Biographer Sylvie Simmons pays tribute to Montreal’s favourite son

We were more than 15,000 friends, family, and fans from across the globe, gathered at the Bell Centre last month to celebrate Leonard Cohen’s life, among them his biographer, Sylvie Simmons.

Simmons had flown in from San Francisco for a whirlwind week of interviews on Cohen’s words and music as she publicized the new French edition of her best-selling book, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, McClelland and Stewart, 570 Pages).

It has been recognized since its first publication in 2012 for its excellence — a definitive work, a beautifully written and meticulously researched biography, based on more than 100 interviews with key figures in Cohen’s life from his bar mitzvah teacher to the women in his life – muses, lovers, singers.

We sat down with Simmons, British-born rock journalist, author, ukelele player and singer-songwriter, to reflect on the life of our Leonard, who cooperated with her on the book and put out the word to family and friends that he was “supportive.”

Simmons remembers that as a child in London, when she bought a Columbia compilation album in 1968, The Rock Machine Turns You On, and alongside Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, she heard Cohen singing Sisters of Mercy.

“I was caught like a deer in the headlights. I was so stunned, almost hypnotized by this song, and this voice. I was a little girl so I didn’t analyze why it meant so much, but I think it was this feeling that this man knew something. He had a sense of authority, and also projected a sense of intimacy. It was as if some particular truth came to me, privately, in my bedroom.”

Simmons became a rock journalist, and after several phone interviews, first met Cohen in London in 2001, after he had “come down from the mountain” where he had been living for five years at the Zen Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy and had made a new album, Ten New Songs.

He was with vocalist Sharon Robinson, who had composed the music, and Leanne Ungar, his studio engineer, and Cohen and Simmons talked for three days.

“I transcribed the interview, which covered his career, and thought this might be the greatest interview I’ve ever done.

“Then when I looked at it I realized he had done his usual trick of blowing smoke in my eyes. He had told me some new things, but many of the big questions remained a mystery.”

The man with the golden tongue “had always said he loved the charged language of the church, careful language, well-thought out language for his own daily speech. But he also talks a bit like a politician and a poet. He chooses his words carefully, often for the sound, and the grace, and their exact meaning, but also to avoid answering a question.”

Simmons gave Cohen a copy of her biography of French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, and after reading it, he remarked, “I wish somebody would write a book like this about me.”

After examining the Cohen bookshelf, Simmons remembers concluding that what had been done was incomplete.

“There were academics who would see him as a poet who dabbled in music, or as a rock star who dabbled in poetry, or a ladies’ man who dabbled in religion, and vice versa – all of these things that would be of the DNA helix of Leonard Cohen somehow weren’t touched upon.”

She remembers telling Cohen he had been “underserved” by his various biographers and proposed to tackle the project and do it “with diligence and heart.”

This is exactly what she accomplished in a book that covers in depth the many facets of a complex man and his various searches, his battle with depression and his voyages via spirituality, sex, drugs, and rock to discover what he once described as “a state of grace.”

“He seemed to be the same Leonard Cohen at every stage of his life, maybe wearing a slightly different size suit from when he was nine years old and writing his first poetry, to be in his 80’s and passing away.”

She started tabula rasa, with a blind slate of no biases or pre-conceptions, in January, to get the feel of Montreal in the winter, how people react and look in the cold. She started at the Sha’ar Hashomayim Synagogue in Westmount, which Cohen’s paternal great-grandfather founded, the descendant of a long line of rabbis and Jewish men of stature, on both sides of his family.

In Montreal, friends and relatives, from his childhood pal, sculptor Morton Rosengarten, to the late McGill Chancellor Arnold Steinberg, opened up to Simmons.

In his many interviews, Cohen tried to deflect questions about the many women in his life, by recalling he had spent five years in a Buddhist Monastery and there and elsewhere had had “many lonely nights.”

