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.
- “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. [↩]
- 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, … [↩]
- 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. [↩]