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.’ ”

 

 

Inquisition, cyber-style

Monday, March 18th, 2013

It once was lost, but now it’s found: a facebook interview I did with Roch Parisien one recent Sunday which, by accidentally hitting the kind of delete button that can nevermore be undeleted, he consigned to a black hole in cyberspace. Usually that’s the sort of thing I do, being a gold medalist in technophobia. So, sad as it was that two hours of speed-typing answers to his questions had been for naught, it did give me a secret smile that I wasn’t the one to blame!
But Roch, with the help of various facebook users, managed to retrieve bits and pieces of the interview, a question here, an answer there, and finally put it back together, almost-whole. And here it is:https://www.facebook.com/events/478882812161108/479778318738224

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
My guest for today’s ‘Facebook Music Interview’ session is music journalist SYLVIE SIMMONS, author of the recently published definitive biography ‘I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN’ (McClelland & Stewart).

Sylvie is an award-winning writer and one of the foremost music journalists working today. Born in London, she moved to LA in the late-’70s and started writing about rock music for magazines such as ‘Sounds’, ‘CREEM’, ‘Rolling Stone’, ‘Kerrang!’ and ‘Q’. She is the author of acclaimed fiction and non-fiction books, including the biographies ‘Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes’ and ‘Neil Young: Reflections in Broken Glass’, as well as the short-story collection ‘Too Weird for Ziggy’. Residing at various times in the UK, US and France, she currently lives in San Francisco where she writes for ‘MOJO’ magazine and the ‘San Francisco Chronicle’, and plays the ukelele.

Sylvie’s latest biography, ‘I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN’, chronicles the career of the courtly, elegant singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist, from his first band in Montreal (a country-and-western trio) and his early days in New York, where he lived at the famous Chelsea Hotel, to his most recent world tour, during which the 70-something Cohen literally skipped onstage. Sylvie includes fascinating anecdotes – Leonard meeting Judy Collins, who would later record one of his signature songs, Suzanne; encountering fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell in Greenwich Village (Mitchells A Case of You was inspired by Leonard); scary recording sessions with the gun-toting record producer Phil Spector, and spending time at a Zen monastery. She also discusses at length Cohen’s impressive body of work, including poetry and prose as well as songs (his iconic Hallelujah has been covered by more than 300 artists), mentions his numerous bouts of depression, and recounts his unfortunate financial difficulties when his former manager stole funds from his retirement account.

Thank you for ‘taking this waltz’ with Sylvie and me today as we contemplate the current state of music journalism and all things Leonard!

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications

Ok all, we’re ready to start…thanks for joining us everybody…and welcome Sylvie! Let’s kick off with a couple of standard questions I Iike to warm up with: what was your first single and/or album that you bought as a youth with your own money? And what was the first concert you attended?

Sylvie Simmons
The first record I remember buying (so many records, so many years…) was one I got with a record token I won for clarinet playing. Yes, in my secret life before the uke. It was The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun”. The first concert I went to was in London, at the Finsbury Park Astoria. My dad took me. It was one of those package shows, with Joe Brown & The Bruwers, [Bruvvers] Heinz & The Saints, and PJ Proby. The trouser-splitting episode still stays with me, and warms my heart on lonely nights!

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
How about on the music journalism side? What music journalists would you consider your most influential at a formative stage, and was there one music biography or work of music journalism in particular that made you say “wow, I want to do this”?

Sylvie Simmons
I’m sure I was a sponge, absorbing everything around me, but looking back, I felt more like own little island floating in the same water. I loved music – I mean loved it, obsessively. When I was a tiny girl, I was onstage singing and tap dancing to it. When I was a doe-eyed melancholy teenager, I plunked away at the four chords I could play on guitar and sang it. I collected records and memorized the liner notes. I even kept them in alphabetical order – I guess I have some male genetic code or something. But I wasn’t a guy, and most of the British rock journalists were, so I guess I copied bits of their style and then acquired my own. But certainly it had to be music writing: I could think of no other life I wanted.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
What would you consider the best, and/or most entertaining music biography of all time?

