Sweetman on Simmons on Cohen

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music
A conversation about Sylvie Simmons and music journalism ahead of the Leonard Cohen biographer’s trip to New Zealand in May.

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Lots of people have interviewed/written about Leonard Cohen. What makes Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man[1] special?

SIMON SWEETMAN: The secret to Sylvie’s book about Leonard Cohen is the access to the women[2]; the crucial muses. Perhaps because she’s a woman she found it easier to approach the women in Cohen’s life; perhaps they felt less threatened being asked by a woman? But from the other bios I’ve read I think the writers just didn’t try hard enough, didn’t think the women were important, perhaps. Actually there are several key aspects in what makes this book great, the fact that Simmons treats the prose and poetry writing with equal weight/importance as the songwriting. She understands that his career needs to be examined as a whole. It seems to be that Cohen books are either about the songs or they’re about the writing in a stuffy, academic sense. She manages to combine the vestiges. She seemed to know that the important things in Cohen’s life, the women, the depression, the work—it’s all related. She writes like a dream. The timing is great, too. There’s a new level of Cohen appreciation.

AB: Pico Iyer, another impressive Cohenista writer, told me recently. “There have been many fine books on him, most notably the huge recent biography by Sylvie Simmons.”  He feels his new Graham Greene “counterbiography”, The Man Within My Head, is essentially about Leonard Cohen. “In so many ways, he’s Greene’s twin. I took out the 20 pages explicitly linking the two, but I think Cohen hovers behind every other page.” Do you see a connection between Cohen and Greene?

SS: Well I’m sure there are plenty of connections—both suffered depression, both had reputations for being ladies’ men. Within that, somehow, both were viewed, often, as being complete gentlemen. Both have been critically praised as writers but also made no secret of having commercial intentions for their work, of stepping down from the ivory tower. But Iyer would know more about that. It’s a shame he took the pages out by the sounds.

AB: Leonard Cohen, Wellington 2010, is the greatest concert I ever went to. You?

SS: The first time I saw Leonard Cohen in New Zealand [2009] was very special, in fact I called it the best gig I’d ever seen in the review I wrote for the paper. There was just a feeling, so palpable, among the audience. I loved it. It seemed almost everybody loved it. It was what anyone should have been expecting from a Leonard Cohen gig. And it was so much more. He then returned a year later and played almost the same show, so that cheapened the thrill slightly. I hear he’s added new old songs now, so I’d be up for seeing him again. But the magic, as is often the way, was in that first time.

AB: Sylvie’s interview with the outrageously rude (and not amusingly so) Lou Reed is terrific. Is Annie Clark still the rudest interviewee you’ve ever had?

SS: Yes. I had a tough time with Annie Clark, aka St.Vincent. She was rude, uninterested in being interviewed. I later read a transcript of the interview that had taken place before mine. She was rude.

AB: That was Lumière’s Brannavan Gnanalingam. He said she was incredibly rude, starting with her mercilessly abusing the poor operator. What’s a Cohen song that’s been resonating for you this week?

SS: So many of his songs resonate, more recently I’ve been interested in revisiting the early poems, some of them went on to become songs in their own right. I’m enjoying his most recent album [Old Ideas]. Most of it is very good, a tiny amount of filler but better than expected. The first three Cohen albums are all sublime. And I’ve always been a fan of the Field Commander Cohen live album and 1979’s Recent Songs.

AB: What got you into Sylvie initially?

SS: I’ve enjoyed reading Sylvie Simmons’s work for many years, her Americana column in Mojo, her book of short stories, her previous bios (Neil Young, Serge Gainsbourg) and her interviews, going back to the early 1980s with the legends of rock and metal (Van Halen, Sabbath et al.) and on now to the work she still does for Mojo. She’s a great writer—you know she’s done the listening, she’s believable, she has a good turn of phrase.

AB: You’ve (sharply) interviewed some big names (George Clinton, Damon Albarn, Mavis Staples). Why are you particularly excited about this event?

SS: It’s always nice to try something different. Interviewing people is about getting their story, sure you want to put it across in your words when it’s for print. And that’s part of the challenge/angle but it’s ultimately about serving the person you’re interviewing, getting their story to share. In that sense interviewing someone live on stage, in front of an audience, is about facilitating a conversation—it’s about getting those stories. I’ve had some conversations with Sylvie already and she has so many great stories.

AB: What has doing a lot of interviews for On Song taught you about interviewing fellow writers?

SS: It’s nice to get the story from the source—there’s a real feeling of privilege in being told, first hand, about the creating of a song, the writing of a book, the interviewing of a famous person. It’s something I never take lightly.

