Sept 18, 2012: “I’m Your Man” By Sylvie Simmons Becomes The Definitive Leonard Cohen Biography

Sylvie in GG park 2009

Caveat: I am not an unbiased reviewer. I was one of several Leonard Cohen fans with whom Sylvie Simmons conferred in the process of researching and writing this biography; a handful of my contributions, in fact, made it into the book.  Further, Sylvie has participated, more or less willingly, in an interview or two as well as a few other projects that were published on this site (see Sylvie Simmons At Cohencentric below).

Consequently, I am profoundly grateful that “I’m Your Man” is a conspicuously, unequivocally marvelous book; had it been otherwise, this would be one incredibly awkward review to write.

Review: “I’m Your Man”

On its release date, September 18, 2012,1 “I’m Your Man – The Life Of Leonard Cohen” by Sylvie Simmons will become the definitive biography of Leonard Cohen.

Unsurprisingly, the 533 pages of text2 are written with the clarity, style, and attention to the telling detail characteristic of an acclaimed  music journalist with over thirty years of experience.

Appropriately, given the subject of this biography, the content is far more extensive and dense than the typical volume of pop star puffery or entertainer expose. While not as exhaustive as, say, Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, “I’m Your Man” is packed with a staggering number of captivating, often revealing stories about Leonard Cohen. Even long-time, well-read Cohen fans will discover previously unknown facts, incidents, and anecdotes about the Canadian singer-songwriter. (Having read “I’m Your Man,” the realization that still more Cohen stories were collected that did not become part of the final version of the book, either because of necessary editorial cuts or the interviewees’ wishes that the information be withheld, evokes severe cognitive dissonance.)

“I’m Your Man” sets forth the significant historical facts about Cohen, his family, and his professional life in straightforward chronological fashion.

The major themes of Cohen’s life, his depressions, his ambition, his extensive drug use, his artistic influences, his religious and spiritual explorations, and, of course, the women and the roles they played in his bed, his life, and his art, are interwoven throughout the biography.

“I’m Your Man” is authoritative without being condescending, respectful without being obsequious, compellingly readable without being dumbed down.

And some portions are wry, droll, and witty; other parts are pretty darn funny.

Most remarkable, however, is the success with which the author captures Cohen’s conversational tone.3 Those familiar with Cohen’s use of language in his music, poetry, novels, and interviews will detect a resonance with the words and phrases of this book.

I’ve searched for a couple of negative (or at least less positive) points I can include to support the illusion that this is a balanced review. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. “I’m Your Man” shares the inherent quirk of all significant biographies: the readers who already know the most about the subject are the ones who will garner the most from the book.  Allusions to Cohen’s traits, song titles, and history, for example, will be missed by those who haven’t gone beyond figuring out it was Leonard Cohen rather than Jeff Buckley, Alexandra Burke, or Shrek who wrote”Hallelujah.” On a deeper level, behavioral patterns evident to those who have followed Cohen’s career may well be indecipherable to those for whom this is virgin territory. The ideal reader, I suppose, would be an ardent fan who has listened to Cohen’s albums, attended a couple of his concerts, perused a few articles about him in the press or on one of the Cohencentric web sites but has never read one of the Cohen biographies. Be assured, however, that even those who have only discovered Cohen recently and those who have listened to Cohen’s music for decades, have read everything printed about him in any language, and have been to a half-dozen Cohen concerts – so far this year – will find the book an enchanting read.

2. Sylvie Simmons is not neutral on the matter of Leonard Cohen.  She admires his music and his poetry, considers him endlessly interesting and intriguing as a subject, and finds him gracious and companionable as a person. On the other hand, she doesn’t hesitate to point out his incongruities and weaknesses.  Nor does she try to persuade the reader that she is invulnerable to Mr Cohen’s not inconsiderable charms. Indeed, her fascination with Cohen propels the biography, lending enthusiasm to the elegance of the prose.

So, I’ll end by repeating the assessment I offered at the beginning of this post:

“I’m Your Man” is a conspicuously,
unequivocally marvelous book.

