Jonathan Cape £20
I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, By Sylvie Simmons
'Hallelujah', let real-life Len bewitch you
Where do you start with Leonard Cohen: poet, novelist, singer, songwriter, father, son, womaniser, traveller, bon viveur, drug-user, depressive, spiritual recluse? The sheer size of Sylvie Simmons's biography is testament to Cohen's many incarnations, assorted narratives and vast back catalogue. But while the breadth of his story may be daunting, a biographer couldn't hope for a better subject. The 78-year-old Cohen, alongside Bob Dylan and Neil Young, carries a weight rarely attributed to singers working in the realm of popular music. "Laughing Len" is a serious artist who demands serious, if not too reverent, treatment. And here, thankfully, he gets it.
Simmons approaches her subject intelligently, and without a trace of the hysteria that Cohen so often inspires. She starts at the beginning, with baby Leonard returning from hospital to the family home in a wealthy suburb of Montreal. We are subsequently guided through his upbringing in a well-to-do Jewish family, the death of his father when he was nine, and his cultural awakening – "the moment when poetry, music, sex and spiritual longing collided and fused in him for the first time" – upon reading Federico García Lorca's poem "Gacela of the Morning Market".
In the early Fifties, he bloomed as a poet, becoming one of Canada's most acclaimed young writers. But local success wasn't enough, and with characteristic restlessness, he high-tailed it to New York, then to the Greek island of Hydra, where "everyone was in everyone else's bed" and where he met the first of many muses.
Simmons gives due respect – and a voice – to the women who spurred on Cohen's creativity, from Marianne Ihlen and Suzanne Verdal to Joni Mitchell and Rebecca De Mornay. But her biggest coup was managing to get an audience with Cohen himself, and she elegantly splices their conversation into the narrative.
In both her interviews with Cohen and her broader research, Simmons repeatedly returns to themes of sex, love, family, depression and religion – familiar themes for fans of his music – while observing a less documented trait: resilience. Whether fleeing from the violence in post-revolution Cuba or coping with the unscrupulous manager who, seven years ago, made off with his $5m pension fund, Cohen has shown an extraordinary ability to survive calamity.
There are delicious morsels that even dedicated Cohenites might find surprising: that he wrote TV scripts, dabbled in Scientology, watches The Jerry Springer Show, and used to stuff tissues into his shoes to make himself taller. And all the while, Simmons never forgets that she's telling a story. If you weren't familiar with Cohen, I'm Your Man would read like a beautifully plotted piece of fiction, with an extraordinary and bewitching character at its centre.
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