Those who want to meet their heroes run the risk of having some of the magic dispelled. As an experienced rock journalist and biographer, Sylvie Simmons must have been aware of the dangers when, back in 2009, she embarked on writing Leonard Cohen’s life story. Even so, now that I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen has hit the shelves, much of that magic remains intact. “Darling,” Cohen confides to her in the prologue, “I was born in a suit.”
The story of Cohen’s life is told in roughly 500 pages, during which the author never loses our interest. From the outset, Simmons paints a picture of a determined young man trying to make it as an artist. That quest began in the thirties and forties on the streets of Montreal, where Cohen would roam around at night. It was while studying at the prestigious McGill University that his poetic talent was first recognized. Following interludes in New York and London, Cohen ended up on the Greek island of Hydra. Then, in 1967, came his debut as a singer, a career change that continues to fill column inches.
Simmons affirms that financial considerations were the deciding factor, but she does refute the persistent myth that Cohen sang his best-known song “Suzanne” down the phone to folk singer Judy Collins, who fell in love with it and promptly included the track on her new LP. Of course she recorded it, but the collaboration came about in a much more prosaic way. By 1971 Cohen had released three albums, which are still among his best: Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs From A Room (1969), and Songs Of Love And Hate (1971).
Simmons also describes other aspects of Cohen’s “life in art”: the sometimes turbulent concert tours, the disappointments and failures of the 1980s, the return to the public eye with the album I’m Your Man in 1988, as well as the recent acclaim. There is one constant throughout: whoever or whatever was to cross Cohen’s path, he always returned to his writing table.
A unique biography
Much of that we knew: the list of biographers is long. But I’m Your Man is a cut above the rest. To begin with, Simmons is up to date. She devotes ample attention to Cohen’s recent activities, including the spiritual journey that brought him to India. “Something had happened to Leonard in India,” Simmons writes. “Something ‘just lifted’ the veil of depression through which he had always seen the world. His depression had gone.” Critics saw this reflected in his work: “The longing persists, but the slavery is over,” one reviewer wrote. Above all, Simmons’ study is comprehensive, thanks to the author’s painstaking research as much as the hundred-odd fascinating testimonials. Among the most remarkable are Cohen’s childhood friend Mort Rosengarten, the rabbi who prepared him for his Bar Mitzvah, producer Bob Johnston, and former fiancée Rebecca de Mornay. The dubious collaboration with Phil Spector is also reconstructed in minute detail.
Simmons also enjoyed the privilege of interviews with Cohen himself, an additional witness capable of shedding a unique light on his own life. And she had permission to browse through Cohen’s archives. “This is the real work,” Cohen once said, pointing at a stack of full box files. “I keep adding to this heap of blackened pages’. Not surprisingly then, I’m Your Man contains plenty of intriguing references to never-released songs that are gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. Until recently, some of these were included as bonus tracks on reissues of his old albums. But Cohen, believing this practice undermines the original unity of those albums, has now banned his record company from doing so. To Simmons’ question whether there is something he wants to complete at all costs, even if it will be the death of him, Cohen replies: “There’s one song that I’ve been working on for many, many years – decades. I would really like to have it on the next record, but I felt that for the past two or three records. Maybe four. It’s a song I’d really like to complete.” That is all we are told, but the rumors from Cohen’s entourage confirm that a new album is in the works.
Babushka and voodoo dolls
By involving the object of her study in her account, Simmons may have lost the ability to differentiate between the real-life person and the “Leonard Cohen” phenomenon – that’s right, the man born in a suit. Sure, the facts included here are all complete and accurate, but their analysis is not always critical enough. The man who appears to have merged with his image since his comeback in 2008 is more complex than the one-dimensional picture we see on the gatefold cover of the live album Songs From The Road: Cohen cloaked in a mysterious shadow holding both a glass of whisky and a glass of wine. On the other hand, Simmons actually cites several examples that chip away at that construct, sometimes literally so.
Mort Rosengarten reveals that he once made a mask for Cohen’s performances, a plaster cast of his face: “Leonard felt it was helpful in deciding his persona on stage. A mask is neutral, it’s the person that wears it that gives it life, the way you move your head and your eyes and all that stuff. It becomes very powerful.” So while Simmons tells us that Cohen assumes different characters, she does not investigate how these personae relate to one another. And yet there is every reason to, since they are a recurrent theme in Cohen’s oeuvre. Nowhere more clearly than in “Going Home”, off the recent album Old Ideas, where he sings: “I love to speak with Leonard / He’s a sportsman and a shepherd / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” But in earlier work, too, Cohen toys with his different personae: is the “L. Cohen” who signs the long letter “Famous Blue Raincoat” really the man described in Simmons’ biography?
Of course, it’s no easy task to get to the bottom of the relationship between author and character. But the stakes are high: a glimpse into Cohen’s “Secret Life”, like the track on Ten New Songs. Discussing his early work, Simmons writes that all those short stories are like “mirror-lined Leonard Cohen Russian dolls reflecting, and deflecting, ad infinitum.” In fact, in “Tower of Song” Cohen talks about voodoo dolls: “I’m very sorry baby, doesn’t look like me at all.” Any attempt at verifying the artistic work for its “authenticity” must be frustrating to say the least. But there are other ways of approaching the task, and therein lies a golden opportunity for future biographers.
While there is not much to add to Simmons’ archival research, her descriptive approach from outside could be supplemented with a fresh look from within. In other words, the artist’s life could be viewed through the work. That there are rich pickings to be had there is something Cohen himself suggests quite explicitly. In a song from 2004 he claims, “You never liked to get the letters that I sent / But now you’ve got the gist of what my letters meant.” Another good example is “Night Comes On”, a song from 1985, which Cohen gave another airing this year. Seldom has he described his feelings of sorrow and despair after his father’s death so openly and vividly.
In the meantime, I’m Your Man is mandatory and absolutely fascinating reading for anyone curious about Leonard Cohen’s life. This is his most comprehensive biography to date.
Francis Mus holds a doctorate in literature and is an assistant at the University of Leuven in Flanders, Belgium. He is a contributing writer for Consequence of Sound.