Sylvie Simmons
Hah! That bit of male genetic code I mentioned was unfortunately not the part that predisposes me to ‘Best Of’ lists. Working for MOJO, I used to have problems with those lists all the time. Okay, now I’m going to cheat and look at the bookshelves behind me which are stacked with books – ‘Shakey’, Jimmy McDonough, love that one, Willie Nelson (Joe Nick Patoski), the Marianne Faithful autobiography, ‘Hammer of the Gods’ of course, Rod’s new one – I’m currently reading and enjoying Ginger Baker’s ‘Hellraiser’. My least favorite so far has been Neil Young’s memoir.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
The music industry has been shifting dramatically in recent years, and so has the world of the print and publishing. What’s your view of the recent evolution of music journalism from inside the trenches? What do you foresee for the future of the genre and what advice would you give a keen young writer wanting to break into it today?

Sylvie Simmons
The music business and the publishing business are f***ed. Sorry, but I’ve not been awake long enough to find a politer version. Okay, to tone it down a little, it’s the ‘Wild West’ out there, and maybe at some point the bloodshed will settle down a bit and we’ll know what’s going on. My advice would be to write because you want to write…which is really the only reason to write anyway. I’ve been blessed in never having to do a regular job in my adult (I use the term loosely) life, but now it’s a damn hard way to even live like an undergrad, let alone a graduate, student on music writing income.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Sylvie, there have been a number of Leonard Cohen biographies already published over the years, many relatively recent. What led you to choose him as a subject, and what did you believe you could bring new to the table?
…and Will Birch asks:
Sylvie, what really attracted you towards Leonard as a biographical subject?

Sylvie Simmons
It’s hard to answer the first part without coming across as arrogant – “Hey, what Leonard Cohen needs is a biography by a music-loving, uke-playing woman, so I did it.” Though I did decide to write one because I felt he was more than a little underserved by the biographies available. Some would be drily (or worse, pompously) academic, focusing on Cohen as a poet who dabbled in the world of pop music; others would be rock biogs that alluded to the poetry, and others were good but outdated, etc. I’ve a shelf and a half of good books on Dylan, but couldn’t think of that many on Leonard.
I’d been thinking of writing one since 2001, when I did a three-day interview with Leonard in London for MOJO magazine – ah, those were the days of rock journalism! And, like every other interviewer, male and female, I came out with a blush in my cheeks and an imaginary cigarette and the feeling that I had the best LC interview ever – only to read through the pages upon pages of transcript and realize that, though I did have the odd new insight, the old charmer had hoodwinked me just as he’d done with all the rest. I started reading books on him in earnest then. And when I had, that made me feel I had to do one myself. It just took me a while.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
You apply a very creative style to biography writing, integrating descriptive and structural elements of story-telling that are more common to good fiction. Is this an approach that came naturally to you, or something that you had to work deliberately to develop?

Sylvie Simmons
I never thought about it, Roch, so I guess the answer is that it came naturally over time. Actually my last book before this, halfway between Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen, was fiction, a series of interlinked short stories, ‘Too Weird for Ziggy’ (which, incidentally, was originally titled ‘Too Weird for Iggy’ until Iggy Pop objected, so his then-manager said, on the grounds that it was too weird for him. The best bit about writing stories about fictional people was that I could make up what they say; you don’t have to transcribe endless interview tapes, and you don’t have to double- and triple-check everything you read or hear. There was a time, back when I first started writing about rock in the mid-late seventies, when pretty much you could write whatever you wanted, in whatever style you liked, at whatever length you felt like (no doubt to the chagrin of many readers). I miss that element of creative freedom; music journalism has become so much more micro-managed these days.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
How did you secure Leonard’s approval and participation in your project, and has he reacted to the finished book yet?

Sylvie Simmons
I borrowed the book I found in his archives on teaching yourself hypnotism and put it into action…it worked!

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Ha ha! And his reaction to the book?

