking music journalist’s book where Nadel’s is an openminded literary academic’s. Having interviewed damn near everybody where Nadel did very little such digging, the San Francisco-based Brit isn’t just much better than Nadel on Cohen’s many music-biz enablers – she’s better on his privileged youth in Jewish Montreal too.

Most important, she’s infinitely better on what she – ponder that pronoun: she – has the common sense to make thematic from her title on out: women. G-d knows how many of the holy creatures Cohen has bedded in his 78 years – hundreds for sure, including Joni Mitchell and once Janis Joplin, unnamed seekers in that monastery, and briefly manager Kelley Lynch, who eventually robbed him of something like 10 million dollars, thus rousing him to a level of public activity and prestige few performing artists of 78 have ever achieved. Even Nadel mentions a few liaisons Simmons doesn’t. But Simmons has gotten inside the major ones: the saintly Marianne Ihlen of “So Long Marianne” fame; hot-headed Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children and his common-law wife for 10 years (the only one who seems bitter, although he’s close to the kids, singer-songwriter Adam Cohen and Lorca Cohen, who has long lived downstairs in his Los Angeles duplex); distant Parisian photographer Dominique Isserman; May-December smart-beauty-with-a-dirty-mind Rebecca de Mornay; and his consort and collaborator for the first eight years of this century, Anjani Thomas.

OK, so we knew he’s been quite the ladies man. But by soliciting the memories and insights of the Ihlan-Elrod-de Mornay-Thomas succession (Isserman didn’t sit for an interview), Simmons portrays a man who was a remarkably intense serial monogamist no matter how much he got on the side – an adorer of women and a votary of beauty. No wonder, as Simmons reports, the fans at Cohen’s European concerts in the ’70s were three-quarters female. Yet she’s equally diligent tracing Cohen’s other non-artistic obsession: religious enlightenment. She details his devotion to the Jewish rituals passed down by his rabbi grandfather; fully describes the disciplines imposed by his now 105-year-old guru Roshi, who ordained him a Zen priest; devotes many pages to Cohen’s substantial and decisive post-ordination studies with a Hindu teacher in Mumbai; and respects his early fascinations with Catholicism and Scientology as well.

These twin obsessions, one carnal and one spiritual, are source and content of Cohen’s laboriously perfected, stubbornly prolific body of work, which Simmons doesn’t neglect to analyze and appreciate. I’d say she overrates such works as Beautiful Losers, Death of a Ladies’ Man, and Dear Heather. But that’s a privilege she’s earned. Though you’d never guess it from the awards showered on him -after all, he’s touring at 78, and a Canadian citizen to boot – Cohen isn’t Yeats or Lorca, and knowing the backstory of this lifelong depression fighter and belated superstar may not altogether allay your skepticism about his ultimate aesthetic import. But it will certainly induce you to understand where he’s coming from, and why.

by Robert Christgau for MSN Entertainment

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

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

[5 stars]

I have always loved Leonard Cohen’s music but I have never taken the time to look at where he comes from. What Sylvie Simmons presents us here is an outstanding Cohen biography. Simmons takes the reader back into Cohen’s ancestry but quickly brings the reader into Cohen’s early childhood and up to 2011, balancing detail with conciseness to give us a very well rounded biography.

Cohen has traveled a long and winding road in his personal, musical, and romantic paths from Canada to Hydra to Tennessee to the UK to New York and Los Angeles, from one love affair to the next, and his music as is this retelling of his story reflective of that.

Cohen is really a poet and musician, using the poetry as the framework for his songs and really his outlook on life. Simmons talks about most of his records and what was going on in his life at that time. Cohen’s music is deeply personal and reflective of were he’s at in his life, and Simmons’s biography reflects that in her relaying of the Cohen story.

Simmons does a good job of relaying both the good and the bad; this is a loving but not sugar-coated biography. I feel I have a much better understanding of Cohen and appreciate his music that much more.

by Marc Filippelli for City Book Reviews

“BOOK REVIEW: ‘I’m Your Man': Hallelujah! Richly Textured, Thoroughly Researched Biography of Leonard Cohen Shows His Many Talents — and Relationships” (Huntington News)

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Maybe the many fans of Canadian poet, singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, who turned 78 this past Sept. 21, should have a shout-out of praise for Kelley Lynch, his former manager, who stole millions of dollars from his retirement fund.

