I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
By Sylvie Simmons (Jonathan Cape)
It will come as no surprise to the genuine Leonard Cohen afficianado that music doesn’t feature in Sylvie Simmons’ hefty new biography until around 150 pages in. It’s not because her book overly dwells on his childhood, but instead because Cohen had a significant career as a poet and writer years before he first began putting his words to song. Even then, his earliest compositions songs appeared on albums by Judy Collins and others; his own music career didn’t get jump started till he was in his thirties, when Collins dragged him onstage for his first disastrous appearance in New York in 1967. Cohen, who walked off stage after managing only four lines of ‘Suzanne’, wrote to then girlfiend Marianne Jensen to say he ‘couldn’t get more than a croak out of my throat’. An inauspicious beginning, to say the least, for one of the titans of twentieth century song, still going strong today.
Simmons details Cohen’s early literary career in Montreal and elsewhere during the fifties and sixties, which produced the poetry books Let Us Compare Mythologies and Flowers for Hitler, along with novels The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers. Though he looked set for a successful career as a writer, Cohen already had about him an enigmatic star quality, as evidenced by the National Film Board of Canada’s documentary film Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr Leonard Cohen from 1965. How many other poets found themselves the subject of a film, after having issued only a handful of books? Though he went on to achieve fame with music, Cohen has continued publish poetry throughout his career, most recently with Book of Longing in 2006.
These were the years Cohen spent on Hydra, Greece, living in a modest house he bought with a small inheritance after his father’s death. It was there he wrote, played guitar, and enjoyed an idle life amongst the ex-patriate community that included Australian writers George Johnston and Charmaine Clift. He lived, off and on, with Marianne Jensen, who appears, seated at a desk wearing a towel, on the back cover of Songs from a Room, and who was immortalised in the song ‘So Long Marianne’. Hydra would continue to be an important place for Cohen, as his later life drifted between Greece, France, Canada, and various parts of the US.
Simmons pays particular attention to Cohen’s recording sessions, and the many tours which supported the albums, the latter often fuelled by alcohol and drugs to help alleviate Cohen’s stagefright. From the outset, his music and voice presented a challenge to producers. Though his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen contains several of his best known songs, producer John Simon failed to capture the spare sound that Cohen wanted, adding extraneous horns and strings into the mix. Bob Johnston fared much better with the stunning Songs of Love and Hate; but Phil Spector sessions for Death of a Ladies’ Man were a train wreck, though they at least led to Cohen taking over the reins on 1979’s Recent Songs, one of his most beautiful and haunting recordings.
Columbia’s inability to market Cohen is summed up by head guy Walter Yetnikoff’s statement: ‘Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good’. While Cohen’s albums attained respectable sales in the UK and Europe, he struggled to make the charts in the US; so much so, that Columbia at first declined to release his 1984 album Various Positions there, even though it contained ‘Hallelujah’, since covered by more than 300 artists. Yet, at a time when most sixties artists has been relegated to the scrapheap, Cohen’s star was on the rise. Younger artists like Nick Cave were covering his music, and in 1987 Jennifer Warne released the first of what would become a stream of tribute albums Famous Blue Raincoat. Suddenly, in his fifites, Cohen found himself with a break-out album I’m Your Man, which cemented his status as a cult figure for a new generation.
Simmons provides ample evidence to account for Cohen’s reputation as a ‘ladies’ man’, charting his relationships with Marianne Jensen; Suzanne Elrod, which whom he had two children; French photographer Dominique Isserman; actress Rebecca de Mornay; along with sundry briefer affairs, including Joni Mitchell, and a one-night stand with Janis Joplin after the two met in a lift at the Chelsea Hotel. The latter part of her book recounts Cohen’s growing committment to Buddhism; and the widely publicised saga of his financial affairs, when manager Kelley Lynch drained his accounts and sold off his songbook, without Cohen’s knowledge. As a result, Cohen was literally forced back on the road, prompting a late flowering of performances and recordings, much to the delight of his fans.
Simmons portrait of the poet and singer is sympathetic, informed and wide-ranging. She interviewed over one hundred people who have lived, associated or worked with Cohen – friends, lovers, musicians, producers – and few have anything but a good word to say about him. But the result is not a simple hagiography. Cohen proved generous in opening up his archives to Simmons, and the result is the most exhaustive and authoritative account of his life and music to date. During my reading, I worked my way through Cohen’s albums in order of release; and came away from the experience with a renewed and heightened appreciation for Cohen’s songs, his poetry and words. I’d be hard pressed to ask more of Simmons’ masterful book than that.