And the winner is …

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

Well, we don’t know who the winner is yet –  but we do know that Sylvie’s debut album Sylvie,  produced by Howe Gelb and released on Light In The Attic Records, has made it onto the ballot for Best Folk Album for the 58th Grammy Awards!!  Voting in the first round begins this week, so we’re crossing our fingers and lighting candles that she’ll make it to the next round!

Here’s some photos from a show Sylvie played with Howe and Giant Sand at the Aarhus festival last month. There was an amazine line-up  onstage in the grand finale – including M Ward, Grant Lee Phillips,  Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth,  Bob Dylan bassist Tony Garnier, Maggie Bjorklund,  Giant Sand, Howe and Sylvie and more.

Midway through the encore – a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep”, with Howe, M Ward and Sylvie on vocals, Howe led Sylvie in an impromptu tango during an accordion solo, while managing not to knock over the violin players!

Grand finale

 

Sylvie at Howe etc show

Sylvie and Howe Town CalledDance finale copy

 

What a summer!

Monday, July 20th, 2015

Whew! Is it sweltering where you are too? It’s turning out to be quite a summer, in so many ways. First, the touring. After her performances in Bogota,  S.America Sylvie did a handful of shows in California then flew to Scandinavia  where she played three concerts in Norway – way up in the north of the country, and also in Oslo (pictured below, where the musicians included American singer-songwriter Luke Elliott and Norwegian poet Havard Rem, who translated Sylvie’s book I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen) – with a few days off to climb a mountain and take a fishing boat out into the Norwegian sea and catch an enormous cod!

Now she’s headed back to S.America again – Chile this time, to play a concert with Chilean musician Matías Cena and be interviewed onstage by Santiago journalist Alfredo Lewin. And after that it’s back to Scandinavia! Three shows in Denmark as part of the Aarhus festival, one of them sharing the stage with Howe Gelb and Giant Sand,  Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth and M.Ward. Check the Tour page  for details of these and also some local shows.

Despite all the traveling, Sylvie has kept to her resolution to Tweet her book Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes every day, a dozen or so tweets at a time, with the occasional commentary and picture! At last glance she was four chapters and around 700 tweets into it. Join her on Twitter or if you want the whole book, which  has been updated and is available as an e-book/kindle  after a long time out of print, it’s here:

http://www.amazon.com/Serge-Gainsbourg-Fistful-Gitanes-Expanded-ebook/dp/B00VU4ZA6Y/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

Sylvie has also been compiling an album, The Rough Guide to Americana: Vol 2.’ The first volume, coincidentally, came out the same year as her Serge Gainsbourg book, in 2001, and featured then-unknown artists, now highly-acclaimed, like The Handsome Family, best-known these days for their theme song to True Detective Season 1. Season 2’s theme tune is a Leonard Cohen song!!

And of course she’s still writing about music. Here’s an essay she wrote on Iggy Pop for Radio Silence magazine and book – part personal story, part critique and the second in her series of heartbreak albums , ‘The Best Part Of Breaking Up’.  Read it here: http://ht.ly/P3Cr6

Encore 2 Oslo

Book news

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

LC bk Taiwan
The latest new translation of I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen has just arrived from Taiwan! Published  by China Times Publishing Co, it’s a paperback edition, 528 pages in length, with 16 pages of photos.

Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of E-Cigs!

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Serge G burn record

He’s back, he’s smoking – and he’s digital: ‘Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes’, long out of print, has risen from the ash-tray and is being released today as an e-book in five different languages!

Here’s the Press Release:
For the first-time on e-book, a New Expanded Edition of Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes by Sylvie Simmons, the award-winning rock writer and the New York Times Best-selling author of I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Originally published in 2001 to worldwide acclaim and never-before available digitally, A Fistful of Gitanes was the first biography in English to capture Gainsbourg in all his gleeful outrageousness and contraditions, and counted Gainsbourg’s longtime partner Jane Birkin and legendary novelist JG Ballard among its avid fans.
Simmons’s work will stand as the definitive take on a dizzying genius.This new edition, which includes an expanded new discography and additional photos, will be available digitally in English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Japanese will be available exclusively through Amazon.com starting April 27, 2015.

