Sylvie Simmons: I’m Your Man – The Life Of Leonard Cohen (Off The Tracks – New Zealand)

We only know so much about Leonard Cohen from his poems and songs – he is both diarist and then in the truest sense of autobiography he is the unreliable narrator. With Cohen, mostly, you can tell he’s doing that on purpose, as the voice has deepened over the years there’s even a bit of extra tongue for the cheek, the sardonic lines all but drip from the page – or, if reinterpreted for song, the stage. And everything he says is totally believable in that voice. Which must of course mean there are a fair few lies in there.

Sylvie Simmons is not the first Cohen biographer – but she is the best. This is the best book that will ever be written about Leonard Cohen. Simmons of course had the benefit of seeing some of the mistakes in print from those that tried before her, so that helped her in knowing to avoid/correct them. But she brings to this book so much of herself, not least her own formidable wit and writing skills, her own mischievousness – a match for Leonard’s no doubt – her own love of language and then the stripes she earned covering so much music across almost every popular genre for the last 30+ years. You get Simmons’ personality in this book – but right from the prologue, a perfect one-page opener, we have Cohen’s personality; we know Simmons has got it sussed. So we believe her. She is the reliable narrator.

Her book is a triumph – the finest Cohen bio, one of the best music books you could ever read and a marvel in studious non-fiction. She spoke with over 100 interviewees – managing, crucially, to get people on record who had previously avoided this lofty subject. Some, presumably, were never asked prior. But there are many coups – such as actress Rebecca De Mornay, former fiancée, a crucial muse, collaborator and – in the book – a strong, clear voice.

From further back in Cohen’s past Simmons tracks down producer Bob Johnston, childhood pal Mort Rosengarten and the rabbi who encouraged him towards Bar Mitzvah. There were visits to Mt Baldy, drop-ins on the two Suzannes from Cohen’s life, the Marianne of So Long Marianne, a stop-in at the Chelsea Hotel. And you feel all of this research on every page. You read this book and know that as much as Cohen locked himself away and did the work – over so many years – Simmons has, in her own way, replicated that. She has done the work.

It reads like a dream – a page-turner, across all 500-some pages. We have Simmons’ voice but in that great journalistic skill she presents – and even inhabits – the voices of other people. We are so sure we’re hearing from the right people at the right time; a quote to clarify, an amusing anecdote, pieces of trivia, fascinating insights.

The book balances assessment of the poems, novels and music where so many other tomes focus only on Cohen’s academic/literary endeavours, or his slightly off-centre placement within pop-music’s canon. Very few of the past biographers have adequately addressed both; no one has shown the integration of the works/worlds so seamlessly.

Simmons’ masterstroke is in getting to all of the women; they are the muses for Cohen through life and work. Within that there’s the revelation to treat this all holistically, to not separate life and work but see them as symbiotic, swapping places as one becomes catharsis for/from the other. In Cohen’s life (and therefore work) the women, the depression, the writing – all were interlinked, three vestiges that grew from/with one another.

There are rock’n’roll stories – such as the infamous madness of the Phil Spector sessions, a gun held to Cohen’s head at one point. Iggy Pop shares a wonderful story that just couldn’t be made up – and if you read it with any doubts Simmons provides the Polaroid, a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction ace card.

From the early years – picked over so studiously and lovingly – through to his comeback world tours and new album, Simmons shows so much love for Cohen, but never bumbles towards hagiography. She had his blessing for the book but then Cohen stood back. Respectfully, cleverly, Simmons never tries too hard to unravel/reveal Cohen’s mystique. Granted, it’s never an easy task to do so, but knowing one shouldn’t try is some of the best wisdom Sylvie
showcases with I’m Your Man.

A book to return to – not just for the life-story but for the telling of the tale, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen is simply one of the best books I’ve ever read. Devotion pours from each page. The timing of the book was of course perfect. The writing of it is exquisite.

by Simon Sweetman for Off The Tracks

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