Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

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sirius
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Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by sirius » Fri Jan 11, 2013 1:18 pm

Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man : The Life Of Leonard Cohen

January 10, 2013 Books, News, Reviews

By Chris Phillips

January 10, 2013


http://musosguide.com/book-review-sylvi ... ohen/23975


Sylvie Simmons‘ hefty and admirably assiduous biography of Leonard Cohen may be considered by far the most exhaustive yet in terms of factual detail, but a critical eye is sometimes frustratingly lacking.

Leonard Cohen’s appeal has lain for almost four decades in his ‘bard of the bedsit’ ability to string an everyman chord through songs of intense personal significance, providing at his ‘Songs Of Leonard Cohen’ and ‘Songs From A Room’ best a depth of emotion to musical arrangements of often the utmost simplicity. His near mythical persona is significantly augmented by the latter-day trademark baritone vocal intimacy, an element which might be said by critics of later records to have single-handedly rescued their over-produced and indulgent muzak. It is informative that the younger Cohen was always resistant to such meddling; Simmons shows that he usually disapproved of his records featuring anything other than his vocals and acoustic guitar. The lyrics were always central; Cohen was a widely published poet long before he turned to music. A reluctance to accept, much less embrace, his status as a musical performer rather than a poet permeates this biography. Fans should be grateful that the pathos of the gentle violin of ‘So Long, Marianne,’ the sprightly accordion of ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ or the ethereal harmonica of the perfect ‘The Partisan’ would never have reached light of day had he had his way and used musical minimalism as little more than a vehicle for his poetry.

Simmons does a supreme job of describing the facts, based on meticulous and immersive research. She grounds us very well in the peripatetic Cohen’s movements from the Montreal of his secular Jewish upbringing to the Greek island of Hydra, to the sink hotels of New York and a remote Tennessee cabin, where he counted amongst his friends a neighbour recently released after eleven years in prison for murder. Friends, colleagues and nothing shy of a plethora of former lovers can barely rouse a negative word between them about a man who, for all his kindly and gentle disposition, left rather a trail of destruction in his pursuit of bohemian paradise and spiritual fulfilment. It is this lack of opprobrium levelled at Cohen which most disquiets the reader. Can no-one find anything bad to say? The inference that all are putty in Cohen’s hands reflects this book’s most serious failing. Even the eponymous Marianne (who moved with her infant son from Oslo to Hydra, then to Montreal to be with Cohen) reflects upon their on-off relationship - during which the travelling Cohen achieved near serial levels of adultery, not least in the celebrated congress with Janis Joplin which lies behind ‘Chelsea Hotel #2′ - without the merest hint of hostility or regret.

The naivety of Cohen’s green fatigues-clad and trouble-strewn 1961 visit to post-revolutionary Cuba represents an idealistic imperative in many of his actions which provide several of the book’s highlights. He responded to the onset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War by travelling to Israel (very shortly after the birth of his first son, incidentally), in order to join its military, eventually settling for performing morale-boosting concerts for the troops. Other memorable anecdotes include arrival on stage in France on horseback, a chance encounter with a young Jimi Hendrix, a one-man prevention of a riot at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, a bizarre stint in collaboration with the lunatic Phil Spector on the ‘Death Of A Ladies Man’ album and a tour of American mental hospitals. As well as being effective simply as lightly amusing vignettes, these episodes also go some way to demystifying the enigmatic Cohen.

As a factual record of Cohen’s life, this biography is unlikely to be matched and on that basis alone can be wholly recommended. The prose is of an uncomplicated and economical style suited to achieve this and to carry through enduring themes like sex, depression and addiction, but the flexibility and flourish it lacks could account for why opportunities for a deeper and more investigative approach are eschewed. This is unfortunate because when Simmons does venture into such territory, she pulls it off well.

It is probably fair to say that the Leonard Cohen story has now been told in as complete a manner as is likely, but if future biographers can combine Simmonds’ exhaustive detail with a greater distance from their subject, a more critical and - at the risk of cheapening the whole affair - gossiping eye, this complex and flawed man, along with those whose lives he touched in more severe ways than he probably knew, will have been done full justice.

