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New look at unmatched Leonard Cohen

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/11/2012 (1738 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Any Leonard Cohen fan who has been awake surely must know the general outline of his life. He has laid bare the details, both private and public, in his novels, poems and songs for 60 years.

Now comes veteran San Francisco-based pop-music writer Sylvie Simmons to further explicate the relationship between the life and work of a seminal Canadian artist.


I'm Your Man, the first significant Cohen biography in 15 years, is thorough, informed, up to date and tolerably well written.

It persuades, not that much persuasion is needed, that Cohen, now 78, may be unmatched for the sheer quality and consistency of his production as a popular poet and songwriter -- perhaps not even by Bob Dylan himself.

Simmons, who is British born and has penned previous bios of Neil Young and Serge Gainsbourg, is particularly good at not giving short shrift to Cohen's poetry for the page.

She consistently reminds us of the places where Cohen adapted a song lyric from a previously published poem, and she makes it clear that he has always regarded his performing career as a way of earning a living from his truer calling.

I'm Your Man is not authorized by Cohen in the strictest sense, but he did consent to be interviewed for it. The results are obviously sympathetic, if not hagiographic.

Simmons could even be accused of a conflict of interest; in 2009 she was hired by Cohen to write the liner notes for his Live at the Isle of Wight album (although, there is no evidence she served as a Paula Broadwell to her Field Commander Cohen).

As such, she judges her subject harshly on few things, not even his self-admitted failure to commit to the women who've shared his bed.

The book is also longer than it needs to be, as are almost all pop music biographies. After awhile, Simmons' recitation of the facts surrounding recording sessions, album releases and tours -- the most common template for contemporary music biographies -- becomes repetitive.

But none of this diminishes Simmons' overall success or obscures the sheer amount of legwork she has done. She gives the best account yet of Cohen's roots in prosperous Jewish Montreal, his idolizing of the work of the Spanish poet Federico Garca Lorca and his formative experiences on the Greek island of Hydra.

She deals with his lifelong spiritual longings, including his years in Buddhist isolation, and his many battles with the black dog of depression.

She also seems to have spoken with everyone who is still breathing from his early years. These include: his longtime friend the sculptor Mort Rosengarten; his acquaintance Suzanne Verdal (the inspiration for his classic song Suzanne); Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children, Adam and Lorca; and Marianne Ihlen, his Norwegian lover immortalized in the song So Long, Marianne.

Of course, Simmons delves into his relationships with such famous women as Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell and Rebecca De Mornay. Most of his female conquests, needless to say, continue to sing his praises.

The careers of most popular artists start with a bang and fade away. Not Cohen's, and this has worked to Simmons' advantage. She documents the dramatic recent chapters in her subject's life, developments that took place after B.C. academic Ira Nadel's serviceable 1996 biography, Various Positions.

These include Cohen being embezzled by his former manager and the subsequent financial necessity of his return to touring, which has resulted in his greatest triumph yet in the tower of song.

Noteworthy as well is the belated success of his 1986 song Hallelujah, which he recorded during a supposed lull in his career. Simmons also sheds fresh light on the recording of his 1977 album Death of a Ladies' Man, in relation to the subsequent legal tribulations of its producer, Phil Spector.


Morley Walker edits the Free Press Books section.


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