One of rock‘n’roll’s great journalists on Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed, and Bob Johnston.
“Two handsome men, we should do this in my room,” she smiles. I’ve just got out of the lift on the tenth floor of an Auckland Hotel, and she welcomes me with a warm hug. Despite jetlag etc. (“I’ve gone beyond frazzled”), Sylvie Simmons gives me a charming hour, complementing her biography I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen with vivid, sprawling stories.
Demanding Cohenista Pico Iyer had recently said, “please tell her I loved the book and its nuances.” He emailed me: “One of the beauties of Sylvie Simmons’s new book, which instantly becomes the definitive sourcebook for all material on the man, is that she brings to Cohen much of the discretion, perceptiveness, tight focus and wit that he brings to the world.”
Iyer added Cohen is the sort of man you want to be around: funny, kind, and disciplined. “Whenever I spend time with him, I’m spellbound by the droll gravitas, the warmth, the constant solicitude and the extraordinary gift with words; but when I come away from the small house in a very rough part of L.A. he shares with daughter and grandson, I realise I’ve been most moved by what you don’t hear so much on the records: his deep commitment to his kids, the seriousness and voraciousness of his reading, especially on matters of the spirit, the depth of his silences. Many a visitor finds herself just sitting with him in his small garden, saying nothing, enjoying a communion deeper than personality or intention.”
After I spoke with Sylviephile Simon Sweetman in advance of her visit to Auckland, she’d tweeted: “Some people have a street named after them. Yeah, yeah. But do they have a cat they’ve never met named after them?” On stage at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival the night following our interview, Noelle McCarthy said that “Sylvie Simmons is one of the world’s best rock‘n’roll journalists.”
During Sylvie’s encounter with the relentlessly rude Lou Reed, he flopped out the old lie: that she was a music journalist because she had no musical talent. Sylvie concluded her Noelle session with a moving version of Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’: “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes, I thought it was there for good, so I never tried”. “Rather wonderful voice,” The Listener’s shrewd Guy Somerset said. “She should put out an album. I’d buy it.”
Sylvie’s the sort of woman you want to be around: funny, kind, and insightful. “One of the most delightful things about this tour is a lot of it’s on a wing and prayer. So occasionally it’s insane and other times it’s sublime, but the sublime tends to beat the insane,” the five-foot San Franciscan says, in her soft Londonian lilt.
“Do you mind if I take my shoes off?” She broke her toe at Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival. “It’s a wonderful thing to go to, even if it breaks your limbs. I always seem to cause some damage to my body there.” Photography by Rath Vatcharakiet.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: You had an exciting time at South by Southwest?
SYLVIE SIMMONS: Lovely, singing with Julie Christiensen and Perla Betalla and Ronee Blakely. Leonard Cohen’s songs have got so much space and generosity in them, and they really work with women’s voices. I had this panel called Leonard Cohen and his Women, I counted myself among them; and we sang some of his songs and told some ribald and moving stories.
AB: Leonard Cohen has a great appreciation and understanding of women.
SS: He does. He is so totally truly a ladies’ man in every way. He totally focuses on you as if you are the most interesting person on the planet. You come out with a blush in your cheeks and a spring in your step, smoking an imaginary cigarette. He’s a real character, lovely man.
AB: 2010 was the first time I’d seen Leonard Cohen. He’s in his seventies with such infectious joy in life. Skipping around the stage, it’s impressive he can maintain it over such a long and magnificent concert.
SS: Well after such a long and magnificent life he’s found happiness. The book is almost a redemption story. He’s come towards the ending years of his life on a real high. He’s getting more love and more attention than he ever has in his whole life. And he’s happy, he’s over his depression.
AB: Pico Iyer’s Graham Greene counterbiography The Man Within My Head begins with a quote: “What means the fact which is so common, so universal that some soul that has lost all hope for itself, can inspire in another listening soul infinite confidence in it even while it’s expressing its despair.” Leonard Cohen songs have done that for people.