384pp, ISBN 9780224090636, published by Jonathan Cape

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen is out now.
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by John Etherington » Fri Jan 11, 2013 1:35 pm

Thanks for posting. I haven't seen this review before, and can understand why some people view the book this way (though I consider it to be the best biography - even above Ira Nadel's "Various Positions", which did a lot of the ground-work). I see a couple of errors in the review...Leonard did not prevent a riot at the Isle of Wight (surely the writer means Jerusalem?); also, the tour of mental hospitals extended,at least partially, to the U.K.
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by joyezekiel » Fri Jan 11, 2013 9:22 pm

John Etherington wrote:I see a couple of errors in the review...Leonard did not prevent a riot at the Isle of Wight (surely the writer means Jerusalem?); also, the tour of mental hospitals extended,at least partially, to the U.K.
.... and I know I'm nit-picking, but Leonard only has one son (as far as we know!)

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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by holydove » Sun Jan 13, 2013 11:40 pm

I don't see the absence of criticism or negative judgment, in the biography, as a failure at all; I see it as a strength. Sylvie Simmons interviewed hundreds of people who had been close to Leonard, & she reported what they said. They had nothing negative to say, & that, in itself, tells us something. Sylvie's purpose was not to judge Leonard's life & actions, but to investigate & report her findings; she chose not to interpret or judge her findings, but left that part up to the reader, & I think this was a very honorable approach & I respect her for it.

As for this critic's comments about "adultery": first of all, technically, the term "adultery" is a legal term, & it only applies if one is married & Leonard was never married. Secondly, many people, including several entire cultures around the world, are not monogamous. Monogamy is one possible way of life, & I wouldn't label a person "flawed" simply because he/she is unwilling or unable to live a completely monogamous life. I would venture to guess that Leonard was always honest within his intimate relationships & never pretended to be anything he wasn't, & that his women chose to be with him knowing full well who he was. Marianne, in fact, has stated in interviews, that she sometimes had a very difficult time dealing with Leonard's attraction to other women & their attraction to him; she expresses what this felt like for her but does not criticize Leonard for it, & I think this is also a very wise & honorable approach.

I really don't accept the idea that a biography must include negative judgments on the part of the author, in order to be a good, strong, complete biography. It's like wanting news broadcasters to state their opinions about the facts they report. Sylvie Simmons reported truthfully & clearly what people told her, readers are free to do with it as they wish, & I think this is the most excellent & respectful approach to writing a biography, esp. one about such a very complex man.
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by comehealing » Mon Jan 14, 2013 7:50 pm

Sylvie Simmons reported truthfully & clearly what people told her, readers are free to do with it as they wish, & I think this is the most excellent & respectful approach to writing a biography, esp. one about such a very complex man.
Very well said holydove :)

I wonder whether it might just be a case of "sour grapes" from critics who wish they had written the book themselves? Sylvie Simmons has written a magisterial tome. What I found ironic is that Leonard pleaded with Sylvie not to write a hagiography. If all critics want to do is find "flaws" in the subject , then how sad. Why not just marvel at a remarkable life and remarkable career? Anyhow, if one peers closely, there are a few flaws. It's just that they aren't obvious. No one is beyond reproach. Not even the Pope.

And as for a "gossiping eye" (from review at beginning of this thread). Strewth! (as my old French teacher was found of saying). This makes me think of Heat magazine. I don't think so.
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by holydove » Mon Jan 14, 2013 10:07 pm

comehealing wrote: What I found ironic is that Leonard pleaded with Sylvie not to write a hagiography. If all critics want to do is find "flaws" in the subject , then how sad. Why not just marvel at a remarkable life and remarkable career? Anyhow, if one peers closely, there are a few flaws. It's just that they aren't obvious. No one is beyond reproach. Not even the Pope.
Thank you for your comments, comehealing.

Yes, it is very ironic - Leonard expressed his wish for the whole truth to be told, & I believe it was told; & if one wants negative judgments regarding Leonard Cohen, all one has to do is look at his own quotes about himself; he is constantly berating himself. . .

It's true, we can say that everyone has flaws, & that's one way to look at it. The problem, for me, is that what constitutes a "flaw" will be different for different people, depending on each person's perspective & belief system. Who is to say what constitutes perfection or imperfection? Also, it's difficult to judge an action as stemming from a character flaw, without knowing everything about a person's motives, & we rarely, if ever, know all that. Plus, there are schools of thought which teach that everything is perfect as it is, & we are just not enlightened enough to perceive the perfection. From that point of view, perhaps a person without what we see as flaws, would be an imperfect person; or put another way, maybe there is no such thing as a "flaw".

I like very much what you so aptly said: "why not just marvel at a remarkable life. . ."; yes, isn't it most uplifting to focus on the abundance of beauty & richness that this remarkable man continues to unfold right before our eyes?
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by cohenadmirer » Mon Jan 14, 2013 11:13 pm

As well a 'cohenite' i am a clinical psychologist and have been helping people deal with their ' flaws' for a few decades.