You can order here:

http://www.amazon.com/Serge-Gainsbourg-Fistful-Gitanes-Expanded-ebook/dp/B00VU4ZA6Y

And here’s what people have been saying:

“I highly recommend A Fistful of Gitanes by Sylvie Simmons, a highly entertaining biography of the French singer-songwriter and all-round scallywag.” – J.G. Ballard
“Wonderful! Serge would have been so happy.” – Jane Birkin
“An excellent piece of writing.” – Leonard Cohen
“A marvellous book.” – Mariannne Faithfull
“Gitanes is a stone masterpiece!” – Stephen Davis, Hammer Of The Gods.
“A wonderful introduction to one of the most overlooked songwriters of the 20th century.” – The Times
“Anyone interested in learning more about Gainsbourg’s ravishing, Gallic, (spell-binding too) degeneracy would be well advised to check out A Fistful of
Gitanes.” – Mother Jones
“A riveting read.” – OK Magazine
“This dizzying biog recounts the holy-fool highs and sad-bastard lows of the French cultural icon. Converts will relish this ribald tale and newcomers will be correctly corrupted. Smoking!” – Uncut
“The most intriguing music-biz biography of the year.” – The Independent
“Sylvie, a fluent Francophone, brings him to life, guides us through the subtleties [and] perfectly evokes her subject.” – MOJO
“Impeccably researched and eminently readable.” – The Guardian
“Fascinating and superbly written, this proffers insight and constant entertainment.” – Time Out
“Superbly written.” – The Jewish Chronicle
“Simmons’s work will stand as the definitive take on a dizzying genius.” -Goodreads

Going South!

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Sylvie is heading back to South America at the end of the month to play two shows in Bogota, Colombia on 1st and 2nd May. At Que Viva La Musica, part of the Bogota Book Fair, she will talk about her life in music, first writing about it and then writing songs and performing herself. Following the staged interview, she will sing some songs. The second show is a full concert, featuring songs from Sylvie’s Light In The Attic Records debut, and a selection of Leonard Cohen songs, where she and her ukulele will be accompanied by Bogotan guitarist Nicolas Holguin. Please check the tour page for details.

She has also accepted an invitation from El Mercurio newspaper in Chile to fly out in mid August  to play a major concert. Here’s a story on Sylvie in El Mercurio. https://gmotupper.wordpress.com/2015/02/15/sylvie-simmons-la-chica-que-escribe-de-rock/

Meanwhile, the Brazilian edition of I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen is due to hit the book stores in the next few weeks!

Solomon Burke and the dollar bill

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

I can’t remember how the subject came up – I guess a friend must have posted something on Facebook about having found themselves alone in an elevator with a celebrity and I was reminded of an incident decades ago in L.A when I walked into a lift whose only other occupant was Solomon Burke. The king of rock ‘n’ soul was a smooth operator. He took a bill out of his wallet and wrote his phone number on it and handed it to me. (Well, not that smooth really; it was just a one dollar bill). (Though admittedly a dollar bought you a bit more back when this happened). (But still, definitely a hitch in the smoothness department.) Someone had asked me if I still had the dollar bill and I said yep, it’s somewhere,though to the best of my recollection the name and number had faded over the decades Well this morning, quite by chance, on what would have been Solomon Burke’s 75th birthday, I opened a drawer and there it was, the phone number still just about legible.

Solomon dollar

 

And now I’m going to dim the lights, pour a glass of the good stuff and download an advance of Leonard Cohen’s new album, Can’t Forget.  Good night.

Thinking and drinking

Saturday, February 7th, 2015

My last day in Cartagena, I woke up to a very nice mention in the newspaper describing my performance of Leonard Cohen’s songs as “magisterial”. It was a beautiful morning, already 80 degrees and the air as soft as a kiss. I went sight-seeing, looking for a place some locals told me about where they’d built a statue to Prince Charles and Camilla to commemorate a royal visit and someone pulled it down. The city is walled with ancient fortifications built to keep out the English invaders, so you can’t really blame them.

The night before, I’d been to another after-hours party, this one thrown by the British Embassy. They held it in the Spanish Inquisition building – a beautiful edifice but with a chilling history. There were torture instruments on display in a room downstairs and a guillotine in the garden where waiters glided round with trays of bottomless Pimms.  One of the fellow-Brits I ran into was the Guardian and Observer journalist Ed Vulliamy. I had just seem him onstage on a panel chaired by Rosie Boycott, in which five journalists – including two Latin Americans and two from the US – discussed Charlie Hebdo, the murder of journalists, the right of satire to provoke, and the fear and capitulation of some editors and governments.

