Odd how four words can make you well up. ‘The applause was deafening,’ writes Sylvie Simmons at the start of chapter 18 of I’m Your Man, her acclaimed biography of Leonard Cohen that I have only just got around to reading. It follows a chapter that describes in horrific detail how Cohen was fleeced of over $10 million by a deceitful manager and another in which, in order to shore up his crumbling finances, he is obliged after five years away from the spotlight to tour again, albeit very reluctantly and only after months of preparation in which he seriously believes no one cares any more. So, when after all this we read that at the first show on the tour, in the Canadian backwater of Fredericton, ‘the applause was deafening’, it becomes an affirmation that right will win out in the end and that this great artist, writer, poet, musician, songwriter and singer was as missed in his absence as he is adored in his presence.
The absence occurred because Cohen opted to spend his time in a Californian monastic retreat, dressing in monks’ robes, eating frugally, rising at 4am to observe ritual chanting in the lotus position and generally devoting his life to acquiring divine knowledge at the feet of his spiritual master Jushu Sasaki Roshi, a Zen master of the Rinzai school of Buddhism – ‘hardcore’, as Simmons puts it. This might seem unusual for someone who through no fault of his own was often lazily categorised as a ‘rock star’ but then again, as this book confirms, Cohen was much more besides. Also, in view of his much reported fondness for beautiful women – and them for him – it comes as something of a relief to discover that celibacy was not part of the pact, and that there occurred the odd tryst with a friendly nun in the front seat of his jeep parked nearby.
Such levity notwithstanding, this is a serious book, beautifully written, the definitive work on Cohen, and for the writing of it Cohen gave Simmons his full support and asked for nothing in return, not even to read her manuscript. This also explains why her research was facilitated by interviews with many musicians and producers who had worked with Cohen, friends and fellow poets going back to his home town of Montreal, not to mention the many women in Cohen’s life, all of whom seem to adore him still and look back warmly on their relationships with him as immensely valuable experiences.
Completed in 2012 and not yet updated to take into account Cohen’s death last year, I’m Your Man makes clear that music was by no means Cohen’s first career choice. Prior to signing with Columbia in 1967, he was through his novels and poetry already a distinguished man of letters in his native Canada, and by this time he’d reached the age of 33, positively ancient by recording industry standards. Also, despite an appetite for recreational drugs and good wine, he wasn’t the sort to fit into the déclassé world of rock. He was dapper, erudite, modest, a man of culture who invariably dressed in dark suits, a legacy from his family’s prosperous clothing business. (‘Darling,’ he tells Simmons, ‘I was born in a suit.’) It is not therefore until we reach page 161 (out of 499, excluding back matter) that we find Cohen in the recording studio attempting to record ‘Suzanne’, his most famous song until ‘Hallelujah’ slaughtered all before it rather late in the day.
By this time Simmons has painted a picture of Cohen as assuredly his own man insofar as life decisions are concerned. He is a seeker, a voracious reader, curious about religions, restless, often on the move – the descriptions of life on Hydra are as delightful as the Aegean island itself, as are passages about less well known visits to Mumbai – rarely looking back, unconcerned with material possessions or accumulating wealth, though the success of his music would eventually make him rich. Also, he’s a reluctant performer, largely due to stage fright, but when the occasion arises – as at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival – he rises to it, wondrously. At two in the morning, high but serene on Mandrax, Cohen asks the huge but restless crowd to light matches – perhaps the very first manifestation of this now ubiquitous concert practice – which they did. ‘It was magical,’ producer Bob Johnson, watching from the side of the stage, tells Simmons. ‘From the first moment to the last. I’ve never seen anything like it. He was just remarkable.’
Cohen was never prolific. His record label grew used to long waits between albums, though in the USA Columbia seemed not to care because – extraordinarily – it wasn’t until very late in his career that American audiences wised up to him. Latterly, of course, he was welcomed everywhere, especially in Europe where he’d always enjoyed massive admiration. The ‘Awards And Honours’ listing in the index extends to 28 lines in the tiniest type, the longest I’ve ever seen in a music biog. The concerts he performed following the management swindle were amongst the most over subscribed ever, everywhere, again and again, and in London he was able to fill the O2, not that he enjoyed it much. Intimacy was Cohen’s game, but this wonderful lap of honour makes the prefect climax to Simmons’ book, a fairy-tale ending she delights in telling.
This book has already been praised to the hilt by numerous reviewers, and deservedly so, and I came to it late. As Cohen’s most authoritative biographer Sylvie Simmons found herself called upon last year to talk endlessly and with a heavy heart about a man whose death she would have mourned more sorrowfully than most. She discovered him in 1968 as a teenager on the cut-price sampler The Rock Machine Turns You On, where Cohen’s ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ shared vinyl space with 14 other Columbia acts, of which only Bob Dylan and Paul Simon can be said to rival him. For a biographer, that’s the kind of credential that makes for a great read and Simmons doesn’t disappoint.