As you might expect of a book about Leonard Cohen, Sylvie Simmons spends a fair proportion of I’m Your Man writing about love, faith, depression, finance, and the demands and consolations of poetry and women. Mostly, though, the focus of this hefty and thorough book is Leonard Cohen’s charm: about how an exceptionally gifted artist has seduced most everyone who has come into contact with him, through the course of an uncommonly eventful life.
Simmons, of course, might not see her book in quite the same light. But among an impressive castlist, she is as vulnerable to Cohen’s wiles as anyone. “I gathered his only interest in the book was that it wouldn’t be a hagiography,” she writes in the afterword, following some 500 pages in which she has assembled scores of Cohen’s associates to testify to his brilliance and loveliness. Former lovers are generally rhapsodic in their praise. “I felt very lucky to have met Leonard at that time in my life,” says Marianne Ihlen who, among other indignities, was dumped in Montreal with her young son while Cohen gallivanted off to the Cuban revolution (he was eventually summoned to the Canadian embassy in Havana; not as a dangerous subversive, but because his mother was worried about him). Whenever domesticity looms, he heads off on another deluded macho adventure: soon after his son Adam is born, Cohen leaves him and his partner Suzanne Elrod to try and fight in the war of Yom Kippur, then flies directly from Israel to another combat zone, Ethiopia. “Women,” he claims dishonestly, “only let you out of the house for two reasons; to make money or to fight a war.” If only they let out men to sleep with other women, too…
Remarkably, just one interviewee can find anything bad to say about him. Steven Machat, the son of Cohen’s former manager, “never liked him”. The chaotic Phil Spector collaboration Death Of A Ladies’ Man, Machat notes, “was two drunks… making an album about picking up girls and getting laid. It was the most honest album Leonard Cohen has ever made.” By 2008, however, even Machat is back, helping Tony Palmer reassemble his Bird On A Wire film.
What is it about Cohen that inspires such devotion? Beyond the charm and the great art, the figure that emerges from I’m Your Man is droll, reserved, ultimately unknowable. His self-deprecation can be irritating, but the measured beauty of his language means that Simmons is perpetually disadvantaged as his biographer, grappling to describe a man who could do a much more stylish – and to some degree insightful – job himself.
As a consequence, I’m Your Man is a triumph of research rather than analysis, and its best sections dramatise Cohen’s work as part of a team rather than as a solitary, internalised figure. There are fine and bawdy characters in the margins, like the poet Irving Layton and producer Bob Johnston (who deserves a biography of his own, incidentally), and vivid recollections of classic recording sessions and amphetamine-charged tours. Cohen heals a sick cat with Buddhist chanting, tries to get Iggy Pop to jointly respond to a personal ad, and arrives at a French festival on horseback.
By the end, and a revelatory new poem for one more faithful ex-lover, Anjani Thomas, even a cynic is starting to be cowed by the cumulative adoration. And if Simmons’ writing is sometimes dogged by the romantic clichés associated with singer-songwriters – well, how could it not be? Leonard Cohen, in his life and work, assiduously created so many of them.
Follow me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JohnRMulvey