In the wake of the 2005 financial revelation, Cohen was forced to go on the road and tour, bringing to a new generation of fans the man who wrote such classic songs as “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire” and, of course, “Hallelujah”.

Sylvie Simmons brilliantly explores the many facets of the artist in “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers, glossy photo insert, index, notes, 576 pages, $27.99). Simmons has delivered the ultimate biography of a much honored poet and songwriter whose songs have been covered by dozens of artists to the point where even Cohen himself has called for a moratorium on the use of “Hallelujah.”

Masha Cohen, Leonard’s mother, warned him about people like Kelley Lynch who would take advantage of him when he left Montreal for New York in the 60s with his guitar, Simmons writes describing one of the oldest stories in show biz: “You be careful of those people down there,” Masha told Leonard. “They’re not like us.” It was a woman, his daughter (with Suzanne Elrod) Lorca, who brought the Kelley Lynch matter to his attention.

Leonard’s father died when he was nine, so it was Masha who educated him about the importance of women in his life: “My mother taught me well never to be cruel to women” Simmons quotes him from an unpublished memoir in the 1970s, adding that he also learned from Masha “to count on the devotion, support and nurturing of women and, if and when it became too intense, to have permission to leave — if not always completely, and rarely without conflicting emotions.”

Cohen was raised in upscale Westmount, an English speaking district of Montreal, which also had a sizable Jewish population. It was in sharp contrast to the gritty working class largely Jewish Saint-Urbain district of Montreal chronicled by Mordecai Richler in novels like “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.”

I was surprised at the diverse number of artists who worked with Cohen, including Phil Spector; Charlie Daniels, David Crosby and the man he’s most often compared with, Bob Dylan. In fact, John Hammond, the leading A&R man at America’s foremost record company, Columbia Records, who signed Dylan to a multi-album record contract, initially played the same role with Cohen.

I read “I’m Your Man” quickly, but it’s the kind of book you’ll want to go back and savor the “Various Positions” — to quote the title of one of his albums — of Leonard Cohen’s life and career. (“Hallelujah” was a song on that 1984 album). Simmons devotes a great deal of space in her book to Cohen’s Buddhism, which he practices along with his Judaism.

Since the late 1970s Cohen has been associated with Buddhist monk and teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, known as Roshi, regularly visiting him at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles County. Roshi is now 105 years old.

It goes without saying that Leonard Norman Cohen is also a man of complexities and seeming contradictions: a devout Jew, who is also a sophisticate and ladies’ man, as well as an ordained Buddhist monk whose name, Jikan—“ordinary silence”— belies his career as a writer and singer whose life has been anything but ordinary. Cohen’s 2001 album “Ten New Songs” is dedicated to Roshi.

And of course, there are the women in his life. By the way, the Suzanne of the song is not Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Lorca and Adam Cohen; it refers to Suzanne Verdal, whom he met in Montreal years before meeting Suzanne Elrod. Simmons deals with this complicated relationship on pages 124-130.

Simmons created her portrait of Cohen through a wealth of research that includes Cohen’s personal archives and more than a hundred exclusive interviews with those closest to Cohen—from his lovers, friends, monks, professors, rabbis and fellow musicians to his muses, including Rebecca De Mornay, Marianne Ihlen, Suzanne Elrod and Suzanne Verdal — and most important, with Cohen himself. It must have taken a lot of work on the author’s part to get such a private man to open up as he does in “I’m Your Man” — and readers should be glad she did!

by David M. Kinchen for Huntington News

“Rant ‘N’ Roll: Leonard Cohen Is My Man” (The Aquarian)

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Longtime music journalist Sylvie Simmons has achieved the highly improbable: Her new book, I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen (Ecco/HarperCollins) is such a tremendous artistic/literary success that it actually equals the art of her subject. Beautifully written, thoroughly researched, with the blessing and the intimate participation of Cohen himself, the poet comes vibrantly alive within these 576 pages. The reader understands him and lives in his skin. His art is opened up like the slitting of a fish. Her prose makes you want to run out and buy The Complete Studio Albums Collection box.

