Doom with a view

A new biography of the most introspective of modern minstrels could well be the definitive version


I imagine most Leonard Cohen devotees will approach this book with an equal mix of fear and loathing. I know I did. Or perhaps that should be fear and loving. Cohen, like his fellow Jewish singer-poets Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, has attracted such a wealth of discussion, dissection and opinion that it was hard to believe that rock journalist Sylvie Simmons would have found anything original to mine from this well-trodden path.

It goes: Jewish-Canadian, middle-class upbringing in Montreal; learns guitar to attract women; goes to live on the island of Hydra in Greece; makes debut in the rock world at behest of Judy Collins; writes hundreds of doom-laden songs and attracts devoted train of cult followers, many of whom record cover versions of his songs; becomes Buddhist monk; while he is living in Buddhist monastery in California, his manager rips off his entire life savings, causing him to come down from the mountain and begin new world tour.

At 78, Leonard Cohen is one of the most venerated of singer-songwriters and, though he is not often interviewed, sufficient has been written over the years to suggest that there was little more to say.

But Simmons has done a bang-up job in this comprehensive and well-written biography. Hers, I think, will be the benchmark in Leonard Cohen studies, providing an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) catalogue of every poem, song, studio appearance, recording, band — and woman.

Especially the last: I’m Your Man is a seemingly endless, relentless litany of women with whom Cohen ever had a relationship, not all of them physical.

Simmons begins, as is appropriate, with Leonard’s mother, the stylish Russian, Masha, widowed when her son was nine. No detail is too insignificant, from the footstool on to which the diminutive Leonard climbed for his barmitzvah, to interviews with high-school classmates, rabbis and contemporaries in his youth and literary groups.

Sylvie Simmons appears to have tracked down almost every woman Leonard Cohen ever spoke to, from the inspiration for his songs Suzanne and So Long Marianne to the burgeoning group of backing singers and managers with whom he was surrounded in more recent years. For anoraks, students and superfans, this is the reference book to have, and one to which LC has given his blessing — and given Simmons a humorous series of interviews, which she has interspersed in the text.

Given Cohen’s predeliction for repetition and recycling of anecdotes, I did fear (and loathe) that the book would be a gentle retelling of every quirky story about the Great Man. But even I, a self-confessed fan, found new things in it: details of who inspired what lyrics, on whom certain songs are based, and so on.

Just the same, I was happy that one story that Cohen told the JC when he was interviewed did not find its way into this book — the hilarious encounter between Leonard Cohen the Buddhist monk, resplendent in his robes, and a group of Lubavitchers who ascended Mount Baldy above the snow-line in winter, in order to spend a gloriously drunken Chanucah with “the Yiddle in the monastery.” For the next edition, Sylvie…

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