AB: What is the challenge/opportunity of interviewing someone in front of an audience, as opposed to just your cat?

SS: When you interview someone for a story to write up, you are thinking about the audience mostly after you’ve filtered it. Here you are going straight to the source and it’s going straight to the audience. That’s exciting.

AB: What did she say when she found out you named your cat Sylvie?

SS: I never told her that directly, but I mentioned it in a blog post after, and she told me recently that she was aware of that. Actually the cat was named, in the first instance, after Sylvia Plath. When shortened to Sylvie I mentioned Sylvie Simmons as a great writer. We named our cats after writers, Sylvie and Baxter.

AB: I hope you put her on to Hemi Baxter, if she didn’t know about High Country Weather’s poet already. Speaking of the superb, are you going to Sylvie’s Auckland Writers and Readers Festival event with Don McGlashan? He’s my favourite New Zealand singer, so I hope to attend that, and her session with Noelle McCarthy.

SS: No, I’ll be missing those.

AB: “The ruthless critic who has given out more hits than Savage,” Mike Alexander wrote in a preview for your Carterton event with Sylvie. Do you regret any of the hits?

SS: Publish and be damned. Nothing to regret.

AB: Paula Morris concluded an essay on reviewing (first published online by The Lumière Reader in 2007) with those words, publish and be damned. Did you relent somewhat on Fat Freddy’s Drop?

SS: I wouldn’t say I relented. The first piece about Fat Freddy’s that I wrote was about how distinctly underwhelming I found them as a live band—on the back of everyone raving. The second piece is a review of the second album, a far better effort than their plodding debut.

AB: “I hate the Wairarapa,” Mu told me. Your thoughts?

SS: I don’t have any thoughts on the Wairarapa. But I’m happy to be representing as thinking the complete opposite of Mu.

AB: That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of you not having any thoughts. All the things people have said about you, the only time it seemed to me that you really cared was when Mu implied that you were racist on Kim Hill?

SS: Well it was an absurd charge—he grasped for racism in the wake of finding out someone didn’t like his band. Poor form. Limited understanding of the role of criticism.

AB: How has Sylvie influenced your writing?

SS: I admire her skill, and she’s got great ears.

AB: Who’s another music writer you’d like to interview on stage in New Zealand?

SS: I’ve chatted with Mick Wall and he, coming up through a similar era to Sylvie, has some great stories. He’s one of the people named in Guns‘n’Roses’s Get in the Ring for a start. He partied as hard as many of the metal stars from the ’70s and ’80s and early ’90s. And he’s an entertaining, engaging writer. He comes from the great Irish storytelling tradition; that’s his ancestry. He’s now mellowed with age, enjoying his time writing from the sidelines. And so he’s learned a good line in self-effacement also. He’d be a blast.

AB: Who’s the dead music writer you’d most like to interview?

SS: The correct answer is probably supposed to be Lester Bangs. But I think I’d go for Nick Kent. When he was on form Kent was the best. His book The Dark Stuff is a must. For anyone interested in music. Or writing. Or music-writing. What’s that? He’s not dead yet. Somebody should tell him.

AB: What about New Zealand’s Dylan Taite?

SS: I used to love watching Dylan Taite’s TV3 pieces because he had fun, he took the piss, he created entertaining TV. He got away with a surprising amount on mainstream TV. There was a wonderful chaos about him. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about if I had spoken with him, but he was definitely someone I considered an influence at one point. He was New Zealand’s only visible music commentator for a time. The only one that mattered really. And he celebrated the silliness of it all too. I think you’d get him talking easily enough if he were still around and you’d be best to just let him go for it and not stand in the way.

Sylvie Simmons talks about ‘I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ with Simon Sweetman in Carterton on May 21, and with Noelle McCarthy and Don McGlashan at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival on May 17 and 18 respectively.

Alexander Bisley interviewed the Phoenix Foundation’s Luke Buda here. He tweets @alexanderbisley. Upcoming Auckland Writers & Readers Festival coverage on The Lumière Reader to include Don McGlashan, Rebecca Priestley, James McNeish, and Kate Atkinson.

[1] “To spend that much time investigating someone so closely, it really is like stalking in a way,” Sylvie Simmons told James Robinson. “It is a sort of intrusion of the laws of most civilized countries.” Simmons bristles as she relays the remarks of one Canadian reviewer who commented that they “couldn’t find any evidence that she did a Petraeus.”

[2] “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,” our Saradha Koirala reviews. “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.”