 Sylvie Simmons At Cohencentric

In December 2009, Sylvie participated in a Q&A posted on this site as Sylvie Simmons On              Her Leonard Cohen Biography, The Uke, & All Sorts Of Good Stuff.

Since then, she has appeared sporadically in posts (e.g., Sylvie Simmons On The Emotional Impact Of Finishing Her Biography Of Leonard Cohen), has written the liner notes for the Cohencentric produced collection,  Another Other Songs Of Leonard Cohen, and within the past month has performed – in public – the “Ballad Of Len,” a musical tribute to Leonard Cohen with lyrics I wrote set to a tune not unlike that of the theme song for The Beverley Hillbillies.

______________________________________________

  1. “I’m Your Man” will be released on different dates by its various publishers in different countries. September 18, 2012, the release date in the US, is is the earliest of the publication dates. []
  2. Page numbers are based on an uncorrected advance copy of the book; your page count may vary. “I’m Your Man” also includes 23 pages of end notes and 16 pages of photos along with an index and the usual assortment of acknowledgements, permissions, … []
  3. OK, substantial portions of the book are Cohen’s conversations with Simmons, but even the other parts of the book capture Cohen’s conversational tone. []

“Ballad Of Len” – Leonard Cohen Musical Tribute Performed By Sylvie Simmons & Heidi Clare

ballladlen

The Ballad Of Len

The latest in the long line of musical tributes to Leonard Cohen, a group that includes songs by such luminaries as Peter Gabriel, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Sting, Pixies, Nick Cave, R.E.M., and many, many others, is now online.

“The Ballad Of Len,” featuring lyrics by DrHGuy and set to music not unlike that of the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies, was performed August 4, 2012 by Sylvie Simmons, the renowned music journalist whose Leonard Cohen biography, “I’m Your Man,” is due to hit the bookstores, both virtual and brick and mortar, this fall, and Heidi Clare, widely acknowledged as the best, most powerful old-time fiddler performing today, at the Madison Leonard Cohen Event held in Madison, Wisconsin.

No, I have no idea what Ms Simmons and Ms Clare were thinking – or smoking – when they agreed to this.

But, if you’ve always craved hearing a parody of “The Ballad Of Jed Clampett” commemorating the 2008-2010 Leonard Cohen World Tour sung in a British accent accompanied by ukelele and exquisite fiddling well, friend, this is your big chance.

Sylvie Simmons & Heidi Clare – The Ballad Of Len
Video by Maarten Massa

Ballad Of Len – Lyrics

Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Len
Up on Mount Baldy he was contemplatin’ Zen1
Then one day checking his retirement stash,
He found out that he was plumb out of cash2
(Swindled that is, cleaned out, busted)

Well, Our Man’s3 future was looking insecure
Rob Hallett4 said “Len, you’ve gotta go on tour,”
Said on the road is the place you oughta be
So he bought a fedora and signed with AEG5
(Worldwide that is, Europe, North America, Down Under)

Well the concerts were a hit right from the kickoff show
Fredericton6 welcomed him with a standing O
The Tour earned big bucks and even more esteem
Not too bad for a kid with a crazy dream7
(
White man dancing, cheerfulness breaking through, dum, dum, dum, da, doo, dum, dum)

In Vegas three years later the tour was finally done8
When Leonard told the crowd, “God bless us every one”
Now Cohenites9 are happy from Manhattan to Berlin10
Leonard’s going back on tour11 – here we go again
(Presales, VIP packages, Y’all buy that I’m Your Man biography now, ya hear?)

