I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

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I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography and examination of the musical and literary work of Leonard Cohen, who was initially a novelist and poet before becoming one of the most highly acclaimed singer-songwriters.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 546 Date: June 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099549321

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If you or I wanted to write a story about an imaginary figure who began as a novelist and poet, then became acclaimed as a singer-songwriter in the swinging sixties, made and lost a fortune, became a monk, and returned to a musical career at an age when most mortals are well into retirement, and found himself not only more popular than ever but also playing to the largest audiences in his entire life, it would be dismissed as total fantasy. Nobody could make it up – and nobody needs to, because in a nutshell that is the life (so far) of Leonard Cohen, the subject of this biography and surely one of the music business’s most unique figures.

In 500 pages, Sylvie Simmons has written an engrossing account of the life and times of Canada’s greatest export. From his Jewish ancestry, birth and fairly comfortable middle-class upbringing in Montreal, to a university education from which he graduated with a BA, and the publication of his first book of poems, his has been an astonishing career. I was one of those whose musical tastes were formed in the sixties and was spellbound by his first two albums, released in an era when he was one of the few if not the only singer-songwriters whose name could be mentioned in the same breath as that of Bob Dylan, another great admirer, and when everyone who knew his work either adored him or couldn’t abide him because his songs were apparently far too miserable. There was no middle way.

This weaves a steady course through his fifty years of literature, music and performance. As well as telling his life story the author analyses his work skilfully, as an author whose main themes are religion, sex and literature, as someone whose writings might often have been banned as obscene or at least relegated to the top shelves if not so subtly expressed, and as someone who has often championed the underdog, or the 'beautiful loser'. She describes the genesis of all his major works, with considerable detail on the contents, recording and general public and media reaction to each album, and the long-running connection with Jennifer Warnes, who started as one of his backing singers and wound up having a very successful solo career partly through making an album of his songs. Throughout it all Cohen comes to life as a perfect gentleman, considerate to all, one who has had his share of romantic disappointments, success and failure. Remarkably, he has had the most faithful fan base not just in Canada but also in Britain in Europe, where record sales have always dwarfed those in a frequently unreceptive America. She also testifies to his dry wit and humour which belies the image he had in the early days of making music only fit for listeners to slit their wrists to. Those who had only a superficial acquaintance with his oeuvre were entitled to their opinion, but anyone who looked and thought about it in depth would rapidly realise that there was far more to it than that.

Nobody sustains a career lasting half a century without ups and downs. Interest in Cohen was waning around the mid-eighties, when he embraced the new technology, and more or less swapped his acoustic guitar for a basic Casio keyboard with which to write melodies on one finger – and the subsequent result proved to be one of the best-selling records of his career. At last the man was cool, even performing at a Prince’s Trust Concert in London by special invitation of the Prince of Wales, who gave a television interview saying why he was such a fan. Even stranger and even more engrossing is the account of his five-year period of seclusion when he was ordained as a Buddhist monk, and everyone thought that there would be no more new records or books.

Then came the day in 2004 when his daughter advised him to check his bank accounts, and he discovered that his longtime business manager had been misappropriating funds on a massive scale for some years. There was no option but to return to worldwide concert tours once more, something which at the age of seventy he viewed with mixed feelings. Out of the business problems came forth good, for as a result he was soon playing to the biggest and most age-diverse audiences of his career, with show after show sold out well in advance. Thanks to a little help from ‘The X Factor’, a cover version of his song ‘Hallelujah’ became the British Christmas No 1 in 2008, with a second version hot on its heels in the singles chart and, thanks to downloads, his own recording entering the Top 40 as well. Even more gratifying were the honours that came his way, including induction into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Prince of Asturias Award for literature, and his native country's finest civilian award which made him a Companion of the Order of Canada.

This is a very fine book about a very impressive character, and by the time I had finished it, I not only felt better acquainted with his work as well as reminded about his early albums which I played and adored at school and badly needed to give another listen, but also felt I almost knew the man, who comes across as unfailingly self-modest and thoroughly likeable. My only disappointment is that, despite several pages of reference notes at the end, there is no bibliography or discography of his published and recorded works – a strange omission. As a result, be prepared to read this book with ready access to the extra information online. That apart, it’s a first-class read.

If this book appeals, try Still on the Road: Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2008 by Clinton Heylin.

Buy I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons at Amazon.com.


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