I suppose it’s violating some Socratic imperative to know thyself, if that’s who it was, but I’ve always found that examination extremely tedious.... I don’t find it compelling at all.”
We can consider ourselves fortunate that Sylvie Simmons paid no heed to this professed ambivalence and apathy towards self-examination. Perhaps the master of the elliptical and the sly wit was just putting her on. But she didn’t bite.
I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, the new sprawling, generous and ultimately exquisite portrait of the life of the Canadian master of words, is the result of her persistence.
“Poète, chansonnier, écrivain,” said the blurb describing him in the official programme at Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada, his first major public appearance in his hometown. Poet, singer and writer; three words which, taken even individually, would validate the attention and care Simmons invests in her subject. But his is a life far richer, an oeuvre of rare depth and a character that is a delicious mix of complexity and elegance. And in the assured hands of Simmons, we beget a work that is worthy of the man.
“You are going to meet a man who speaks with a tongue of gold,” predicted the grandmother of Marianne Ihlen, the muse of So Long, Marianne. Yes, he would be shooed in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, but it will always be his words that stand radiant—in his poetry, his writings and his songs. “He’s our Byron, our Shelley,” Bono once declared, speaking for a whole new generation of artistes. In the annals of popular music, he has achieved a stature in songwriting rivalled only by Bob Dylan. And as with Dylan, his singing will always be secondary, playing backup to the mesmerizing grip of his words.
Simmons charts his evolution, starting in an affluent Montreal neighbourhood and a childhood in a traditional Jewish family (“Darling, I was born in a suit,” he tells her, alluding to his family’s clothing business) and his teenage years, when the seeds of a life as a poet and writer were sown. “It is quite possible he never was a teenager,” she writes, describing the maturity of introspection he was displaying at a tender age.
Cohen would be a published poet and writer long before he ventured into the recording studio with his guitar. She provides a fascinating peek into the blossoming of his illustrious career as a man of words and the publications of his first poetry in The Spice-Box of Earth and Flowers for Hitler. Of his novel Beautiful Losers (1966), she says: “Beautiful Losers is a prayer—at times a hysterically funny, filthy prayer—for the unity of the self, and a hymn to the loss of self through sainthood and transfiguration.”
And so to his music. Simmons’ account of Cohen sitting on his New York hotel bed with a guitar, playing songs for John Hammond (the legendary producer who also discovered Dylan) in a chair in front of him, is intriguing. This audition would lead to Songs of Leonard Cohen, his first studio album. Each album and its evolution, tortured and prolonged in many cases, gets detailed exposition in this book.
Cohen gems like Suzanne, Bird on the Wire, Famous Blue Raincoat, Sisters of Mercy and The Partisan receive special attention, as do tumultuous recording sessions, like his hallucinatory, guns- and drugs-fuelled pairing with Phil Spector on Death of a Ladies’ Man. There’s also Hallelujah, the song that has been covered by over 300 artistes—from Dylan and Bono to Justin Timberlake—and has been used in elevators as well as the background score for a sex scene in a major movie.
Simmons’ description of Cohen’s famous financial disaster in the 2000s—resulting from a betrayal by a trusted associate that left him bankrupt and forced him to tour again—is touching. Her prose softens and is almost a whisper, in tune with the heartfelt thoughts of a legend in his 70s, in the sunset of his career, forced to fight just for survival. Cohen’s long worldwide tour was a spectacular success; Simmons describes the emotional welcome he received every time he walked out: “But he stood there in the spotlight in his sharp suit, fedora and shiny shoes, looking like a Rat Pack rabbi, God’s chosen mobster…It was something deeper. There was some necessary rite that was being performed here, some gift being exchanged and something important being shared.”
"FIRST WORDS: He is a courtly man, elegant, with old-world manners."
Simmons doesn’t shy away from the complex darker aspects of his life. Cohen has a laundry list of complexities: a practising Jew (“who understands the Kabbalah from within”) and an ordained Buddhist monk fascinated by the Bible, complicated and convoluted in relationships with women, struggles with fatherhood, destructive alcohol and drug abuse, debilitating bouts of depression, chronic self-doubt and perfectionism and the complicated intertwining imagery of his mind; of love, sex, religion, politics, redemption and despair—(“music to slit your wrists by”, a critic had deemed it).
It’s heavy, but Simmons is no lightweight. She is one of the foremost music journalists working today, and it would be easier to list the major artistes she hasn’t interviewed or written about. Some of her features are the stuff of legend, like her interview with Lou Reed (who was “being a dick”, she said) and the five days she spent with Johnny Cash, just weeks before his death, producing the most widely acclaimed profile of the man.
“To write a biography, particularly of someone still living, is to immerse yourself in that person’s life to a degree that would probably get you locked up in any decent society,” says Simmons about her exhaustively researched effort. The enthusiastic and voluntary assistance she has garnered from pretty much anyone alive who had any association with Cohen is evident. So is the fact that Cohen himself has been extremely generous with his time and memories, as transcripts of their conversations interspersed throughout the book attest.
You are never in doubt that Simmons is enraptured by her subject and his craft. “Most of all, thank you Leonard Cohen, for being so considerate as to choose the second I hit puberty to release your first album, for continuing to move and enlighten me with your music and words ever since….”
But she wears this lightly, constructing a nuanced and detailed portrait that steadfastly veers clear of a hagiography. At 570 pages, one could accuse her of being too liberal with her words. But she writes deftly, unsparingly and with humour and feeling, making this a welcome burden to bear. It’s rare that a subject of Cohen’s multitudes meets the sensitive eye and elegant pen of a writer like Simmons. This is one such occasion and we should savour it.
Write to lounge@livemint