I’M YOUR MAN: The Life of Leonard Cohen
For more than half a century — in prose, poetry, and song — Leonard Cohen has shared his often spellbinding notions of passion, spirituality, and despair. Such songs as “Suzanne,” “Bird on the Wire,” and “Hallelujah,” both in his versions and as covered by others, have given a wide and dedicated audience a chance to take his measure. The challenge for Sylvie Simmons, who has written books about Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young, is one faced by all biographers of writers: how to write something new about a subject who has already written so much and so well about himself.
That Simmons succeeds so thoroughly, creating an illuminating and authoritative portrait, is partly because Cohen is an ideal interview subject — patient, witty, and introspective — the rare person who can, in a way that seems offhand, say something as intricate as “I think everyone lives their life as an emergency.” Wisely, Simmons lets Cohen speak for himself, and the book is imbued with his charisma.
She begins with Cohen’s childhood in Montreal in the 1930s and 40s and follows a carefully drawn linear narrative, covering his years as Canada’s most famous young poet, his decades, beginning in the ’60s, as an enigmatic and often reluctant singer-songwriter, and a more recent episode, in which Cohen reemerged on the music scene after years of absence, following a dispute with his business manager that left him broke and needing to sing for his bread.
Simmons, throughout, is not just a skillful reporter but a blisteringly good writer. She deftly captures the sound and atmosphere of the two distinct periods of Cohen’s music: the stark and haunting resonance of his early recordings, and the later songs, in which he sings with a much deeper voice, at once sinister and playful, over sounds of synthesizers and female backup vocalists, sounding, in an ineffably good way, “ . . . like an old French chansonnier who had mistakenly stumbled into a disco.” Like all good music writing, this makes you eager to listen to the songs with your newly attuned ear. And she creates what ought to become the enduring snapshot of Cohen in the present tense, a man well into his 70s enjoying a rather miraculous late-stage career.
Cohen’s arrival at this semi-resting place, as an elegant elder statesman of pop, is somewhat unlikely, given that his life has been marked, perhaps above all else, by its aloofness and uprootedness.
Simmons presents Cohen as a man called on quests, some physical, some chemical, and others spiritual. As a teenager, he began walking the streets of Montreal at night, passing among off-duty sailors and other witching-hour revelers. Later, his urge to explore would lead him to travel the world (one memorable trip found him stuck in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion). He has rarely stayed in one place for long and has seemed allergic to stasis or domesticity. This, combined with years suffering from depression, has made him an unreliable romantic partner; yet the women who passed in and out of his life — lovers who included Joni Mitchell and the actress Rebecca De Mornay — seem most often to remember him fondly.
Cohen’s most adventurous explorations, in the end, have been spiritual ones, culminating in a fascinating period in the mid-’90s when he removed himself from public view, choosing to live for some years in an unadorned hut atop a mountain under the rigorous instruction of a Zen monk. “You just think about your sleep, your work, the next meal, and that whole component of improvisation that tyrannizes much of our lives begins to dissolve,” he explains. Before he came down the mountain, back to the music that has perfectly combined, as Simmons writes, “the erotic and the spiritual,” Cohen had been ordained as a monk himself, and perhaps had found, through a rigorous life of ritual, an alternative to wandering.