I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons – review
A masterful biography of Leonard Cohen reveals a selfish man with irresistible charm
The Observer, Sunday 25 November 2012
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/no ... hen-review
'One of popular music’s most unflinching sages': Leonard Cohen in 1960. Photograph: Roz Kelly/Getty Images
This notorious ladies' man, Leonard Cohen biographer Sylvie Simmons concludes more than once in her enthralling, meticulously researched account, would have made a very good rabbi. Never mind that Cohen – poet, singer, 78 – is also an ordained Buddhist; had attained the grade of Senior Dianetic, Grade IV Release in the Church of Scientology in 1969 before falling out with the organisation; and knows a hell of a lot about scripture. A grandson of a rabbi, Cohen was born into a priestly class in Montreal's old, thriving Jewish community. But a keen interest in the profane – in sex and drugs, if not exactly rock'n'roll – has made him, instead, one of popular music's most unflinching sages.
Fans of long-standing will know Cohen as the singer-songwriter's singer-songwriter, whose devastating verses have the tensile strength of haikus. Those of us in his thrall, Simmons included, have no trouble claiming that he leaves Dylan in the dust for skewering the human condition. Songs about break-ups and hard-ons sit next to prostrations before higher powers, often female, just as often, unknowable. With his depressive's grasp of the puny moral wraiths we are comes an active sense of the absurd, too, and some hair-raising tales.
The time when Cohen single-handedly stopped a riot at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival is well-documented. Less well known is the time his band, only weeks earlier, arrived onstage at a French festival on horseback and were derided for acting like rock stars. Or when, in 1977, while working on the Death of a Ladies' Man album, producer Phil Spector puts a gun to Cohen's neck and tells him he loves him. "I hope you do, Phil," replies Cohen with characteristic dryness.
Latterly, though, Cohen has reached a wider renown as "that guy who wrote Hallelujah", now a TV talent competition staple, whose many ironies include the fact that its parent album was rejected by his record company in 1983. Hallelujah's path to ubiquity has so many meanders that there is an entire book devoted to it, due out in December. Simmons explores it here in the context of a long career in which Cohen's songs often go on to have lives of their own, often for other paymasters. His effusive Russian mother warns him to beware of shysters, a warning that would come to be prophetic.
As befits the authorised biographer, Simmons assiduously tracks all Cohen's works – the poetry, fiction and music – as components of the same artistic arc, painstakingly interviewing his literary peers, producers and session musicians, as well as the key female figures in Cohen's mythology – the sainted Marianne Ihlen (So Long, Marianne); the Montreal Suzanne of the tea and oranges; Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his children; and latterday partners Rebecca De Mornay and Anjani Thomas. Dozens get away; the interplay in art of Cohen's convoluted love life could easily fill another 600 pages on its own.
If Simmons's book has a weak spot, it is one she alludes to throughout: everyone, but everyone, is putty in Cohen's hands. Only two people have a bad word to say here about the selfish, philandering, commitment-phobic vagabond who dumps his women to go off and hang out in war zones such as Cuba (Marianne) and Israel (Suzanne Elrod, who'd just given birth to their first child, Adam). The son of his former manager, Steven Machat, confesses he never liked him, but helps him nonetheless.
Even his then-partner Anjani Thomas's ex-husband, a music industry lawyer, gives Cohen his legal time for free and eventually becomes his manager. How? Simmons posits the young Cohen was a great hypnotist, who practised on the maid. (A 1985 poem, "Days Of Kindness", apologises to Marianne and her son, Axel.)
With a delicious grasp of karma, the zeitgeist wound its way back round to Cohen in 2004, when a financial betrayal of the greatest magnitude struck. Semi-retired, Cohen was a practising monk at the Mt Baldy centre outside Los Angeles, serving his long-time master, the centenarian Roshi Joshu Sasaki, when he heard through the grapevine that all his money was gone. His trusted longtime manager, Kelley Lynch, had been draining his accounts. A long, ugly legal battle ensued, one that, alone, could yet again fill another tome, involving complex suits and counter-suits, bikinis and Swat teams; Simmons handles it all masterfully.
So the sage reluctantly came down from the mountain and started singing for his supper again. Latterday albums – 2004's Dear Heather and this year's Old Ideas – and a valedictory two-year world tour have, belatedly, established Cohen as a household name and earned him more money than he lost ($10m-$13m, Simmons reckons).
Gossips might want to know more about the scene when Suzanne turfs Marianne out of the house on the island of Hydra. Perhaps this might not be the biography that Cohen, the man, deserves. But it is the definitive volume on the guy right at the top of the tower of song.