SS: I’m looking forward to reading that book. That’s very much true. There’s something cathartic about the darkness in Leonard Cohen songs. And, generally speaking, his songs have more depth and mystery than they have darkness. I could never really understand why Americans, and Canadians in particular, didn’t take to those early albums because they found them too dark. I found them so deep. Leonard told me sadness is the engine for almost everything he did: the women, the wine, the drugs, everything. It was a way to quieten that demon of depression. To him, the music isn’t dark, it’s deep.
AB: His music is beautiful.
SS: And mysterious. I fell in love with his music the day I hit puberty. I got this compilation out and ‘Sisters of Mercy’ was on it and that voice came out of my little tiny tinny speakers, one single speaker on my record player, and just threw me against the wall. I have no idea why he moved me as much as he did, but I would save up my pocket money and go out and buy his albums. He was the strange old poetic looking bloke on the cover, he didn’t look anything like Paul McCartney and therefore was not fanciable. There’s a comfort in the mystery of Leonard Cohen’s songs that kept, and keeps, drawing me back.
AB: ‘Sisters of Mercy’ still draws you in?
SS: Because it was the first. It’s probably one of the least enigmatic of the songs. As a kid of course I knew that sisters of mercy were nuns. Other songs like ‘Suzanne’ get metaphysical. We’ll never know who the heroes in the seaweed are, or the children leaning out for love.
AB: You’re wearing a Brooklyn T-shirt. One of the charms of New York is that it’s so big and energetic and chaotic, you can never understand, do it all. With Leonard Cohen the work is so rich and varied, you keep returning to the songs.
SS: Yeah. It keeps having different shades when you go back to it. It’s like seeing a perfect painting. There’s always something that always makes you want to sink into it and see something new.
AB: At fourteen I got into Leonard Cohen, compelling songs like ‘So Long, Marianne’.
SS: Everything was so mysterious about that. Even with the second album Songs, that photo on the cover of Marianne sitting there, strangely she’d be on the cover even when she’s been broken up within the first album. That’s Leonard for you, confusing the girl. That feeling of strange innocence and longing in that. Quite often Leonard would long for the person that he left, that seemed to be one of the great engines of his work. Having to be alone, and through that loneliness, longing for something.
AB: It’s remarkable in your book that his muses, women like the Norwegian beauty Marianne he lived with in Greece, have such good things to say about him.
SS: They do, it’s quite remarkable. The bottom line with most of them was he didn’t pretend to be anything else than he was. In other words it wasn’t like they caught him cheating, it was a case of “we knew who he was.” Nobody really spoke against him. He seems like a very decent man, especially for a celebrity.
AB: Speaking of celebrities, one of my favourite interviews of yours was with Lou Reed. Have you run into him since?
SS: No I haven’t, funnily enough. What was so strange was at the end of the interview I gave him an out, I said “As we’ve explained from the beginning this is a Q&A, there’s just going to be a very short introduction. I don’t know what you think, but I think this isn’t really going too well, and would you like to do it again? We can do it by phone, we can start again.” But he went “No.” So that was it. He was very strange. The oddest thing was when he wanted to play Ornette Coleman and I said, “Well, shall we stop and listen?” and he said “You can do two things at once can’t you?” I said, “yes I’m multi-talented.” And then he played Coleman and started yelling at his female assistant to turn off the music because he couldn’t talk and listen to it at the same time. He stood up and lifted [gestures] his sleeve up and thrust his arm in my face and said he had goose pimples. “See how moved I am by music.” He was an awkward customer.
“One of the interesting things I’ve found when talking to people who were very close to him was that they kind of talk like Leonard Cohen sometimes. They speak in a somewhat slow and deliberate way and in the beginning it felt a bit creepy, like the cult of Lenny and am I going to be part of the cult of Lenny? He kind of slows things down somewhat, in a way that makes you examine what you’re saying and how you’re saying it.”
