Sylvie Simmons’s detailed portrait of the world in which Leonard Cohen lived, loved, worked, and wrote.
I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Jonathan Cape, NZ$29.95), by Sylvie Simmons, is not just a retelling of one man’s life, but a detailed portrait of the world in which he lived, loved, worked, and wrote. Through a combination of letters and interviews with the man himself, his muses, companions, producers, and family members, Simmons provides us with a comprehensive back-story to so many of the famous Cohen songs and myths.
The early days in Montreal and Hydra—the Greek Island where many writers and artists of the ’50s and ’60s lived cheaply and worked freely—show a determined and driven young writer who always knew he would make good. Cohen says of himself at McGill University, “back then I was very self confident. I had no doubts that my work would penetrate the world painlessly. I believed I was among the great.” But the portrait that’s painted here is less of a self-assured, cocky young man ready to take on the world, and more of a sharply-dressed gentleman, who won over everyone he met.
The fact that everyone seemed to like him in those early days almost becomes implausible—Simmons’s interviews each cover some description or other of Cohen’s sophistication and charm—but it’s a complex story, in which he spends long periods away from his love, the now immortalised Marianne; has a constant collection of young women ‘muses’ and lovers; openly bemoans being tied to the mother of his children and feels drawn to religious conflict. When Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers, is published to little fanfare or acclaim, he feels hard done by. We’ve seen the struggle and torment he has undergone to write this work and his utter belief in its importance. Cohen blamed its poor sales on his publisher, Jack McClelland.
Interest in Cohen’s literary life may have picked up after his rise in pop fame, but it is clear through Simmons’s retelling that it is his writing that Cohen is most proud of. The endearing account of Leonard’s first foray onto the stage in 1967 shows just how used to his own company and playing the guitar in his room he was. When Judy Collins calls him out at a benefit concert at the Village Theatre to sing ‘Suzanne’, a song she had made well-known to the audience, he reluctantly appears from the wings, only to give up half way through and retreat again backstage.
Of course, this changes and we see him more at ease performing on tour, be it the controversial and wild German tour and The Isle of Wight Festival appearance, or the more companionable tours of the late eighties. However, the collaborations involved in performing and recording music are shown to be a huge struggle for this reclusive, precise man of words, as manifested in a disastrous recording experience with notorious producer, Phil Spector.
Among the details fleshing out Cohen’s portrait are many huge and enduring names, especially during the years spent living at The Chelsea Hotel. It’s amazing to imagine all these pop icons—Joplin, Warhol, Hendrix, Nico, Reed, Dylan, Bukowski, Mitchell—living together or coming and going from each other’s rooms. After reading about this time, it becomes impossible not to look for the references and links between artists—songs that talk to each other, are passed from writer to singer, or are inspired by the shared moments.
As Cohen’s imminence to the public eye wanes, so too does the compelling nature of the story. At 550 pages, this biography does start to feel long. The detailed landscape and influential figures start to weigh him down somewhat and it’s no wonder he retreats to Mount Baldy. His Buddhism does come at an interesting time in his life—his name now household, his children now grown—but rings true with the introverted poet we grew to know so well in the first few chapters. However, Cohen does not merely fade into obscurity, and there are continued accounts of him writing, recording, and touring right to the last page.
Despite its length, this is a well constructed biography, with Simmons’s own touches of Cohenesque poetics capturing the mood of the protagonist. When describing a young Leonard Cohen arriving at the Penn Terminal Hotel: “A New York noir movie of a hotel, it was cheap and it looked it: dark brown brick, dark narrow corridors, an elevator just big enough for a man and a corpse.” And later, the Buddhist retreat at Mount Baldy: “The day was hot and dry but a sliver of snow still clung to the mountain top like a broken fingernail on a worn sweater.”
Having drawn on such a wide range of sources, there is potential for any die-hard Cohen fan to follow the footnotes further, but this is already a meticulous portrait of an enduring literary and musical master.