The journey starts in Montreal as Leonard is born into a well-to-do Jewish Montreal family, complete with chauffeur and nanny. When he was a kid, Leonard learned hypnotism and got the maid to expose her breasts. This nifty trick would help him later in life when he performed at The Isle Of Wight rock festival on an island off the coast of England. As mobs rioted and set fire to the stage during Jimi Hendrix’s set (he kept on playing), Leonard knew he was up next. Totally wasted on Mandrax (a super down), he wound up hypnotizing the crowd of over half a million into peaceful acceptance of his mellow music.

Leonard’s poetry was published in Canada in 1956; 44 poems he wrote as a teenager. He moves to London, lives on the cheap, meets people, travels to Israel and, upon inheriting money upon the death of his grandmother, buys a house on an island off the coast of Greece.

Always the seeker, he dabbles in Socialism and Scientology, writes two novels, the second of which profoundly effects Lou Reed whom he befriends in New York City. He moves into Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel and gets involved with Nico of The Velvet Underground, who resists his advances but becomes his muse. (Nico has no problems, though, taking a teenaged Jackson Browne to bed.)

So at 33, a decade older than his peers, he first becomes a singer-songwriter, signed to Columbia by the legendary John Hammond (who signed Dylan and Springsteen). His first two albums are moderately successful, then he can’t seem to sell any records in the States for years. Meanwhile, though, the rest of the world is falling in love with him. (It takes until the late ‘80s before he’s successful here.)

He romances Joni Mitchell. He gets produced by Phil Spector who holds a loaded gun to his neck. He hates to tour. He likens touring to “some parrot chained to his stand night after night.” He hates his own performances so much he wants to give audiences their money back. He invites audiences on stage with him or back to his hotel room. He considers wearing an elaborate mask for the stage and has one made but demurs. He enters one stage on a white horse and infuriates the audience so much a crazed man runs to the stage with a gun forcing Charlie Daniels to quit the band! He goes out into the crowd and starts wildly making out with a female audience member. Remember, in his mind, it’s not really him on that stage, just a reasonable facsimile thereof, that’s why he wanted to wear a mask in the first place.

So finally, universally beloved, engaged to a beautiful young Hollywood actress, at the age of 61, a time to finally revel in his accomplishments, he chucks it all and goes to live on Mount Baldy Zen Center in California with his spiritual master, Roshi, where he proceeds to become an ordained Buddhist Monk. He lives a hard life—this is no celebrity zen retreat—of waking up at ungodly hours, performing exacting physical labors, then chanting and praying and meditating for hours and hours on end in uncomfortable positions. He stays there for six long years, with brief moments of leaving, getting in his car, going to McDonald’s, going home to watch The Jerry Springer Show, yet returning for months and months of menial tasks, chanted meditation and serving Roshi. Then he, as a Zen Buddhist Monk, goes to India to live and study under another master, Ramesh S. Balsekar, and immerses himself in Hindu philosophy.

All the while, though, he had no idea his manager was robbing him blind. He loses his entire fortune, somewhere between 10 and 13 million dollars. This causes him to go on the road yet again, at 73, practically penniless, borrowing money for production costs and not knowing if he even still had an audience left. Nervous, scared, anticipatory and trepidatious, he hits the stage that very first time not knowing what to expect.

“The applause was deafening. It bounced off the walls of the small theater and resounded in Leonard’s ears. The whole room was on its feet. A minute ticked by, then another. Leonard had not sung a word and no one had played a note, but still they applauded. Leonard smiled shyly. He took off his hat and held it over his heart, in a gesture of humility, but also as armor.”

So begins his renaissance of universal love and acceptance, one that has yet to abate some six years later. As I type this, he’s still out on the road, having recovered his 13 million dollars and more, becoming, at 78 now, a song-and-dance man of the highest order.

The worst part of this book was that it had to come to an end.

by Mike Greenblatt for The Aquarian

BookLovers: Simmons pens definitive biography of rock poet Leonard Cohen

Saturday, October 13th, 2012

Sex, God and Depression.

This is the Holy Trinity of Leonard Cohen.

I’ve always had this image of Cohen as a holy man coming to his senses after a night of Greek bacchanalia.