AB: Don’t believe the mythology, to borrow from Chuck D. Little Britain, Lou and Andy poking fun at Reed and Warhol, that was amusing.
SS: Lou Reed seemed like he couldn’t get enough love. Joni Mitchell seems to suffer from that, too. When I was speaking to Lou Reed, I said, “For heaven’s sake you’re loved by critics. How can you possibly say you weren’t given respect?” But it wasn’t enough for him.
AB: It’s weird Sylvie, you’re highly regarded, done your research, been vetted by his people. But Lou Reed decided from the start he wasn’t making any effort?
SS: It was quite the opposite: he was making an effort to be as unpleasant as a human being could. People with a lot of passion and creativity are usually interesting to talk to even when they’re peculiar. I’ve certainly met some peculiar people in my life, been in some peculiar situations. Lou Reed did disappoint me, I thought I really want to have a good conversation with you, but it was all about some strange ego.
AB: In writing I’m Your Man, partly because you know your subject(s) so well, you had a good run interviewing people?
SS: Yeah, I was really lucky. I started out going to Montreal, because that was where Leonard started his life, in winter. I realised very soon his life really was this holistic thing. It was like the strand of a DNA, a helix, that if you took away any one of these strands the whole thing was pointless. So, the women, the depression, the written word, the musical element of his life, everything came together. If you took one away, you wouldn’t have Leonard Cohen. I had to get in deeply, so I interviewed about 110 key people. Not all of them were initially very willing to talk, but gradually Leonard was giving people approval to talk to me, everybody that I wanted joined in. Except Joni Mitchell.
AB: Joni Mitchell, everybody knows.
SS: She’s become rather difficult in later years and seems to be rewriting history a lot, so what she said would not have panned out with what she was saying at the time.
AB: Phil Spector was a tough ask, too?
SS: I tried. I tried to smuggle myself in in a cake, I’m small enough, I thought I could do it. I wrote to him in prison. I tried going through various other people who knew people, but couldn’t get in and that’s rather a shame. But I can understand his point because there were guns used in the making of Death of a Ladies’ Man with Leonard, and he’s sadly locked away for something awful that happened with a gun. He probably doesn’t want to bring any of that up, so I spoke to as many other people as I could who were involved in that album and got different sides of the story.
AB: You manage to bring all Cohen strands together, including the rabbis.
SS: I spoke to the rabbi who taught his bar mitzvah class. Do you know the Coen brothers film [A Serious Man], where the guy goes to see the old rabbi? It reminded me of that. It was so funny, I was being shown around this synagogue that Leonard’s great grandfather had founded, and was rabbi of. They brought me in to meet this rabbi, who qualified in every way of being old and rabbinical, he was ancient. Leonard is 79 this year, this man knew him when he was 13. One of the questions I’d asked him was, “You know when Leonard was a little boy in the synagogue, did he sing?” And he kind of gave me this old rabbinical peering look, like looking deep into my soul and then he went, “Leonard sing?” [laughs] I said, “A lot of the critics used to agree with you.” He said, “He spoke very well.” [laughs]
SS: Then I got his most recent rabbi and we spent a day talking about all sorts of elements of Leonard’s studies and his serious knowledge of the Kabbalahl. (Madonna and her little bracelet don’t have anything to do with it.) I spoke to monks. I couldn’t speak to Roshi because he didn’t understand what I said, I didn’t understand what he said, and he was already in his hundreds and not really doing much.
Women are a very important part of his life and it seemed to me that that started very early. Chapter two is called House of Women. When Leonard’s father died Leonard was nine years old and from that moment on he was raised in a house of women: an older sister and a doting mother. He was constantly loved, supported, and indulged but probably also smothered half to death, which might be where he got his need to always run away from women, but then to long for love.