Vulliamy, an extremeley brave writer who has spent a great deal of his life on the frontline, reporting on the atrocities of war and terrorism, said something that stayed with me. Laughter, he said – the punishment of laughter, the mockery of power – is the greatest weapon we have against terror of any kind, be it extremist fanatics or governments or anything. “That is the one thing they can’t stand, mockery”, he said. “If there’s no-one there to pull down their pants and moon, what is there left?” Important stuff.

And now I’m back in San Francisco and about to go to another party, of sorts. Last time I agreed to do one of these, I broke my toe. My big toe, which meant having to wear Ugg boots with my little black evening dress, being the only footwear I could get into. It’s an Authors Dinner – a charity event, a bit like a cheaper version of those Democratic Party dinners where you stump up a whole lot of money to sit at the same table as your favourite famous politician and watch them eat. Or talk to them so much they can’t eat and can only drink, which means you might get your money’s worth from watching them fall over drunk. Especially if they only have one working foot. But tonight I am bipedal, and the good cause the money is going to is Berkeley Public Libraries. Libraries are also important stuff. Also, come to think of it, a good idea: Foodstarter! Kickstarter without the kick but with a starter, and maybe a main course too cooked for you by the writer or musician of your choice! .

 

Thoughts on the eve of a new album

Friday, November 7th, 2014

It was two and a quarter years ago, with the first edition of I’m Your Man The Life of Leonard Cohen about to come out, when I had the crazy dream of going on the road with my book and a ukulele, reading, talking about Leonard and singing his songs. Taking my uke, if I’m to be honest,  was as much a security blanket as anything else. Writers, especially writers of lengthy books, tend to spend more time alone, sitting and staring at the wall, than standing  in front of  a roomful people pretending they’re not shy. So, at least at the outset, until I gradually got comfortable with performing, my ukulele was  something to hide behind. It was also good company. During the year or so I travelled the world researching and interviewing people for the book, I took the uke with me everywhere, from a seedy rental apartment in Montreal to a hut in the monastery on Mt Baldy. Ukes tend to make you friends – a bit like a puppy, but with nothing to clean up!  The tour – well some of you reading this might have come to one of the shows, either  in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, New Zealand or Australia during 2012-2014.

Today I was deleting a bunch of old files from my computer to try and speed it up, and and I came across this one: a video. A friend had suggested that if I was going to tour, I ought to post a Youtube video. I’d never made  one before so I called my friend Christian, an indie record producer, and asked if he knew someone who could shoot it. One of his artists, Annie Girl, had made an album which featured classical musicians as well as her rock band the Flight; I’d loved that album and had made it my Americana album of the month in MOJO. I asked Christian if he could hire the violin player for my video and I said I’d like to shoot at night, maybe two or three Leonard Cohen songs, me and the violin player in my bedroom. I would call the video  Songs from a Bedroom in tribute to Leonard’s second album.

A few days later he turned up mid-afternoon, on the hottest day of the year, with a video maker and a violin player  – the great Matthew Szemela. But he’d also brought with him a viola player, the brilliant Charith Premawardhana, and a shy young woman with an acoustic guitar who it turned out was Annie Girl. It was the first time I’d met any of them. I swiftly printed off two more chord sheets and we piled into my bedroom, closed the black-out curtain and lit candles to make an artificial night.

Annie sat beside me on the bed, Matthew and Charith sat on the floor, all of us sweating pints from the heat. The next door neighbours had thrown open their windows to let in the sun and were playing Mexican music at full-blast, the bass rattling the candlesticks on my bedside table. I love mariachi, but not so much when trying to record a Leonard Cohen song. So Christian, being fluent in Spanish, went next door to try and quieten things down. Apparently he offered them $50 to turn the music off for an hour. (Memo to self: I.O. Christian 50 bucks.)

And this was the first song we recorded: Famous Blue Raincoat. Just one take. Charith’s viola-playing still gives me goosebumps. As to Matthew’s violin – unbelievable! You might notice in the footage tha his violin solo made me cry; I had to lean my head back and try to get the tears to run back inside my head again before coming back in for the final verse.

