- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Maybe the many fans of Canadian poet, singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, who turned 78 this past Sept. 21, should have a shout-out of praise for Kelley Lynch, his former manager, who stole millions of dollars from his retirement fund.
In the wake of the 2005 financial revelation, Cohen was forced to go on the road and tour, bringing to a new generation of fans the man who wrote such classic songs as “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire” and, of course, “Hallelujah”.
Sylvie Simmons brilliantly explores the many facets of the artist in “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers, glossy photo insert, index, notes, 576 pages, $27.99). Simmons has delivered the ultimate biography of a much honored poet and songwriter whose songs have been covered by dozens of artists to the point where even Cohen himself has called for a moratorium on the use of “Hallelujah.”
Masha Cohen, Leonard’s mother, warned him about people like Kelley Lynch who would take advantage of him when he left Montreal for New York in the 60s with his guitar, Simmons writes describing one of the oldest stories in show biz: “You be careful of those people down there,” Masha told Leonard. “They’re not like us.” It was a woman, his daughter (with Suzanne Elrod) Lorca, who brought the Kelley Lynch matter to his attention.
Leonard’s father died when he was nine, so it was Masha who educated him about the importance of women in his life: “My mother taught me well never to be cruel to women” Simmons quotes him from an unpublished memoir in the 1970s, adding that he also learned from Masha “to count on the devotion, support and nurturing of women and, if and when it became too intense, to have permission to leave — if not always completely, and rarely without conflicting emotions.”
Cohen was raised in upscale Westmount, an English speaking district of Montreal, which also had a sizable Jewish population. It was in sharp contrast to the gritty working class largely Jewish Saint-Urbain district of Montreal chronicled by Mordecai Richler in novels like “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.”
I was surprised at the diverse number of artists who worked with Cohen, including Phil Spector; Charlie Daniels, David Crosby and the man he’s most often compared with, Bob Dylan. In fact, John Hammond, the leading A&R man at America’s foremost record company, Columbia Records, who signed Dylan to a multi-album record contract, initially played the same role with Cohen.
I read “I’m Your Man” quickly, but it’s the kind of book you’ll want to go back and savor the “Various Positions” — to quote the title of one of his albums — of Leonard Cohen’s life and career. (“Hallelujah” was a song on that 1984 album). Simmons devotes a great deal of space in her book to Cohen’s Buddhism, which he practices along with his Judaism.
Since the late 1970s Cohen has been associated with Buddhist monk and teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, known as Roshi, regularly visiting him at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles County. Roshi is now 105 years old.
It goes without saying that Leonard Norman Cohen is also a man of complexities and seeming contradictions: a devout Jew, who is also a sophisticate and ladies’ man, as well as an ordained Buddhist monk whose name, Jikan—“ordinary silence”— belies his career as a writer and singer whose life has been anything but ordinary. Cohen’s 2001 album “Ten New Songs” is dedicated to Roshi.
And of course, there are the women in his life. By the way, the Suzanne of the song is not Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Lorca and Adam Cohen; it refers to Suzanne Verdal, whom he met in Montreal years before meeting Suzanne Elrod. Simmons deals with this complicated relationship on pages 124-130.
Simmons created her portrait of Cohen through a wealth of research that includes Cohen’s personal archives and more than a hundred exclusive interviews with those closest to Cohen—from his lovers, friends, monks, professors, rabbis and fellow musicians to his muses, including Rebecca De Mornay, Marianne Ihlen, Suzanne Elrod and Suzanne Verdal — and most important, with Cohen himself. It must have taken a lot of work on the author’s part to get such a private man to open up as he does in “I’m Your Man” — and readers should be glad she did!
About the Author
Sylvie Simmons was born in London, and moved to Los Angeles in the late seventies and started writing about rock music for magazines such as Sounds, Creem, Kerrang! and Q. She is the author of acclaimed fiction and non-fiction books, including the biography “Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes” and the short-story collection “Too Weird for Ziggy”. She has lived at various times in England, the United States and France, and she currently lives in San Francisco, where she writes for MOJO magazine and plays the ukulele.
Publisher’s website: www.eccobooks.com