I'm sure that leonard has been aware of, working with and on and around what others would consider 'flaws' all his life and the whole process of doing this has had enormous importance in driving his art and creativity.

What he has had to say directly and indirectly in poetry, song ,prose and all those fascinating interviews illuminates and resonates with the 'flaws' in so many of us , and the best of it can and does have a healing influence on the mental distress that most of us have to deal with at some part of of our lives .

Also as a clinical psychologist i object to the use of the term ' lunatic' in the review . At least in the uk it is no longer considered acceptable to lable people with psychological problems ' lunatics'. It's just an insulting , stigmatising , dismissing term and should not be used - not even about ' phil spector' ! Like everyone he deserves a little understanding , compassion and indeed gratitude for some of the great work he's done !

I wonder how Leonard would think of his flaws these days . I tend to think he has transcended most of them. He could give us all a life lesson on how to own up to and rise above your flaws and grow old with extraordinary grace and more than a little wisdom .
Perhaps he has a new ' flaw' which is developing some kind of addiction to the love and affection that comes his way with such force on stage !

But if his ongoing tour schedule is a symptom of some mild emerging psychological flaw or even illness we should just let him get on with it . After all he has taught us that there ain't no cure for love !
Leonard's work resonates
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by John Etherington » Tue Jan 15, 2013 1:21 am

I've read this review again (after reading it hurriedly before) and it is actually a good critical review. It stresses the strengths of Sylvie's book and begins by emphasising positives about Leonard and his work. It then raises some critical points, and ends with a fairly even assessment, mentioning the completeness and detail in Sylvie's work. It's good to see reviews emerging where writers have read the book carefully, and there are to my knowledge three threads about Sylvie's book currently on the Forum.

As others have mentioned above, a couple of words that Chris Phillips uses may be not be the best choices. Instead of "adultery", unfaithfuless would indeed be be more appropriate. This is is in fact something that Sylvie alludes to in her book; for instance when she talks about "Gypsy Wife" she suggests that, considering his own activities, it is a bit much when Leonard sings "there is no man or woman who can't be touched/But you who come between them will be judged" . Overall though, Sylvie clearly tends to be kind, and although Leonard told her not to write a hagiography, I'm sure he knew that such a seemingly sweet Libran lady would not shoot him down.

Although it may be regarded as offensive, I rather like the word "lunatic". One of its original meanings is moonstruck, and considering that Spector was born under a full Moon, it is not totally off the mark. Certainly Spector was not...how shall I put it...the full shilling! When he wasn't waving guns around, his behaviour towards his wife Ronnie was eccentric in the extreme. According to her biography, Phil kept her locked in the house, with barbed wire and guard dogs around it; on the rare occasions she was allowed to go into town alone she had to have a dummy of Phil in the car with her, to ward other men off. Phil also had a gold coffin made for her with a glass lid, so that if she were (for whatever reason) to leave this mortal coil, he could possess her for the rest of his life. Hmmmm....
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by Tchocolatl » Tue Jan 15, 2013 7:46 am

I have a soft spot for the expression lunatic. Like if lunatics could only be strange but lovely persons. Not exactly the sort who acts as violent as described behind. But I am not a clinical psy (and even less a U.K. psy). Though I know and share the opinion, the fact, we may say by now, that judging people is anti-therapeutic. Totally.

Do you know what they say to you when you write an analysis that is supposed to have some sort of value? Use your critical thinking, don't just be positive, anything is perfect. Be accurate and show every side of your subject. So the guy wrote by the book, if you ask me. Picasso once said that if you want to paint a dove, you first have to break its neck. You know, nobody has to do whatever people are saying. If you ask me. Not to mention that here, we are talking about a biography to begin with. By now, in our culture, we are used for such a long time to think about biographies as being "books about So and So", and not as a scientific treatise, that as long as it is not about somebody else than the subject, any form is acceptable.

I always thought that adultery was possible only in marriage. That, otherwise, it is promiscuity. Or to know someone biblically (or to know someone in the biblical sense). Which seems to be a term that fits better. No?