Annie, who had never heard of Leonard Cohen before that day, went on to love his songs and play many of them with me on the S.F Bay Area leg of the tour.  We often sit around the apartment and jam- her songs as well as mine. I love her songs. She’s playing electric guitar this days and doing a gig at  the Chapel in San Francisco tomorrow ( Saturday) night;  you should check her out.

Anyway here it is, Leonard Cohen’s mother Masha’s favourite song and mine, my first-ever video, which led to a book tour, which in turn  led to me plucking up the courage to go into a studio and record my own songs and release my debut album on Light In The Attic Records, Sylvie.

The silence between two thoughts

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

“Do you want to know what the ambition of our generation is, Wanda? We all want to be Chinese mystics living in thatched huts, but getting laid frequently.” – Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game, 1963.

11a LC & Roshi copy

Joshu Sasaki Roshi, Leonard Cohen’s Zen teacher and close friend, died Sunday 27th July in Cedars Sinai Hospital, Los Angeles at the age of 107. I went to the LA Zen Center several times to hear him teach – it was a few years ago when he was a mere 103 or so; I’d gone in the hope of talking to him for my book I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. When I spoke to Leonard shortly afterwards, I had to admit that, impressed though I was that the old man was still teaching, I couldn’t make sense of anything he said. Leonard laughed and said no-one could. “He doesn’t give you any astounding truths that we come to expect from spiritual teachers, because he’s a mechanic, he’s not talking about the philosophy of locomotion, he’s talking about repairing the motor. He’s mostly talking to the broken motor.”

Since posting that on my Facebook page two days ago, I’ve been contacted privately by a musician friend whose broken motor Roshi helped fix. And I’ve also been contacted by a major newspaper wanting to talk about the late guru’s sex life. What did Leonard Cohen have to say about it, they asked me, and I could honestly answer: “Nothing.” The last interview I did with Leonard for my book was more than a year before the New York Times broke the story alleging that Roshi had been sexually abusing female students at the monasteries for decades. http://tinyurl.com/bg2rfd7. But, whatever Leonard might have thought about this in private, it’s hard imagining him having anything to say publicly on a man he loved. His 45-year relationship with Roshi was one of the most durable and devoted of Leonard’s life.

They met in 1969 at Leonard’s friend’s Buddhist wedding – same year that Leonard met Suzanne Elrod, the future mother of his children, at a Scientology class. It seems ironic when not long before Leonard had told his friend that he was suspicious of holy men. He said he knew how they did it: their schtick, the showmanship, how they managed to draw people to them, because to a degree he could do it himself. One question I wish I’d thought to ask Leonard was when and how the cynicism in that line at the start of the blog that he gave to his alter-ego Breavman in The Favourite Game began to change.

I did try to interview Roshi for I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. I had spoken to two of Leonard’s rabbis and I wanted to talk to his Zen teacher for his insights into the man he made a monk. I went to the Mount Baldy monastery and stayed in a hut on the hill – but Roshi was away, teaching at another of his monasteries. Towards the end of writing the book I attended a series of talks Roshi gave at the Zen Center in L.A. – he looked so frail it seemed like a possibility that he wouldn’t make it through the teisho. Afterwards one of the head monks told me that Roshi did not give interviews, but he offered to pass on a letter. So I sent one with a list of questions. There was a great deal I wanted to know, like why he decided Leonard ought to be ordained (it was idea, not Leonard’s) and what the significance was of renaming him Jikan, meaning “Ordinary Silence: was it more than just a Buddhist joke? Or what it was like when the two of them were on the road together or in the monastery, the intimacy and the distance of such a relationship as this. Or his reaction when, after five and a half years Leonard told him he was leaving. Or what they talked about when Leonard came back to visit after spending months in India with a new guru, Ramesh; did they compare and contrast the different teachings? I was advised to narrow it down to one question. So I settled on the “more sad” question [see below]. Sadly he didn’t answer.

Leonard answered some of them though, in various interviews. And since I promised on Facebook that I would find a few more things that Leonard said about Roshi, here they are.

 

SS: Roshi gave you a new name?

LC: Roshi has given me a few names. When I was ordained as a zen monk, Roshi gave me the name Jikan.

SS: Is that the one that’s been variously translated as Silent One and Solitary Cliff?