Sylvie Simmons
When I last saw him, briefly, backstage at the Austin TX show last Halloween, neither of us mentioned the book. I was gratified to see how many members of his band had read it though. You know, I don’t even know if he read it. I was in the very happy position of him giving his support without him ever asking to read it for approval. The one thing he said on the subject, during our last interviews for the book, was that he didn’t want a whitewash. A very decent man, that Leonard Cohen.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
As the book more than confirms, Leonard is a seductive figure on many levels. Was it difficult to maintain journalistic objective and distance? To not succumb to his charms and ‘fall in love’, metaphorically speaking, with your subject while writing the book?

Sylvie Simmons
Okay, let’s start with ‘literally': the Petraeus question. Fortunately, having been a music writer for 35 years and having spent not just days but nights, on tour buses, with rock stars, I quickly learned to resist temptation. ‘Metaphorically’? Well, I was already ‘in love’, if you like, with the artist, and the man is very difficult to dislike. But when you examine a life in as much depth, and for such a long time as I did on this biography, in a way you start identifying with them, more than actually loving them. The distance seems to disappear. And you can’t fall in love with yourself (well I suppose you can, but hey, it’s not a lot of fun!)

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
The flip side of this, is that sometimes when an author is submerged in the years of research and writing of a biography, the after affect can be that the author does not love the subject anymore. Was there anything that you wished you had not found out about Leonard? A failing or disappointment that might have tarnished any initial perceptions?

Sylvie Simmons
Yes, that is always the fear. Yes, he had failings, but if he hadn’t then it would have been a hagiography, which would be so lacking in humanity that we’d have all been very disappointed.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
You state in the book that “writing is about uncovering”. What was your single most treasured personal moment of revelation as you put the book together? And what did you learn about yourself in the process?

Sylvie Simmons
The ‘revelations’ that come instantly to mind range from the sublime – that he used to be a ukulele player (!); that he was not, in fact, cured from depression by his five years living on a mountain in a hut in a Buddhist monastery but that the experience made him so depressed that he went off to Bombay and found a new Hindu guru – to the ridiculous: that he liked to wash down a McDonalds Filet of Fish with a glass of good Margaux; that he enjoyed the Jerry Springer Show. So many things. What did I learn about myself? Hmm, I guess I realised that I was as stubborn as my exes always said I was (mostly fighting to keep my book as I wrote it, and not change it to what editors and publishers felt they wanted.)

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Our main interest here at ‘The Facebook Music Interviews’ is, obviously, the music side, but with Leonard, it’s difficult to divorce literature and music, isn’t it? From the very beginning of his career, his poetry would often be described in terms of ‘song’, and of course his songs have always been considered highly poetic…there’s this constant cross-pollination.

Sylvie Simmons
Absolutely. He bought his first guitar at the same age that he discovered Lorca, the poet he has always said gave him a voice, or allowed him to find his own voice. When he read that first poem of Lorca’s, outside a secondhand bookshop in Montreal, its effect on him was to make him think of the music of the synagogue, which likewise made the hair stand up on his arms. He has said often that there is music behind every word, and doesn’t feel there is a difference between poetry and song (other than of course the expected practicalities of applying words to music).

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
You write, “the great songs, the ones that keep drawing us back again and again, are mysteries.” Which do you believe is Leonard Cohen’s greatest song, and album, and why?

Sylvie Simmons
I refer to my previous answer about “best” lists. My favourite of his albums are the ones I heard as an adolescent, the first three, ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’, ‘Songs from A Room’ and the wonderful ‘Songs of Love and Hate’, which in my mind make up a kind of trilogy. There have been wonderful albums since, but I guess there’s something about music you hear as a youngster, at a time of your life (and at a time in history) when there were few distractions, few anything, that could have that kind of power and impact on you as a record, a voice and a song. There was a kind of nakedness to his recordings back then – even on the quite highly-produced debut – that had a kind of intimacy and authority that made you feel you were hearing something important (even if you didn’t entirely understand what it was.)