Sylvie Simmons only confirmed my notion after I read her new biography, “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (2012).
You cannot write about Cohen, one of the great poet/singer/philosophers and Lotharios of our time, she says, without untangling these three topics:

Sex: Berlin, 1972. During a concert, Cohen “jumped into the crowd and kissed a young woman — a deep long, kiss. It just went on and on. It ended up with Leonard on the floor, and you wondered if they were going to start taking their clothes off,” a cohort of Cohen’s tells Simmons.
The next night in Frankfurt, the concert ended with “Leonard laying on the floor and people laying on top of him, writhing like a pile of worms. He just lost it. He got so sexually involved with the crowd that he took it to a whole new level,” the source told her.
But while other rock stars may have done something equally outrageous and felt no shame, Cohen — like the holy man stumbling
home after the party — told filmmaker Tony Palmer backstage solemnly: “I’ve disgraced myself.”

God: An ordained Buddhist monk, Cohen descends from a long line of rabbis in a well-to-do, prominent Jewish family in Montreal; he’s also a student of the Bible, grew up attending a Catholic church, chanted with the Hare Krishna, lived in a Buddhist monastery for five years in his ’60s, studied Hinduism with a guru in India.

Depression: Cohen’s father died when the boy was 9, and he grew up writing poetry, always with a sense of despondency and isolation. He’s publicly battled chronic depression for years, self-medicating in the past with everything from LSD to Ritalin to a European sedative called Mandrax, and later in life, legally, with dozens of doctor-prescribed drugs.
His songs are at times so dark and melancholic that, as Simmons recounts, a manager at a concert venue once told his doorman, “You better check the bathroom for razor blades, because this stuff is real depressing.”

Simmons, a rock journalist and biographer of Neil Young, has written the definitive biography of Leonard Cohen. She nails it. Solid 10.0. Sticks the landing.

I called her up recently and found her celebrating.

Simmons: You caught me in the middle of celebrating. Did you see that “I’m Your Man” just made the New York Times bestsellers list?

Daley: I did see that! Congratulations!

Simmons: I was going to make a drink, but I figured I better be sober for your interview.

Daley: (laughs) Well, thanks! Sorry I interrupted the drink, though.
Simmons: No, it’s OK, let’s talk. (laughs.)

Daley: (laughs) OK ¦ It seems to me that Cohen’s penchant for creativity and writing, along with the death of his father at age 9, and growing up during WWII, was the perfect storm for creating this sad, stoic poet.

Simmons: He’s one of those people who’s hard to pull apart — every strand of his DNA is a key part to figuring out who he is. It’s very important to him that he came from a Jewish family of importance ¦ His mother’s side had rabbis going back forever. But they were also great businessmen; there were all these businesses that Leonard was meant to grow up and take over. He was also brought up a Jewish minority in a place that was largely Catholic in a French province in a largely Anglo country. Plus he was born between the Depression and World War II, the death of his father — all these things formed Leonard’s sense of loneliness and insecurity.

Daley: What was Cohen was like to interview?

Simmons: He’s extremely charming. He focuses entirely on you. You can see absolutely, from a glance, why the ladies love him. Both men and women who interview him come out reeling (laughs). He’s got a quiet charisma, no ego. He focuses on you in an intimate way.
For example, he offered me a cup of coffee, and he said (uses slow, deep voice) “Now think seriously before you answer this: Would you like a scoop of ice cream in there?” It’s almost suggestive (laughs).
He loves women, not just in the horizontal, but even to talk to. He doesn’t like to talk about himself. He’ll do anything to get the subject off himself. He’ll answer questions because he’s a kind man, because he’s a gentleman.

Daley: Speaking of women: You write that since he was a little boy, he loved women, he’d cut out pictures of models from his mother’s magazines. Obviously, you can’t think of Leonard Cohen without thinking of the sensuality in nearly all his songs. How did you deal with the whole romantic side of Cohen?

Simmons: In this case, (the sexual aspect of) Leonard was so obvious, I didn’t have to ask about it. It was just everywhere – Leonard said when he was in his early teens, he bought a little book on hypnotism. He hypnotized the family maid and instructed her to take her clothes off. I love that story (laughs).
When he first started writing poetry, it was to attract girls. And it makes sense, because in his teens, there was no rock ‘n’ roll — it was the Beat poets who were big. You might get a little more action if you can tell a girl she’s pretty in a poetic way (laughs).

