Socrates takes a back seat when Len’s your man
I’m Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
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