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
The nominations for Canada’s Juno Awards were announced just last week. Do you think Leonard would appreciate the humour and irony of being up against Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen for ‘Artist of the Year’ and ‘Fan Choice Award’?

Sylvie Simmons
Oh yes!

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Who was the most interesting of Leonard’s ‘muses’ for you to meet and interview?
(You mention that Marianne would likely be the ‘People’s Choice’ award winner…)

Sylvie Simmons
Loath as I am to dive into another of these ‘bests’ lists, among the most important muses I spoke to were Marianne Ihlen, who lived with Leonard during the key period when he moved from the literary ‘business’ into the music one, Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Leonard’s children, Rebecca de Mornay, the actress to whom he was engaged to be married before he decided instead to become a Buddhist monk (as Rebecca told me, laughing, “It’s done wonders for my reputation with men: ‘After you they become monks, what did you do to them?'” and Anjani, Leonard’s most recent partner. Each was a fascinating interviewee.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
In my recent session with Barney Hoskyns about his oral history of Led Zeppelin, we were discussing the quote “music is always the best excuse for bad behavior”, that society often condones excess from artists and celebrities as a way of vicariously breaking the rules and taboos of mundane everyday life. Do you believe Leonard got a free ride in this way for the aspects of his own ‘bad behavior’ over the years?

Sylvie Simmons
Well it’s certainly true that many of us have the tendency to live vicariously through artists and celebrities. It’s also true (and this is a subject that inspired by MY book of short stories, actually) that celebrity has a tendency to corrupt and absolute celebrity to corrupt absolutely. But with any grand statement of this kind, there are many exceptions, or at least nuances. Leonard took a great deal of drugs in his day – acid, speed (!), Mandrax – but you could argue that they were a (not always useful) form of self-medication as much as they were recreation, for his depression, or even as a form of ‘doping’ to help him write a novel or get through stage-fright. Yes, all good excuses I know. As for sex, his celebrity certainly made women available, and he availed himself of them often. But I never got the impression of him using his celebrity to (excuse the expression) thrust himself upon someone.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
When Leonard’s longtime manager stole his entire fortune, some saw it as a tragic event; others expressed disbelief that Leonard could be so naive and trusting; and yet others suggested there was karmic justice of sorts for his single-minded self-absorption over so many decades and the people who were hurt along the way. And yet, if this had not occurred, we would have been robbed of his incredible comeback and some of the most dramatically spectacular concerts of the ages. What are your thoughts on the interrelationship between these two events?

Sylvie Simmons
I’m going to be that annoying author and say, ‘It’s all in the book’, because it is, and it’s too long to summarise, other than with a glib oversimplification. First of all, I take issue with it being karmic justice for Leonard’s bad behaviour. I have no evidence that he hurt or used people any more than the average human being, and I’d say much less than the average artist/poet/musician/ celebrity. You cannot be an artist without some sort of self-absorption, and the laws of Karma, if they are just laws, would know that. My contention is that the laws of Karma worked in Leonard’s favour, and far more efficiently in the courts of law, in getting his money back. As I wrote in the book, somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not entirely, if it were a bible and not a biography, Kelley Lynch (the manager who emptied his accounts) would have the Judas role – yes she betrayed him for money, but at the same time her betrayal led to the resurrection of his career as a performing artist and to this mass, worldwide adoration ever since.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
You mention that in the past, Europe has traditionally been a better fit for Leonard’s “dark humour, old-world romance, existential gloom and poetry.” Why is North America now “getting” the new Leonard, in terms of broader commercial acceptance?

Sylvie Simmons
Being British, I could never understand why North America didn’t get him before. Leonard was loved in the UK and across Europe from the outset, touring there regularly, selling out venues, then returning to a vast blank of incomprehension as soon as he came back. Who knows? Certainly his popularity in the US picked up in 1988 with I’m ‘Your Man’, where the humour was more obvious, less dark, and there were those cheery, Eurodisco synthesisers rather than rumbling Spanish guitar. It stayed up with ‘The Future’ – dark and apocalyptic, but yes, somehow cheerier-sounding than ‘Songs of Love and Hate’, say – but then he disappeared to the monastery for five years – and stopped touring for 15 years – and did not release albums whose songs a postman could whistle on his rounds. Certainly the press attention from the lost bank accounts helped get him back into people’s consciousness, as did the Hal Willner tribute concerts, the film, and the crazy story of “Hallelujah”. And for some happy reason, when he came back the audiences were there for him, everywhere he went.
Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Sylvie, time to respond to some of the questions posted by our visitors!
Hans Kloss asks:
What surprised you most when you met Leonard Cohen for the first time?

