The Charmed and Troubled Life of a Poet of Our Times (Jakarta Globe)

Reading about the lives of the rich and/or famous can be an unexpectedly humdrum affair. Biographers may trawl through the life history of the celebrity digging up childhood facts that are probably less significant than the biographer would like us to believe they are. Meanwhile, autobiographers may try to be revelatory but only end up revealing that the person behind the public image actually is not all that interesting.

“I’m Your Man,” a biography of Leonard Cohen written by Sylvie Simmons, suffers from neither of these problems and that is a relief because at 560 pages it is a rather hefty volume. The voluminous nature of this biography is probably a product of both its subject matter and the skill and dedication that the writer was able to bring to the task.

The subject matter is of course the rather enigmatic but hugely influential singer-songwriter Cohen, who might more accurately be described as a poet of our modern times. The writer, meanwhile, is a respected music journalist who has previous biography credits chronicling the lives of Neil Young and Serge Gainsbourg, two popular artists not a million miles distant from Cohen.

Simmons has produced a remarkably thorough book that, although it is huge, is neither labored nor tedious in presenting the details. Ultimately, it is both thoughtful and revelatory, as it helps the reader see and appreciate the factors that molded the poet that Cohen would become. 

Cohen has led both a charmed and troubled life, and this no doubt shaped and guided his artistry.

Born in 1934 into an upper middle class family of Jewish ancestry in Montreal, Canada, Cohen in his early years clearly enjoyed a comfortable family life. The death of his father when Cohen was only 9 years old surely had an impact on his upbringing, but his mother of Lithuanian decent and his older sister did much to make up for this loss. He grew up to become a poet who would enjoy trips to Greek islands — a life of some luxury, to be sure.

The book is thorough in articulating Cohen’s religious influences. Both of his grandfathers were noteworthy in Canadian-Jewish spheres. His maternal grandfather was a Talmudic scholar and rabbi, whilst his paternal grandfather (with the rather cool name of Lyon Cohen), was a leader of the Canadian-Jewish community.

Evidently, Cohen’s upbringing was deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. But later in life he dabbled in Scientology, before leaving the cities behind in 1993 to take to the Californian hills and join the Mount Baldy Zen Center.

This says much of the man’s spirituality. He spent about five years at the Zen center and was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk. All of this religious exposure and exploration of the spiritual undoubtedly helped to craft the gentle, vulnerable and deeply moving lyricism of his music.

Bouts of depression and self-doubt throughout his life would have had similar impacts, but also illustrate the rising and falling, twisting and turning life of an artist. One of the “falls” that Cohen had to face was when he chose to leave the Zen center and return to his native Montreal.

Simmons relates how it was then that Cohen discovered that his business manager, Kelley Lynch, had essentially stolen all of his money. What was bad for Cohen turned out to be good for his fans, as his financial ruin meant he had to hit the concert circuit again to recoup the lost funds.

In less sympathetic hands than Simmons’s, a biography of Cohen could portray him as a fairly scurrilous womanizer, as he has been associated with many women, some famous, over the years. But this biographer was able to weave such relationships into the overall pattern of an artist, his life and work. In this way it is less about womanizing and more about love, and that love is woven into his art.

“I’m Your Man” is a thorough portrayal of the life of a great artist. It is comprehensive without succumbing to idolization.

by Simon Marcus Gower for Jakarta Globe

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