Daley: (laughs) True. Many readers may not know that Cohen was initially a poet and novelist, not a singer.

Simmons: Right. He (started singing) “for financial reasons “¦ To be a novelist in Canada, you can’t sell enough copies of anything to live on. So he decided to go to Nashville and be a country star. It happened to turn out, because of the era he was in, he ended up becoming more of a folk/rock singer.

Daley: You say Cohen liked the Beats, but they didn’t really like him.

Simmons: As Leonard put it, the Beats thought Leonard was too traditional. Ginsberg was writing “Howl,” and Leonard had poems that rhymed “¦ Leonard tended to hover on the outside of groups “¦ which was also due in part to his chronic depression.

Daley: Right, he’s famously battled depression. He said he “spent a lot of time alone letting himself slowly die.” Has he ever been suicidal?

Simmons: I think the real question is has he ever not been suicidal? (laughs) I mean, the answer is yes, he’s been suicidal. He had extremely serious, deep, chronic depression the whole of his adult life until recently, the last 10 years ¦ He’s self-medicated with all kinds of medication, legal and illegal — LSD, opiates, prescription drugs. But mostly it was done with self-discipline. He said the most helpful to him was Buddhism and Hinduism.

Daley: What’s your take on his obsession with fasting and losing weight — is that a religious thing, or more of a compulsive issue?

Simmons: I think it was a mind-altering thing. Fasting is part of purification and altering your state of mind. Also, he had this Jewish mother who tried to fatten him up, and he wanted to be thin and sharp and have an edge to him. He’s very disciplined and hard on himself.

Daley: So he went back on the road touring because he was completely bankrupt. You say his “former manager bled his retirement account dry.” Can you explain how he lost all his money?

Simmons: It’s a hard one to summarize, but the short version is that while he was living in a monastery for five years, he gave his money to his manager, who was also a close friend … Somewhere along the line, his money was misappropriated ¦ His daughter knew someone who said, ‘Look into his finances now.’ It turned out that he’d been wiped out ¦ He lost everything. He was completely impoverished. He was forced to go back on the road after 15 years away (from touring) to make money at a time in his life when most people retire.

Daley: Why did you want to write this book?

Simmons: I’ve loved Leonard’s music since I was a teenager¦ I’d interviewed him twice before ¦ (one) was a three-day interview, and at the end I wanted to know more. I read books on him, and none of them told me what I really wanted to know. So I started writing this book.

by Lauren Daley for South Coast Today

Biography Review (Tuscon Citizen)

Monday, October 1st, 2012

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons (ECCO, $27.99)
 Leonard Cohen is most of the most influential music figures of the 20th century. Even before he turned his attention to music, he had built his reputation as both an accomplished novelist and poet. His dual careers in music and literature were an almost seamless blend, establishing Cohen as truly an unmatched artist.

Born into a wealthy Canadian family, Cohen was already in his 30s when he became a professional musician. From London, the Greek island of Hydra, to New York, Cohen began his arc of prodigious achievements. During the mid-nineties, just as everything seemed to be coming together, Cohen abruptly entered a monastery. When he returned from his retreat, he found his bank accounts bled dry. At the age of seventy-three, he was forced back into the concert world and so began his wildly successful three-year world tour.

Cohen is a complex man and Sylvie Simmons has captured every essence of it in her remarkable book. This is a deeply insightful portrait that is guaranteed to haunt the reader much like his “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire.”

by Larry Cox for the Tuscon Citizen

“I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (AV Club)

Monday, October 1st, 2012

Writing a definitive biography of someone who’s still alive is a tricky business. The least difficult thing about it may be just deciding that the time is right, which seems to imply that, while the subject may have life left to live while remaining in the public eye, the vital part of the career is essentially done, and the life itself has gotten as interesting as it’s ever going to get. In the case of most pop stars, the most likely proposition ought to be that the last few decades will be devoted to exile and decline, with maybe a scandal or some halfhearted comebacks to try to keep a famous name alive. But nothing about Leonard Cohen’s life and career has ever been likely. In fact, for a 78-year-old “youth poet” turned rock star and international sex symbol, he doesn’t seem to have ever been particularly youthful. He tells biographer Sylvie Simmons (Neil Young: Reflections In Broken Glass) that he was “born wearing a suit,” and photographs in Simmons’ latest, I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen, prove he developed that look of doctrinal seriousness early on. (The trace of self-amusement only began to creep in with middle age.) Covering the sessions for the Phil Spector-produced Death Of A Ladies’ Man, which resulted in not just the worst album, but the worst professional experience of Cohen’s musical career, Simmons notes that there was always something off about the idea of the man called “the first tycoon of teen” collaborating with a singer-songwriter who quite possibly “never was a teenager.”

