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Book Review: Sylvie Simmons - I'm Your Man : The Life Of Leonard Cohen

  • Written by  Chris Phillips

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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