Sylvie Simmons
Hi Hans. Sometimes, when I meet an artist, they’re not how you expected them to be, but what surprised me was how entirely and utterly ‘Leonard Cohen’ he was: immaculately dressed, humorous, flirtatious, impeccably good manners (stood up when a woman entered the room, etc.) and spoke in those perfect answers he gives.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Will Birch asks:
When you set out on a biography like the Leonard one do you do the research first, before you commence writing, or do you research and write as you go? Or a bit of both?

Sylvie Simmons
Hi Will! I started with the research – and I started the research where Leonard started his life, in Montreal, in Winter, wandering around like a bag lady in fifty layers of clothes, two hats, two pairs of gloves, and still freezing to death. (Canadians, you are a mighty people). This went on for about nine months, going to the many and various places he lived, then I started writing. But the research and new interviews were going on right throughout the next few years of work, some important ones coming very near the end of the process. I decided to wait until the very end before I spoke to Leonard, because then I’d know exactly what I needed to find out.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Dan Derbridge asks:
Was working with Phil Spector all that bad for Leonard?

Sylvie Simmons
Hi Dan. Yes it was – but at that time things were bad for Leonard even if he hadn’t been working with Spector. Leonard was going through a very dark and depressing period (if you’ve read his poetry book Death of a Lady’s Man you’ll see what I mean), as was Phil Spector, and both were drinking heavily. The combination was not good. The writing process was relatively easy, but the record process was the opposite – and yes, guns were used in the making of that album.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Carl Schultz asks:
‘Hallelujah’ has been recorded by everyone and their dog. A happy situation as far as Cohen’s bank account but how do you think he feels about the amount of exposure that song has gotten?

Sylvie Simmons
Hi Carl. Leonard’s always spoken with gratitude about anyone who’s covered one of his songs – yes, even those most of us would consider atrocities – but when a journalist asked him about the outbreak of Hallelujahs everywhere from sex scenes in superhero films and on X-Factor/American Idol and suggested a moratorium, Leonard agreed that that would be a fine idea. It certainly helped win Leonard a new, younger audience though (I was at the Coachella festival a couple of years back, and when he played it you could see a few kids scratching their heads and wondering why this old bloke in a suit was covering a Rufus Wainwright/Jeff Buckley/American Idol song).

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
James Sharp Roberts asks:
How would you sum up Leonard Cohen in one sentence?

Sylvie Simmons
Hi James. If you white-out all the full-stops/periods in my book, that 195,000-word sentence will say it all. But if you want the Twitter version: A serious writer, a survivor, someone who believes there’s no borderline between music and words, and who knows darkness but still sees the funny side. And a deep man, very deep. Two sentences.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Sylvie, to sum up – the need to love (or at least, be loved) and yet the need for solitude so he could ‘miss his muse'; an equal passion and instinct for love and fighting, and fleeing; the desire for an audience coupled with a need for self-abnegation…do you feel you have succeeded in not only uncovering, but resolving any of the paradoxes that make up Leonard Cohen?

Sylvie Simmons
Resolving? Ah, if only I could do that I’d be elevated to sainthood. Uncovering? Well, I did my best. Mostly it was a case of taking all these strands, all these elements of his life, that some have treated as if they took parallel lines through his life, and bring them together into some sort of helix, because it seemed to me they were all essential parts of what makes Leonard Cohen Leonard Cohen – because without one of these strains, the music, the word, the depression, the religion, the women, the need for discipline, self-abnegation, even for war, the whole thing would crumble.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
You quote Virginia Woolf…”a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.” Have you done a head count on many Leonard Cohens you’ve managed to capture within the pages of ‘I’m Your Man’?