____________________________________________

  1. Leonard Cohen resided at the Mount Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles from 1994 – 1999. During his stay, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk, taking the  Dharma name Jikan. For more information, see 10 Years Ago – Leonard Cohen Comes Down From The Mountain []
  2. Cohen sued his former manager for stealing $5m from his retirement fund while he was at the Zen Buddhist monastery. []
  3. “Our Man” is one of Leonard Cohen’s many nicknames. See Leonard Cohen, AKA … – The Nicknames, Item #50 []
  4. Rob Hallett is a concert promoter for AEG, who among other accomplishments, is held to have coaxed Leonard Cohen out of retirement for the 2008-2011 World Tour. Source:  Praise Be… Or How “Hallelujah” Man Leonard Cohen’s Comeback Actually Happened by Johnny Black (Rock’s Back Pages, Jan  9,. 2009) []
  5. The Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) is a sporting and music entertainment presenter and managed Leonard Cohen’s 2008-2010 Tour []
  6. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, was the site of Leonard Cohen’s first concert of the 2008-2010 Tour, performed on 11 May 2008. []
  7. A recurrent schtick in Leonard Cohen’s 2008-2010 concert routine was noting that when he last performed at a given venue when he was 60 years old, “just a kid with a crazy dream. []
  8. The 11 Dec 2010 Leonard Cohen Las Vegas show closed out the 2008-2010 Leonard Cohen World Tour []
  9. Cohenites is the preferred term for Cohen followers []
  10. As in “First We Take Manhattan … []
  11. The 2012 Leonard Cohen Old Ideas World Tour begins Aug 12, 2012 []

Sylvie Simmons On The Emotional Impact Of Finishing Her Biography Of Leonard Cohen

Biographers On The Pain Of Letting Go Of Their Subjects

Robert K. Massie, writing in Parting Words (New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 2, 2012 ), observes that biographers have found it difficult to say goodbye “to a subject with whom [they] had been living for a long time.”

Nevertheless, the end must come. When that happens, how does a biographer feel? Exhausted? Relieved? Euphoric? At long last, a person of leisure? Or something different. Wistful, sad, bereaved? You were with the subject every day. Now this companion has departed and left you behind. He or she has concluded the time shared with you. That part of your life is over.

Massie goes on to discuss how specific biographers cope. Brenda Wineapple, for example, who has written the lives of Janet Flanner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson, reported

I felt the keenest sense of loss when I left the Steins. I felt alone and bereft. How could I replace my companionship with someone like Gertrude, so witty, so intelligent, so charismatic? I knew I’d never be with that kind of person again; never have the same intensity of feeling again.

Doris Kearns Goodwin believes that “How you feel about finishing a book traces back to why you chose the subject in the first place” and, like Wineapple, handles the separation by moving on to another book.

While Massie focused on authors who wrote about individuals from the past, the article provoked my curiosity, and I wondered if a biographer of a living person might have the same or similar experience on completing that book.

As it happens, I know someone who is just now wrapping up a biography of a living subject, so …

Dear Sylvie Simmons,
How Does It Feel To Finish Your Biography Of Leonard Cohen

I emailed the article by Massie to Sylvie Simmons,1 Another Other Leonard Cohen Album collection of unreleased Cohen music, served as girls’ teenzines expert commentator in Leonard Cohen In Seventeen Magazine – 1968, and sporadically shows up in these pages with pithy quotes and even a photo or two.)) who is assiduously completing the multitude of administrative tasks necessary prior to the publication of her book, I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen, and asked how she felt now that she had finished writing her biography of Leonard Cohen.

She, in turn, sent me a thoughtful, evocative, and, of course, well written, response that was too good not to share.

This Massie character has pretty much hit it on the head.

For me, the emotion is somewhat akin to having had a longterm guest, whom you like very much and who is a wonderful distraction – as are many of the friends he introduces you to – but whose ongoing presence is also exhausting. So when you finally wave goodbye and close the door, there’s a sense of very welcome release as well as loss. A kind of post party-um depression sets in. A need to clean up and lick your wounds, oh and be waited on hand and foot, and when you look around and see there’s no one there to do the waiting, another kind of melancholy sets in too.

There’s also the detritus to clear up – the book equivalent of emptying the ashtrays and taking the empties out – checking for typos, dealing with questions from editors and the legal people, getting permissions for the use of every quote from every poem and song and the rights to use the photos. Since these have no particularly pleasant or tangible results – ie. it’s not like working on an article and seeing it in print, or on a song and getting to play it – it’s mostly (gazing at photos of Leonard aside) tiresomeness for the sake of tiresomeness. And it’s tiring enough, waking up in the middle of the night, convinced that you forget to mention some Extremely Important Incident or Observation and it’s too late.