My interest in the women wasn’t getting an account, almost a telephone directory, it would have been a fifteen volume book. I’d spend my whole life interviewing them. Just put your hands up if you didn’t, would be easier.
There was constantly this idea of supportive women in his life. Leonard’s first manager was a woman, Mary Martin, and Judy Collins was the first to introduce him onstage and on record as a singer-songwriter. Then also there’s these great loves, the muses.
AB: It was good hearing from Rebecca De Mornay.
SS: Rebecca De Mornay, the actress, was the last of the muses I spoke to. I said to her, “Leonard had this album called The Future, it was his biggest album as far as sales went in the U.S. And, he went on tour, had his sixtieth birthday, he’s engaged to be married, didn’t happen often. Then next minute he’s living as a monk on Mt Baldy. What happened?” And she said, “Did you ask Leonard?” I said, “Yes. And he told me something that I thought was a crock.” She sent me a really articulate answer. She said that Leonard has always had problems throughout his life with commitment: committing to a woman in a marriage, committing to the music business. He always hated touring up until recently, he always felt that in some way it would damage his work by singing the same song night after night. This innocence and truth and honesty that it came from is going to get pinched out by doing it to paying customers night after night when he’s not in the mood to sing it. She said he told her being married is harder work than being in a monastery because it’s 24/7 and you have to be there, if you’re doing it properly, and so in the end he chose the monastery. You couldn’t have got that from anybody but his fiancé.
AB: I enjoyed evocative chapter two, his time growing up in Montreal, discovering Lorca, wandering the streets as a thirteen year old looking for women.
SS: Looking for girls at 3am in the morning, and wondering why he couldn’t find them. Nice girls are not going to be standing on the streets at 3am in the morning, and you’re a bit young for the other ones.
AB: He’s always been motivated by women. You describe the young man with the hypnotic voice discovering hypnotherapy, hypnotising the maid to undress.
SS: Yes, he loves the women. That’s always been a major thing for him. He’s not a lech. I’ve met him on occasions before the book and you could tell that he is a very seductive and very flirtatious man. He’s got it down to an art. But there isn’t this sort of predatory feeling you can get from some rock stars, where it’s ‘put it away’. There’s none of that, he is a very gracious and well-mannered man.
AB: So, the Petraeus question, how do you keep writer’s distance?
SS: 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.
AB: I love your in-depth interview with Johnny Cash six weeks before he died.
SS: That was one of the assignments of a lifetime, both wonderful and horribly poignant. Johnny Cash had been working with the brilliant producer Rick Rubin. I got to know Rick through his heavy metal life, he really is a music journalist trapped in an extremely wealthy record producer’s body. Rick and Johnny decided we were going to do two books, first a small one that would go out with the boxset marking the ten years that Johnny and Rick had worked together. Ten very successful years, because Johnny’s career had been on the skids for a while, he’d been thrown off two record labels, and he was playing the blue rinse circuit in the middle of nowhere to little old ladies.
AB: Rubin/Cash saw great music such as American Five: A Hundred Highways, ‘Hurt’. The excellent black documentary maker Noland Walker told me: “Cash’s story is all of our story in the end, no matter what we amass or achieve in a material sense, most of it crumbles or goes away. But what can remain is the effect of the lives we touch (though the scale varies). Trent Reznor’s right, ‘Hurt’ is no longer his song (in the way that ‘Natural Woman’ and ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ no longer belong to Carole King and Dionne Warwick, respectively).”
SS: Absolutely, he made it his own.
AB: Your article on ‘Hurt’ is sharp: “His physical frailty comes as a shock. Just as it did in the Hurt video… It doesn’t seem right somehow; the Man in Black always seemed mythic, carved out of granite. But the defiance and determination are still visibly there. The life force seems to burn brighter in this white-haired old man than in any young pretender.” And “the father of our country!”, as Kris Kristofferson calls him in your conclusion, was now living in an empire of dirt.