“He was a ladies’ man, he loved women. If a woman came into a room, and he was there, the eyes lit up a bit more, something animated him.

“He didn’t just love them horizontally, he loved them vertically, and every angle in between. His first manager was a woman, he had a recording engineer who was a woman, very rare, and the first people to make his music known to the world were women — Judy Collins was the first person to take him on stage. She was a star at that point in the folk-rock world when he was a nobody, and Buffy Saint-Marie recorded his songs. (The late Susan Jains of the Stormy Clovers sang Suzanne in 1966 at the Venus de Milo Room above Dunn’s Delicatessen.)

“They were also muses. He needed women, and he needed women’s voices, up until his last album You Want It Darker – the only one where there were male voices, the choir of his synagogue, because he was singing himself back home.”

In spite of his being “extremely attractive” to women, and they to him, “he worked better in a state of isolation and longing. That was one of the slight tortures in his life, in the same way he was the poet of brokenness and imperfection, yet was a perfectionist.”

These conflicts were at the source of his problems, but also generated “this great art that we all loved.”

Cohen not only experimented with but used alcohol and drugs, both recreationally and therapeutically, throughout his life, yet while others, including friends, succumbed to its excesses, he not only survived but had a remarkable creative rebirth in his last years.

“Leonard left at the top of his game. He was playing to audiences bigger than any time in his life at venues where he had never played as a younger man.”

Simmons recalled him listing all the drugs he had used, including those to counter his lifelong battle with depression, and others “for killing the demons.”

“He told me that he had been taking speed (amphetamines) for several decades. I reacted with a shocked response, ‘`You were on speed?’ and he said, ‘Darling, you should hear me when I’m not’.”

The memorial concert, and the continuing tribute to Cohen’s work at the Musée d’art contemporain reflects how important Montreal was to his life. Even though he lived in Hydra, Greece, and Los Angeles, where he died, and elsewhere, he maintained a house on Vallières, opposite Parc du Portugal, and returned here, as he once wrote, to renew his “neurotic affiliations.”

He had studied other religions, including Scientology, Buddhism, and Vedanta Hinduism, but he always came back to his roots and made it clear in his will that he wanted to be “brought back to Montreal and buried in a plain pine box beside his parents on Mount Royal.”

Simmons found the exhibition, and the mainly digital art as expressed by young people, to be “incredibly human.” It was planned before his death and “he would have been embarrassed because he was a modest man and a private man, but his hometown did him proud.”

Cohen died in his sleep, Nov. 7, 2016, after a fall at home in LA, but his last years were among his most productive, including finishing a book of poetry, The Flame, which will be released next year.

When Simmons asked him why he lived the life he led, never settling in one place or maintaining a single long-term relationship, Cohen replied, “I don’t think about those things, I pretty much live in the present, I don’t live in the past.”

In an afterword, which is part of the new French edition and will be included in a revised edition to be published next year by McClelland & Stewart, Cohen responded to the question about what was the driving force that propelled his output. She calls it Traveling Light. “I was never really conscious of a choice. I don’t really know what the choice was. It just seemed to be what I was doing from the beginning and I was doing it all the time.

“There is something about keeping a record of the thing, the idea that it might help if you keep a record of the approach to sanity, that somehow it could all become clearer.

“And my work, well you know that all that you’re doing, whatever you are doing, is tiny as hell in the great scheme of things. But on the other hand, it is your work. So you treat it with respect…

“You’re just trying to finish a song. You know that you’re going to leave pretty soon. This is not going to last forever, your health is going to become more of a consideration, so I would like to bring as many things to completion as possible.”

Simmons quotes from Mission, the Book of Longing:

“I’ve worked at my work
I’ve slept at my sleep
I’ve died at my death
And now I can leave.”

1 Comment on "Biographer Sylvie Simmons pays tribute to Montreal’s favourite son"

  1. William Mesher | December 14, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Reply

    Probably if he was still alive it would be revealed that he “loved women” too much.

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