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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book review - Sylvie Simmons, I'm Your Man (2012)

"The Life of Leonard Cohen" lovingly revealed

The world craves biographies of celebrities who died too young. We look for closure on open questions and missing details. The longer-lived stars, the survivors, only intrigue us if they fall into one of two categories: the enigmas and the outrageous. Leonard Cohen easily fits into the former group. Rather than tell his own story, he prefers to define himself through the ambiguity of his imperfect poems and songs. But Cohen belongs in the latter group as well, due to his nomadic romantic life and improbable ties to a host of wild characters like Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, and Phil Spector. For an introspective poet primarily aligned with folk music, part of his mystery is how he found himself in the midst of such influential musicians and cultural players. In her new book, Sylvie Simmons makes a credible effort at opening up the details of Cohen’s life and sharing plenty of entertaining tales along the way. It’s not an autobiography, but Simmons did have extraordinary access to Cohen which flavors the stories and blends his more recent memories with the records and recollections of others.

I’m Your Man captures the conflicting picture of a man who hides behind his poetry, yet exposes himself within the lines. Like most artists, he wants the power of his work to be recognized, but he has largely shrugged off personal recognition. An artist with a distinctly masculine, sometime chauvinistic perspective, the best known covers of his songs are sung by women (with the exception of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”). He’s a libertine, a free spirit, who longs for duty and the order of monastic life. He’s a devout Jew, adept with Christian symbolism and Buddhist practice. I've often thought that this inherent complexity forms the foundation of Cohen’s popular appeal. But Simmons makes an effective case that his charm and charisma are the real roots of his power. Even beyond his personal interactions, there is something in his work that operates subconsciously on his audience, finding a path for his carefully crafted lines to slip past any resistance to poetry and lodge in their minds. Similarly, despite being a reluctant performer, his deep, raw voice imparts a vulnerable sense of truth that fills a hole in each listener’s soul.

Simmons spends a fair amount of time examining Cohen’s youth and young adulthood. With the exception of the formative experience of his father’s illness and death, it’s remarkable how ordinary a young man he was. His family’s social standing in Montreal’s Jewish community was somewhat surprising, but I never would have guessed that he had an interest in country western music, performing with his band the Buckskin Boys. His relative popularity in school was also unexpected. On the other hand, his writing has often reflected his serious religious upbringing. The other common theme that comes out of this section of the book is his development as a rootless nomad. Starting as a teen wandering the late-night streets of Montreal, he later received a grant to travel the world, writing a novel. This led him to London, then to Greek island of Hydra, which would become a second home. Although Montreal and Hydra would be his two focal points, Cohen seemed to spend most of his time in hotel rooms around the world.

After laying that groundwork, I’m Your Man balances between three separate narrative arcs. The first follows the women in Cohen’s life, who formed a long chain of lovers and serious relationships: Annie Sherman, Marianne Ihlen, Suzanne Elrod (the mother of his children), Dominique Issermann, Rebecca De Mornay and Anjani Thomas. Scattered throughout the chapters are countless flings, both named and alluded to. In addition to these conquests, this path includes the special category of muses that he never really possessed, specifically Suzanne Vaillancourt née Verdal (who inspired “Suzanne”) and Warhol’s chanteuse protégé Nico.

The second thread in Cohen’s story follows his spiritual growth. While he has remained rooted in Judaism, as his poem “Not A Jew” defiantly makes clear, he has also leveraged the universal message within the language of Christianity, he’s dabbled in Scientology, and he found true peace studying Buddhism with his teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki (Roshi). Cohen’s dedication to Roshi led to a long stint as his guru’s personal assistant and a five year retreat to Roshi’s Mount Baldy Zen Center. The solitude and imposed order he found there provided a respite from a demanding world and eventually had a great positive impact on his lifelong struggle with depression.

The final narrative line follows the slow build and flow of Cohen’s career, first as a poet and novelist, then later as songwriter and performer. Simmons walks us through the decades as she fills the book with satisfying details about studio sessions and touring line-ups. The section on recording Death of a Ladies Man (1977) with Phil Spector is particularly interesting. The two men seemed to connect well at first, but foreshadowing later events, Spector became increasingly bizarre and threatening. As his personality dominated the project, Cohen’s songs were buried under Spector’s "Wall of Sound" production. But that’s just an interlude in the story, which leads towards the climax of Cohen’s career and the afterglow, where he’s enjoyed a popular resurgence in the wake of losing most of his assets to his manager embezzlement. Forced back on tour, Cohen has finally channeled his spiritual peace into his performance, letting him find a comfortable place on stage that he had never really known before.

While the book does reflect Cohen’s life journey, this redemptive ending feels too reductive for such a complex man. Simmons clearly loves Cohen and his work, but her bias lets her settle for this happy, easy conclusion. This is the real weakness of I’m Your Man: Simmons doesn't challenge her subject enough. After spending the book outlining his charisma, her omissions illustrate how charmed she was. In particular, she chose not to delve too deeply into his womanizing and she completely ignored the controversy of alleged sexual misconduct associated with Roshi. While the latter point is not directly part of Cohen’s story, it is significant, especially given his one-time role as Roshi’s assistant. Despite missing these opportunities, the book is not fatally flawed. The wealth of details and personal recollections from Cohen and his friends still make for an excellent read. It doesn't unlock all of his mysteries, but it does offer a good sense of a complex man.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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