SS: My article kept getting put off. I was out in Tennessee at one point and I met up with June. She was very generous and hospitable, she seemed kind of unwell. Then the next thing we knew she died. It was very sudden, she’d gone into hospital and she’d died. Johnny Cash had been going in and out of hospital during that period. It was over and over and over again, and June was organising prayerathons online and things and somehow getting him back from the edge. So everybody expected John to go and not June. He was devastated. I thought he’s going to pass very soon. She was the one keeping him alive. I got a call from Rick saying Johnny wants you to go out this weekend, can you do it? Sure.
I’d met Johnny Cash and interviewed him a few times before, but this was really quite shocking. I met him in his kitchen in that big house they had in Walk the Line. He was coming down in, as he called it, the “Popemobile,” one of those lifts that they put on the wall for people with wheelchairs. It was a glass fronted thing and his face looked almost dead. He came out and he looked so shrunken but swollen at the same time. His face looked like he’d been having a boxing match with Ali, bent in and out of shape and eyes were nearly blind with glaucoma and his hair was white. He came up and said, in that voice, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” It sent chills through you. He was like, let’s have breakfast. So I spent five days with him. We spent a lot of time together, usually one of his daughters would be there visiting, at one point lovely Roseanne Cash was there.
Other times doctors would be coming by because he was determined to get out of his wheelchair and walk, and throw the damn wheelchair in the lake, which was by the house. We’d talk, we got along.
AB: He must have liked you to have you around for five days.
SS: Down in the basement where they shot the ‘Hurt’ video he had a baby grand piano at each end of the room and when he was spending the morning with his doctors, I said “Do you mind if I play some music?” He says [adopts deep voice] “That’s what it’s there for honey.” And so I sat and played Chopin on the piano downstairs. In the afternoons, I sat with him while he was recording in the back room, the one with the circular bachelor boy bed and hunting trophies on the wall. It was remarkably poignant to see this man who was 71 but looked about 90 determined to get back. I think one of the most moving moments was when I asked about how he and Rick had taken out a full page ad and billboard when they got the first Grammy, sort of giving the finger. He pushed himself up from his wheelchair, “I went ‘fuck you’.” He was flipping the bird, this little old man and it made my heart soar. This is Johnny Cash, this is the Man in Black.
“With the second album Songs, that photo on the cover of Marianne sitting there, strangely she’d be on the cover even when she’s been broken up within the first album. That’s Leonard for you, confusing the girl. That feeling of strange innocence and longing in that. Quite often Leonard would long for the person that he left, that seemed to be one of the great engines of his work. Having to be alone, and through that loneliness, longing for something.”
AB: I enjoyed you alluding to the connections between Cash and Cohen: the colourful Texan producer Bob Johnston; the cover of ‘Bird On A Wire’; Live At Henderson Hospital, I’m pleased to know there’s a good unreleased recording of that, the parallel with San Quentin and Folsom.
SS: Bob Johnston’s a friend of mine, I love him. He’s 80 years old and a complete red headed devil. He’s trouble, but he’s good trouble. Bob Dylan wrote about him in Chronology, he talked about how he should be with a big sword, wearing a red cape and coming in and killing all the record company people. Bob was always a wild boy, he wanted to record the first Leonard Cohen album. He was a Columbia Records star producer, but he was already recording things like Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Dylan, and about four or five other albums. So they said you’ve got enough, you can’t do it. After that first album Leonard Cohen was so unhappy with the production, that they’d added too much to it, he was trying to strip it down. He happened to run into Bob Johnston in Los Angeles and told him he wasn’t going to make another album. Bob gave him a key to a log cabin in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee that belonged to Boudleaux Bryant (‘Love Hurts’).
So Leonard went and stayed out in the log cabin and loved working in Nashville with Bob. Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, two of my favourite albums, and of course the Live Songs after that. He insisted that Bob went on tour with him, so that was wild because things happen around Bob Johnston, people will draw guns and it was Bob Johnston’s idea to ride the horses on the stage at one of the shows when they needed horses to get to the gig cos the roads were blocked. Bob was a wild guy and still is.