And I always thought this legend was true (No?) :

http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/livewight.html

http://idiommag.com/2010/02/leonard-coh ... -of-wight/

(in this article, the guy mixed up the names of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Federico Garcia Lorca... :roll: we can't get rid of our human failures completely, he?)
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by cohenadmirer » Tue Jan 15, 2013 5:34 pm

John Etherington wrote:


Although it may be regarded as offensive, I rather like the word "lunatic". One of its original meanings is moonstruck, and considering that Spector was born under a full Moon, it is not totally off the mark. Certainly Spector was not...how shall I put it...the full shilling! When he wasn't waving guns around, his behaviour towards his wife Ronnie was eccentric in the extreme. According to her biography, Phil kept her locked in the house, with barbed wire and guard dogs around it; on the rare occasions she was allowed to go into town alone she had to have a dummy of Phil in the car with her, to ward other men off. Phil also had a gold coffin made for her with a glass lid, so that if she were (for whatever reason) to leave this mortal coil, he could possess her for the rest of his life. Hmmmm....
Spector may be some kind of sociopath or even psychopath - albeit a very creative one!
Leonard might have been better off not collaborating with him.
Leonard's work resonates
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by lightasabreeze » Tue Jan 15, 2013 11:24 pm

I thought the book OK I enjoyed reading it anyway. A thought did occur to me that Leonard must have done something right as, unless I am missing something, none of his lovers has ever written anything other than good about him. None went to newspapers to sell their stories for money or dished up any dirt as seems most of them do these days.
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by Tchocolatl » Mon Jan 21, 2013 6:52 pm

I don't want to be the devil's advocate, but if forces according to the Phillip's putty-in-his-hands theory are at work, there is no risk - or so little that it equals zero - as Leonard Cohen is too powerful, in its own way. That is OK. As long as nobody die...

I don't think that Phil Spector is the dark side in Leonard Cohen's life because he makes more noise. Phil Spector is the dark side of Phil Spector because he uses his personal power in an inconsiderate manner, like a very young child that was not socialized. He is violent and he is dangerous. But for the rest... Leonard Cohen must have his own dark side, like anybody. Being a human being. Add to this that show business is inhabited by monsters of all sorts as one has to be a monster to do show business. Leonard Cohen is a monster of Love and Charm and probably it is better to have been hurt in the process of having been charmed than to have been completely deprived of such life energies. As long as no one died in the process. (You know : which does not kill us makes us stronger. Friedrich Nietzsche.)

On the other hand, I am sure that boredom is a mass destruction weapon at a certain level. Stagnation, you know. Putrefaction. These sorts of things.

So we are fed and protected from this danger by the Monsters of the Show Business. For this I am grateful. Eternally.

Dot.

End of the show.

Ligths are closing.

Curtains are lowered.



In my mind, to try to touch, pat, feed the monsters, and/or generally to live around them, when one is not a monster of some sort himself or herself is to be done at own risk and peril. For the violent sort of monsters, the danger is evident, but for all the others, it is not so evident that they can hurt without any bad intention just because they are so powerful people compared to less ones. You know, a bit like for Lafontaine's pots, the clay pot and the iron pot. The clay pot is soon reduced to a cracked pot by the iron pot, while the iron pot just wanted to protect the clay pot. Now that may be how the light gets in, but ey!

Monsters can live between themselves and for the rest of the crowd they are made to be seen at a safe distance.

At this distance they can irradiate their benevolent life energies to the world without burning anybody - and they are such a benediction.

Monsters may feel very lonely at times.
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by Patrycja » Wed Jun 19, 2013 7:53 am

I keep seeing this book at the local book store and am torn about getting it. On the one hand, I love to read biographies, but not of people who are still around, not sure why (partly because I'm uncomfortable with knowing things about people that you'd normally learn by actually getting to know them, and partly because there's such a saturation and scrutiny of public people's lives that private things are almost demanded to be public and that line gets crossed more and more these days) but on the other hand, it's getting good reviews.

I wish there were a behind the scenes look at Leonard's writing process, sort of like they do on DVD extras, or when writers write about writing. If there is such a work, I'd appreciate if someone would let me know. Thanks very much.
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by lizzytysh » Sat Jun 22, 2013 2:37 am

Actually, for me, Sylvie's biography of Leonard is far more respectful and less intrusive than what you're seeking.
My belief is that you could only enjoy her book and be glad that you chose to read it.
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Re: Book Review: Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man

Post by 264811403188 » Sat Jun 22, 2013 7:36 am

I do agree, this book has been written with respect and admiration. However, nobody's life has ever been perfect, so you wouldn't get a biography of a perfect human being. For me this was a good read, interesting and informative but not revealing too much personal détails of Mr Cohen's personal life. If you are a fan and love biographies you will surely enjoy reading it.

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