The other bonus prize is that right now, writing short, pithy articles of 500 or 1000 words feels almost impossible. Getting the (pardon the expression) toss-one-off skill back is something I’ll have to work on, were I not so damned exhausted.

Remember when you first asked me about why did I choose to write a book about Leonard? The answer still applies.

The question and answer to which Sylvie refers is from Sylvie Simmons On Her Leonard Cohen Biography, The Uke, & All Sorts Of Good Stuff; the pertinent portion follows:

DrHGuy: You’ve written articles and essays about scores of rock musicians and books about Mötley Crüe, Neil Young, and Serge Gainsbourg (which Leonard Cohen praised). How did you come to decide to devote your efforts to a biography of Leonard Cohen instead of, say, Mick Jagger or Tom Waits?

Sylvie Simmons: Is there anyone else on whom you would have been willing to have expended the time and enthusiasm you have to this site?

Biography writing is, to a great degree, torture. The fact that I’ve chosen to inflict it on myself might lead to some follow-up questions on my tastes but the truth is that to write a biography, or to do it properly and not just go through press clippings and recycle what other people have said, involves immersing yourself in someone’s life to a degree that’s not entirely healthy and would probably get you locked up in any decent society. As a writer you want to tell a story (in fact my last published book was a collection of short stories), but as a biographer you not only want to do that but have the responsibility of telling your subject’s story. So you’d be well served to choose someone who’s life you’re willing to be immersed in and whose story you want to tell. (That’s why I’ve turned so many offers down.)

So okay, hands up: Jagger or Cohen?

See.

OK, she’s got a point there.

You Can’t Judge A Cover By Its Book

I also asked Sylvie Simmons “Is this [see above] the for-sure, no kidding, this is it book cover? Will different countries have different covers? Could you tell me why you chose (assuming you had a vote) that shot?” Her reply follows:

Nope, I didn’t get to choose the cover shot and, so far as I can tell, Camp David has been rented and they’ll come to some sort of agreement on who gets to use what, where.

Regardless of the cover finally chosen, I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons will be published this fall and is currently available for pre-order.

  1. For more about Sylvie Simmons and her Leonard Cohen biography, see Sylvie Simmons On Her Leonard Cohen Biography, The Uke, & All Sorts Of Good Stuff.  Ms Simmons has a long and distinguished career in rock journalism and is well known to Leonard Cohen’s followers who may recognize her name from the byline on the 2,000-word liner notes for Leonard Cohen, Live At The Isle Of Wight, the 11 page article on Cohen she wrote for the Dec 2008 MOJO, her November 1997 MOJO review and interview, Leonard Cohen: More Best Of, or her November 2001 MOJO piece, Felonious Monk, and, most recently, the Leonard Cohen interview that appeared in the March 2012 MOJO in conjunction with the release of Old Ideas. Of course, ongoing visitors to this site may recall that Ms Simmons also wrote the liner notes for the Heck Of A Guy ((1HeckOfAGuy.com was the previous incarnation of Cohencentric []

Sylvie Simmons On Her Leonard Cohen Biography, The Uke, & All Sorts Of Good Stuff

Sylvie in GG park 2009

Sylvie Simmons – Golden Gate Park (Summer 2009)

Sylvie Simmons Does Leonard Cohen – Coming Soon To A Publisher Near You

A biography of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist, has been acquired by Random House imprint Jonathan Cape. The title was won through a “heated” auction between nine publishers which went “on and on and on” according to CCV publishing director Dan Franklin. Franklin signed a “high five-figure sum” for UK and Commonwealth rights through Julian Alexander at Lucas Alexander Whitley. I’m Your Man will be published in autumn 2011. The author is English rock journalist Sylvie Simmons … . She has interviewed Cohen several times.” There has not been a definitive book [on Cohen]—nothing that’s taken into account his amazing comeback,” said Franklin. …  “I have always been a fan of Cohen.” said Franklin. “There’s a massive market now for people of a certain age who buy books, if you get it right.” – From Cape takes Leonard Cohen title at auction by Katie Allen (Bookseller.com, May 11, 2009)