AB: Did you ever discuss Johnny Cash with Leonard Cohen?
SS: Before I’d worked on the boxset with Johnny Cash, I’d done a story in the ’90s on Cash’s prison albums, on the whole story behind them. Bob Johnston said, “These people like Dylan and Cash and Cohen, there’s something about them. When they walk into a room the air changes. As soon as Johnny Cash got on stage the whole mood would shift. It’s the same with Leonard Cohen.” Bob Johnston produced Johnny Cash’s prison albums. In order to get him out of New York, because he was causing so much trouble, Bob Johnston was posted to Nashville by Columbia to head up their Nashville division. As soon as Johnny Cash said I want to do San Quentin, Bob got on the phone to the warden and set it up.
AB: You also interviewed Muddy Waters? I felt lucky to see Eddie Shaw who played in his band for a while in Chicago last year.
SS: He was lovely. I’ve interviewed most people, most are really good, but there’s some that you just love. Bob Johnston became a guy that I am really drawn to. When I go to L.A. he’s almost like some old family member I go and visit now. Once we had this lovely day, he was having a hard time, living under the LAX flight path. I had my uke and played ‘Avalanche’ from Songs of Love and Hate. The rumbling of the planes went overhead, taking off and landing and singing ‘Avalanche’ together.
AB: Who’s next up for you? Tom Waits?
SS: There’s a few people that are hollering in my head that I think I would really like to write, Tom Waits is no secret. He deserves a really really good book, but he doesn’t want one and so it’s pointless. At some point he may change his mind.
AB: How about interviewing Bob Dylan?
SS: I was offered an interview with him once and unfortunately had to turn it down because the conditions were such that it would have been a waste of time.
AB: How has Leonard Cohen influenced you as a writer?
SS: Persistence, patience and a kind of discipline that sometimes falls apart when you’re writing for a magazine and you’re just getting things in. That diligence with which he works, it does rub off on you. One of the interesting things I’ve found when talking to people who were very close to him was that they kind of talk like Leonard Cohen sometimes. They speak in a somewhat slow and deliberate way and in the beginning it felt a bit creepy, like the cult of Lenny and am I going to be part of the cult of Lenny? He kind of slows things down somewhat, in a way that makes you examine what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. I’ve been working on some short stories recently, just to keep my hand in, and those have got that slight slowness and patience and calm to them. They’re not my usual rabid, crazy short stories.
AB: You’ve said journalism’s “fucked.” I am pleased I’m Your Man isn’t too short.
SS: I proposed to them, they bought it. One thing I insisted on, though the publisher didn’t like it, was those little conversations with Leonard that go through the book. The other thing missing from biographies of him was his voice, he has this amazing way of talking that’s so precise and funny. There’s always a slight modesty in everything, and so why paraphrase that, when I could have his words? It’s almost like a Greek chorus of one, “I actually jammed with Jimi Hendrix.” Or the story he gave of walking down the street with Joni Mitchell and a limo goes by and in the back is Jimi Hendrix trying to chat up Joni Mitchell. I wouldn’t have minded if I was Joni, Jim Hendrix was very handsome.
AB: I like how you captured Cohen’s voice in the book’s prologue. I was pleased to see you loved Searching for Sugarman.
SS: Oh, I had tears in my eyes when I saw that, a great film. My friend opened for him [Rodriguez] recently so I went.
AB: How was it?
SS: It was good. It wasn’t quite what I expected. Maybe he’s got some very bad eyesight problem, he was led on stage.
AB: What do you want people to take away from I’m Your Man?
SS: That’s not easy to answer. Viewed from a certain angle, it can be seen as a story of a life devoted to art and work. Or, from another, a story of undying faith, of perseverance, of redemption, 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. 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.”