Cohen was young once, but doesn’t seem to have been cut out for it. In his very early teens, he began “going out late at night, two or three nights a week, wandering alone through the seedier streets of Montreal,” dreaming of being a man in his twenties. “Leonard walked slowly past the working girls on the street, but in spite of the need and longing in his eyes the hookers looked over his head, calling out to the men who passed, offering them what Leonard had begun to want more than anything.” Happily, he was eventually able to make up for lost time. Although Simmons alludes to how full Cohen’s dance card got, her treatment of his love life focuses mostly on a few important women in his life who spoke to her for the book, notably Marianne Ihlen and Suzanne Elrod (the mother of his two children, Adam and Lorca, the latter named for Leonard’s favorite poet), and Rebecca De Mornay, whom he once escorted to the Academy Awards. (He wrote famous songs about the first two; De Mornay was awarded a production credit on “Anthem,” because, Cohen says, “I generally designate the producer as the person without whom that particular track wouldn’t exist.”)

In 1984, Columbia Records, which put out Cohen’s first seven albums in the United States, declined to release his first new album in five years, Various Positions. In what was probably an attempt to balance straight talk about Cohen’s low visibility in the U. S. market with an acknowledgment of his critical reputation and popularity in Europe, the president of the company told him, “Look, Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” He found out when a song from the album, “Hallelujah,” slowly percolated into the most covered song of the new millennium, and Cohen’s next couple of releases, I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992), broke through to the indie-rock audience and cemented the image of their fiftysomething creator as a timeless icon of world-weary cool.

After this late-life triumph, things threatened to quiet down until financial scandal forced the septuagenarian Cohen back onto the touring circuit: Millions were siphoned from Cohen’s retirement account by an employee (and former lover) whom he trusted to such a degree, he placed a “do not resuscitate” order in her hands, in case of his failing illness. The general reaction to these recent performances (and his latest album, Old Ideas) tends to confirm that the image is built to weather the long haul. Simmons certainly thinks so; like most of the people she interviews, she plainly adores her subject. This might make for slushy reading if Cohen himself didn’t come across as so sane and good-humored throughout. (Accepting induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, he invites the audience to recall “the prophetic statement by Jon Landau in the early 1970s: ‘I have the seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and it is not Leonard Cohen’.”) The book is a seductive tribute to a master seducer.

by Phil Dyess-Nugent for AV Club

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Shelf Awareness)

Friday, September 28th, 2012

[4 stars]

British music journalist Sylvie Simmons (Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes) decodes the peculiar enigma of songwriter/poet/Buddhist monk Leonard Cohen in I’m Your Man, a hefty but spirited biography. Displaying the fruits of comprehensive research, Simmons reports the fascinating details of Cohen’s life as well as the way those life events combined with the mechanics of artistry to create a body of work that has inspired fans as diverse as Lou Reed, Philip Glass and Jeff Buckley. This is a revelatory biography that investigates not just an artist’s life, but the life of his art.

Simmons traces Cohen’s path from a wealthy Jewish enclave in Montreal through his early successes as a bohemian poet in Canada, his time on an idyllic Greek island, his residence in Manhattan’s famous Chelsea Hotel and all the concert halls, spiritual retreats, park benches and Spartan domiciles where his oft-tormented life has played out. She balances a deserved reverence for the power of Cohen’s words, music–and that incredible voice–with a gimlet eye to the rather frail, fallible human who created them. It’s been said you either “get” Leonard Cohen or you don’t. After reading I’m Your Man, both those who hear the voice of an ironic god in Cohen’s sonorous drawl and those who consider it “music to slit your wrists to” will understand where the music and poetry come from. –Cherie Ann Parker, freelance journalist and book critic

Discover: A definitive, revelatory portrait of the iconic Canadian songwriter and poet.

Shelf Awareness for Readers