Socrates takes a back seat when Len’s your man

I’m Man: The Life of Leonard Co­hen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Iain Shed­den

By Sylvie Simmons Jonathan Cape, 560pp, $35

LONG be­fore Leonard Co­hen con­sid­ered mak­ing an al­bum he was liv­ing the rock ’ n’ roll life­style, in­dulging his artis­tic sen­si­bil­ity as a writer on the Greek is­land of Hy­dra and sup­ple­ment­ing his cre­ative urges with drugs, al­co­hol and sex.

This was in the early 1960s, when Co­hen, the prod­uct of a mid­dle-class Jewish fam­ily from Montreal, be­gan a voy­age of dis­cov­ery that took him from Canada to Greece via New York and back again and in the process pro­duced his first nov­els, The Favourite Game (1963) and Beau­ti­ful Losers (1966).

Co­hen was al­ready an es­tab­lished poet with three pub­lished col­lec­tions, the first of which, Let Us Com­pare Mytholo­gies (1956), aroused the cu­rios­ity of Montreal’s literati.

His life as a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian wouldn’t be­gin un­til 11 years later, when the gen­tle­man com­poser re­leased Songs of Leonard Co­hen at 33. As we now know, that ten­ta­tive step as a singer-song­writer opened up a life­long ca­reer, one that has de­railed a few times, but which has had a de­served re­nais­sance in re­cent years.

English rock jour­nal­ist Sylvie Simmons comes at this bi­og­ra­phy with a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence and Co­hen’s bless­ing, al­though his di­rect con­tri­bu­tions to it are saved to a few quotes at the end. His voice else­where echoes mainly from old in­ter­views and press cut­tings.

Simmons isn’t the first per­son to tackle Co­hen’s life story. In 1996 Cana­dian writer and James Joyce scholar Ira B. Nadel pub­lished Var­i­ous Po­si­tions with what he called Co­hen’s ‘‘ be­nign ap­proval’’, se­cured dur­ing a visit to the Mt Baldy Zen Cen­tre in the Cal­i­for­nia hills, where Co­hen spent five years in the 90s.

Simmons, con­versely, was at the fore­front of rock jour­nal­ism in its 70s hey­day, writ­ing for the British rock pa­per Sounds, and has mon­i­tored her sub­ject’s mu­sic al­most from the be­gin­ning. She has a pedi­gree as a bi­og­ra­pher too. Her pre­vi­ous books on Johnny Cash, Neil Young and Serge Gains­bourg were well­re­ceived and Co­hen him­self com­pli­mented her on the last of these. He should be happy with this one too, al­though one imag­ines he’d run back to his monas­tic soli­tude rather than read about him­self. Co­hen’s not a big fan of self. As Simmons points out, when he has to talk about Leonard Co­hen, his voice gets softer and softer.

Us­ing school friends and fam­ily mem­bers to tell the tale, Simmons takes a rather per­func­tory stroll through Co­hen’s com­fort­able Montreal child­hood, where the teachings of the Jewish faith and an in­ter­est in folk mu­sic, de­bat­ing, lit­er­a­ture and, oddly, hyp­no­sis, shaped his for­ma­tive years.

As one friend of Co­hen, Steve Stan­field, points out, that he­do­nis­tic if cre­ative pe­riod in Greece, where he lived off very lit­tle, ‘‘ was im­por­tant to his de­vel­op­ment and the things he car­ries with him’’. It’s one of the more fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ters in the book, too, where we ex­pe­ri­ence the young writer’s rite of pas­sage, scram­bling home from Hy­dra oc­ca­sion­ally to top up on cash to sup­port his rel­a­tively care­free, hip­pie-ish ex­is­tence on the is­land.

Af­ter that, Simmons set­tles into a strong nar­ra­tive that guides us through the singer’s fledg­ling record­ing ca­reer in New York, where he hov­ered on the fringes of the Andy Warhol art crowd and then into the piv­otal al­bums

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