Tuesday, July 08, 2014

I’m Your Man – The Life of Leonard Cohen – Sylvie Simmons

When I was a young child first learning guitar, a brother and sister of mine were very much into the folk scene of the time. Among the usual Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, John Denver, etc., one of the artists that they turned me on to was Leonard Cohen. His music was essentially Cohen and his acoustic guitar, but besides writing incredible melodies, his lyrics were full of poetry, humor, love, lust, darkness, suicide, longing and much more. His third album, Songs of Love and Hate, was so grim and depressing that he lost some fans (I remember my sister saying it was "obscene" - not due to language but due to the graphic depictions of depression and lost love), but it was my favorite for the same reasons. I actually stopped following him not long after that album and was essentially unaware of the level of his later fame, though I always returned to the first three albums when looking for powerful acoustic songs.

Simmons' biography is extremely well-researched and created with the blessing - although maybe not full participation - of her subject who cherishes his privacy. But, she was able to find many, many friends, confidants, lovers, musicians, family and more to tell the tale of his extraordinary life.

From his childhood in a well-to-do Jewish family in Canada through his rise to (some) fame as a poet (he had at least one documentary based on him before he moved to music) to his travels to his decades of work as a music and the acclaim that finally came his way, Sylvie takes us along and gives us many insights. 

For a shy boy, Leonard grew into quite the ladies' man - especially once he became a bit well-know. Many women came through his life – the legendary Suzanne and Marianne, Judy Collins, Nico, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, actress Rebecca De Mornay – daughter of Wally George! - among many others – many of which he collaborated with and produced some of his best known works.

There were plenty of anecdotes that I never knew: Charlie Daniels was a session musician for Songs from a Room – and very astute about Cohen’s music and what was needed – and he even toured with the man and also played on Songs of Love & Hate. Leonard enjoyed drugs quite a bit in his youth and took "hundreds" of acid trips, especially on 1st European tour.Between playing a festival in France & the Isle of Wright, he played in a mental institution - long before the Cramps had the idea! - and continued to do so, believing that the mentally disturbed understood his work better than most. He didn't want to do the third album, the afore-mentioned Songs of Love & Hate – my favorite. In 73 he flew to Te Aviv to fight in the Yom Kippur War, partially in solidarity with his Jewish brethren and partially to get away from his life with Suzanne, their child and the demands of the record company - things that most men would love to have. He ended up being an entertainer rather than a soldier and glorified the war - rather at odds with most musicians who were pacifists at the time.

Simmons does a fine job covering his career - his recordings and tours and I learned much about his later work with keys and synthesizers and cheap Casio keyboards that became his most famous, including a collaboration with Phil Spector. 

As had happened to many others, he had a manager that he trusted implicitly and she ended up draining literally millions of dollars from him, causing him to be basically penniless in his 70’s, which caused him to decide to tour again – a tour that ended up lasting years (with breaks) and making him a millionaire yet again. Funnily enough, he was extremely hesitant about touring at all, thinking that no one remembered him, and yet he broke all kinds of records. Interesting how even someone of his stature can be insecure.

When she leaves him in 2012, he was 80 years old, working on a new album and looking forward to touring again. Here's hoping that he will continue for many more years - as did his 100+ year old Buddhist teacher!

Simmons' book is a treat for fans of his words and his music and just a plain interesting accounting of a life filled with much variety and an incredible amount of ups and downs. Very much recommended.