Rock writer Sylvie Simmons’s I’M YOUR MAN, a biography of musician and poet Leonard Cohen, covering his early life and  and career as a celebrated poet and writer, his rise to fame through his iconic lyrics and songs and his retreat to and return from a Zen Buddhist monastery, in the wake of which he is playing to the biggest audiences of his career, to Dan Halpern at Ecco, in a pre-empt, and to Ellen Seligman at McClelland & Stewart in Canada, by Sarah Lazin at Sarah Lazin Books. . US rights were previously sold to Norton, and UK rights have been sold to Little Brown UK.  – From Publishers Marketplace (October 26, 2009)

Dan Halpern at Ecco pre-empted U.S. rights to I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons’s biography of musician Leonard Cohen. Sarah Lazin at Sarah Lazin Books brokered the deal for the title, which follows Cohen from his time as a struggling poet through his rise to fame as a lyricist and songwriter. The book also touches on Cohen’s recent time in a Buddhist monastery and his late flush with touring success. Ecco is planning a fall 2011 publication.  – From Deals – 10/26/2009 by Rachel Deahl (Publishers Weekly, October 26, 2009)

Sylvie Simmons, who, as you may have heard, has convinced a number of publishers that she will complete a biography of Leonard Cohen in the foreseeable future, recently wrote me a note  complimenting the Heck Of A Guy blog1 and, not coincidentally, asking my assistance in her preparation of this biography.2

You know what this means, don’t you?

Yep, that’s right – it means

Sylvie Simmons is contacting every living Leonard Cohen fan
to solicit help writing her Leonard Cohen biography3

There are, one notes, worse ways to approach this task – or, for that matter, to sell books.

In any case, Cohen admirers, Sandra Millard (Topeka, Kansas), Darika Gupta (Mumbai, India), and Ethan Anderson (Ottawa, Ontario), should not be surprised to receive email from Sylvie today.

What Else Has Sylvie Simmons Done?

For starters, she appears to have interviewed every important rock and Americana musician at least once and written for every major magazine dedicated to pop music as well as  most of the newspapers that devote space to that topic. She shows up on radio, TV, and documentaries to lend her perspective to the proceedings. She has written biographies, including the impressive “Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful Of Gitanes”4  (which earned Leonard Cohen’s “An excellent piece of writing”), crafted a batch of interconnected short stories published as “Too Weird for Ziggy,” and contributed essays to all manner of anthologies.

Leonard Cohen fans may recognize her name from the byline on the 2,000-word liner notes for Leonard Cohen, Live At The Isle Of Wight, the 11 page article on Cohen she wrote for the Dec 2008 MOJO, her November 1997 MOJO review and interview, Leonard Cohen: More Best Of, or her November 2001 MOJO piece, Felonious Monk.

MOJODEC2008cover

Sylvie Simmons also openly admits to playing the ukulele.

Sylvie Simmons and Ronny Elliot at Yard Dog in Austin Texas (SXSW 2009)

Video from Wisegeorge

The Heck Of A Guy – Sylvie Simmons Q&A

Continue Reading →

  1. 1HeckOfAGuy.com was the previous incarnation of Cohencentric and the original site to where this post was published []
  2. While I’ve agreed to lend a hand, I am holding back the best stuff for my own gig as ghostwriter of the unauthorized autobiography of Leonard Cohen. []
  3. On the other hand, it could mean that there has been a tragic misunderstanding about the nature of this blog on the part of Sylvie Simmons such that, in fall 2011, a biography of Leonard Cohen will be published that indicates, with Heck Of A Guy as the footnoted reference, that the inspiration for “Suzanne” was actually Dolly Parton. That same volume will also include a photo of Leonard Cohen and Elvis Presley admiring Elvis’s Rolls-Royce, a meta-analysis of the hypothesis that Cohen’s apparent energy and stamina at age 74 was actually due to his use of stand-in lookalikes, and an exegesis on the significance of the Leonard Cohen On Ice concert and the Leonard Cohen Girls! Girls! Girls! Las Vegas Revue, all based on that same source. It will be, in a word, unique. []
  4. “Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful Of Gitanes” is a contender for coolest book title ever. []