LC: No, the other one was ‘Solitary Cliff’. But you know, Roshi doesn’t speak English very well so you don’t really know what he means by the names he gives you and he prefers it that way because he doesn’t want people to indulge themselves in the poetic quality of these traditional monks’ names.

SS: That’s cruel – I’d want to throw myself into the deep end of their poetic qualities.

LC: Yes, that’s the trouble. I have asked him what Jikan meant many times, at the appropriate moment over a drink, and he says ‘Normal silence’ or ‘Ordinary Silence’ or ‘The silence between two thoughts’.

SS: Dangerously poetic.

LC: Yes.

SS: So you became Ordinary Silence after Solitary Cliff?)

LC: I was Solitary Cliff for a while. You can just call me Cliff!

 

SS: You’ve quoted Roshi as saying “The older we get, the lonelier we become and the deeper the love we need”. Is he referring to impersonal, benign love or person-to-person love?

LC: I think that he was referring to the personal love.

SS: What are your feelings right now on personal love. Is that still an important aspect of your life or has that changed?

LC: It’s the most important. I don’t know if it ever changes. I think one becomes more circumspect as one gets older about everything – I mean you become more foolish and more wise at the same time as you get older. But I don’t think anyone masters the heart. No-one gets a handle on it. And Roshi’s often described himself as an old, love-sick monk.

…….

SS : Did you discuss the teachings of Ramesh with Roshi when you returned from India?

LC: No, no. Roshi doesn’t discuss. He doesn’t discuss his own teaching. Roshi is direct transmission. It’s the owner’s manual. He’s not interested in perspective or talking. You either get it or you don’t. His teisho, the things you listen to, the best way to absorb them is from the point of view of the meditater – he’s really talking on the in breath and the out breath through the whole teisho. He’s speaking to the meditative condition, so if you hear him from the outside it’s kind of gibberish and it’s kind of repetitive and it’s very hard to penetrate. He doesn’t give you any astounding truths that we come to expect from spiritual teachers, because he’s a mechanic, he’s not talking about the philosophy of locomotion, he’s talking about repairing the motor. He’s mostly talking to the broken motor.

SS: Now you mention it, I remember that repetition, that sense of rambling. I blamed it on me zoning out or him being a very, very old man.

LC: But if you’re sitting in the right position and you’re breathing, then it’s like you’re in a hole and he’s saying: ‘Here’s a little indentation; put your right foot there, and you’ll see that little twig, and pull up there, and try to put your foot in that other little spot where the rock is sticking out, now take the left hand and put it up there.’ That’s what he’s saying.

———

LC: I don’t know if I told you this story. I was in the recording studio with Roshi. We’d been travelling to Trappist monasteries – at that time there was a rapprochement between Catholicism and Zen under the tutelage of Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk who wrote beautiful books – and I would go with Roshi and he would lead these weeks of meditation at various monasteries. We happened to be in New York at the time and I was recording parts of Various Positions and Roshi came to the studio – he was already an old man at the time We were drinking this Chinese liqueur called ng ka pay and he was nodding off most of the time and I was doing vocals.

SS: What did Roshi think of the recording?

LC: The next morning when we were having breakfast I asked him what he thought – this was the time when people were saying they should give away razor blades with Leonard Cohen albums because it’s ‘music to slit your wrists by’ and that I was ‘depressing a generation’. And he said, ‘More sad’.

And that was it.  Roshi didn’t tell him what he meant by “more sad”, Leonard said, and Leonard didn’t ask. When I said I guess I would have to ask Roshi, he smiled and wished me luck. As to whether he did as his teacher instructed, Leonard said, “Not ‘more sad’, but I thought, ‘you’ve got to go deeper.’ ”

 

 

Mad (Men) for it!

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Yes, that’s a copy of the US edition of ‘I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ behind the left ear of Pete Campbell (actor Vincent Kartheiser) of fabulous TV series Mad Men. When trade magazine Ad Week asked him what’s on his reading list he answered, “a biography of Leonard Cohen called I’m Your Man. Pretty cool!”   http://tinyurl.com/mom3c87

In more book news, the Chinese edition is due to be published at the end of May – more on that later.  And Sylvie will be performing several Leonard Cohen-related events in California in the next few weeks, beginning in Wine Country. More details on the ‘Tour’ page!