Sylvie Simmons
Haha! Counting is another skill, along with technical ability, that was not granted to me. If anyone finds out, perhaps they’ll let me know…

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
If we were to frame your book as “The Fable of Leonard Cohen”, what would you want the ‘moral’ or key message to be at the end for the reader?

Sylvie Simmons
Hmm, there might be an answer for each of the Leonard Cohens. In some ways it’s a story of undying faith, of perseverance, of redemption, if you like, or of finally finding a way to get through life, which isn’t always something a ‘tortured artist’, in other words a serious artist, manages to do. Most stories about musicians and celebrities tend to have an unhappy ending, and Leonard’s doesn’t. To quote Leonard, “This world is full of conflicts and things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess.” See, he always says it better than the rest of us.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
What’s on deck now, for the book in terms of promotion, readings and the like?
…and Hans Kloss asks:
Any plans of you reading your book in Europe especially in Berlin/Germany?

Sylvie Simmons
In tribute to Leonard (though I guess Dylan started it), I’m on a never-ending tour with my book and ukulele. I’m still running around the US with my book and my uke, snatching up some poor unsuspecting musician in every town to accompany me on some Leonard songs. (Every now and then, some kind soul in the audience does a video, and you can see some of them on my website sylviesimmons.com under ‘Sounds’.)
I’ll be in Austin at SXSW in March, doing a panel called ‘Leonard Cohen and his Women’ with the lovely Perla Batalla, Julie Christensen and Ronee Blakley, all of whom have sung with Leonard, and doing a couple of music and reading events of my own which are free and open to the public. (See sylviesimmons.com under ‘Tour’ for details.) Then I’m going back to New York to perform at a salon in the E.Village, accompanied by the fine Fred Nicolaus on guitar, and after that to New Zealand and Australia for book festivals and all sorts.
But Hans asked about going to Berlin. I wish I could. But the flights from San Francisco are too expensive – and, with the exception of Canada and New Zealand, the publishers won’t contribute any money towards travel expenses, which is why (since I’m paying, and because I keep getting invites) that [DELETE] my tour’s mainly been in the US.
I do hope to get to London in June though – around the same time Leonard goes back to the 02 – so I’ll see what I can work out.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
And what’s next for Sylvie Simmons? Do you already have another music biography underway or planned? Are there others you have your sights on for the future?

Sylvie Simmons
Nothing planned. I’ve never been one to go straight from writing one book to the next (reading books, that’s a different matter!) My brain is still full of Leonard Cohen.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Where is the best place for people to exchange currency for multiple copies of ‘I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN’ as gifts to all their friends and family?

Sylvie Simmons
I’m a big fan of independent bookshops, so if you have one such bookshop near where you live, be happy and proud of it and, if you can afford to pay the mark-up, show your love by buying it there. I think there’s a link on my website to Amazon; I’ve not tried it, but maybe someone can give it a go and report back. I’m thinking of buying an ebook myself, so I don’t have to keep carrying the book on trips. There’s going to be an audio-book too, very soon – I won’t be reading it, though; apparently my voice isn’t male enough! – and, at last count, 12 foreign language editions.

Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications
Sylvie, thanks so much for your time today…and big thanks to all our visitors for sticking with us through this session…Cheers all!

Sylvie Simmons
Thanks Roch and everyone. Hope to get to see you one of these days.

(This interview was first published by Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications music chat page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Roch-Parisiens-Rocon-Communications/208757673971)

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For more information on ‘The Facebook Interviews’:

http://www.suzemuse.com/2010/02/music-journalist-finds-clever-use-for-faceboook-comments/

For more information on Sylvie Simmons and her latest book:
www.sylviesimmons.com/

http://www.sfweekly.com/2013-01-09/music/sylvie-simmons-on-leonard-cohen-black-sabbath-music-journalism/

www.mcclelland.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780771080425