Friday, January 25, 2013

Sometimes, There Are Happy Ending – Sylvie Simmons' I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

A very happy Leonard Cohen performing on stage in 2009

The news that novelist Philip Roth has retired seems to have shocked everyone. Late last fall, in the French culture magazine Inrockuptibles, he said he’d had enough of reading and writing fiction and felt he’d said everything he had to say within the pages of a book. Thus, Nemesis, his fifth novella in an unofficial series looking back at various aspects of American society, was, Roth insisted, his last book – ever! The problem with this is not Roth’s decision – why can’t he retire at nearly 80 years of age? – but the assumption that artists, unlike regular folk, don’t ever retire from their professions. Of course many don’t. The majority of writers seem to write until the end and many filmmakers, from Robert Altman to Sidney Lumet, Satyajit Ray to Eric Rohmer, regularly made movies until their deaths. But others do hang up their cameras. The great Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi (Christ Stopped at Eboli, Three Brothers) hasn’t shot a movie since 1997’s (underwhelming) The Truce and he’s still alive at age 90. And talented Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, Robin and Marion) stopped making films in 1991. And let’s not forget actor Gene Hackman (The French Connection, Under Fire) who, citing the strains of getting up really early for film shoots, decided to chuck it all in 2004 only to change careers and become a writer.

And then there’s the great singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who as Sylvie Simmons makes evident in her entertaining, breezy and very comprehensive Cohen biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (McClelland & Stewart), not only didn’t retire but upped the ante, going out on tour from 2008-2010 and keeping to a lengthy, rigorous schedule far more onerous than the tours he had done in his relative youth in the late 80s and early 90s. Not only that but he seems to have found only joy in writing songs and performing very late in life, beginning in his late sixties after a nearly six-year continuous stint in a Buddhist monastery (1993-99). Simmons’ very well written book covers the gamut, from Cohen’s birth in 1934 in the milieu of upper class Montreal through to his youthful Greek years of creativity on the island of Hydra to his sojourns in New York and L.A. Though Simmons answers pretty much any question you’ve ever had about the man, she could probably have delved into Leonard Cohen a little more vigorously and probingly than she actually does.

Interviewing more than one hundred people who’ve played a part in Cohen’s life over the years, and spending over three years working on the book, Simmons touches all the bases in this peripatetic artist’s complex, unique and tumultuous journey. She also dispels some myths – Cohen didn’t sing Suzanne over the phone to Judy Collins (who recorded it before he did) but in person, and despite producer Phil Spector’s holding (a likely unloaded) gun against Cohen’s head during the troubled recording of Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), Cohen himself never felt that Spector wanted to actually do him harm. (Hard to believe, I know, but Leonard comments on that twice in Simmons’ bio.) But I’m Your Man, which evokes the name of a Cohen album and song as well as a fine 2005 documentary about a series of tribute concerts on him, spends perhaps an inordinately large part of the book focusing on Leonard and his women, Marianne Ihlen (of So Long, Marianne fame), Suzanne Elrod (not the Suzanne of the song but the mother of his two children, Adam and Lorca), actress Rebecca De Mornay and singer/collaborator Anjani Thomas, among many others. This is understandable, as Cohen’s reputation with women is legendary and quite positive – as Simmons points out, his relationships with his many exes stays almost uniformly connected with surprisingly little ill will demonstrated by them, except, perhaps with Suzanne Elrod. Oddly enough, Elrod still comes across as more opaque than any of the other women in Leonard’s life, despite cooperating with Simmons in the writing of the bio.
The problem with this focus on Leonard’s love life is that, though somewhat fascinating, it’s likely the least interesting aspect of his persona and, since he and his lovers, in effect, have a policy or practice of not really explaining why they broke up except in the most superficial analyses, it becomes a redundant explanation of a man who ultimately doesn’t want to or can’t commit to any one woman, even if some of his relationships lasted a decade or more. Too often, the book settles for a mere chronology of Cohen’s path: the women, the albums, the cities, the songs etc.

Leonard Cohen in 1960 (Photo by Roz Kelly)
It’s not that Simmons isn’t able to bring Cohen’s dramas, romantic and otherwise, to riveting, vivid life; she’s much better at that than Charles Foran was with Mordecai: The Life & Times, his 2010 informative but pedestrian biography of another singular Jewish born Montrealer, writer Mordecai Richler. For a British-born non-Jew, she really gets the Canadian Jewish Cohen, though she does seem to think – it’s a common mistake – that Hanukkah is one of the most significant Jewish holidays, just because it falls around Christmas most years. (She mentions Cohen’s practice of lighting the Sabbath candles each week and has one allusion to Yom Kippur and one mention of the Jewish New Year but mostly it seems as if the only holiday Leonard Cohen observes is Hanukkah.) And as a good music journalist – she’s written bios of singers / songwriters Neil Young and Serge Gainsbourg as well as filing pieces for the excellent British music magazine MOJO – Simmons, who also wrote the liner notes for the Cohen CD / DVD Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (2009), is very adept at getting at the gist and roots of Leonard’s progression as a musical artist, though she does value all his albums equally, which I don’t. (Wisely she only uses her access to Cohen sparingly, usually to clarify certain disputed incidents and events. Too much of Cohen’s own words to an interviewer would have overshadowed Simmons.) My take is that late-career Cohen, when he finally found contentment, is pretty dull as a happy Leonard Cohen is a rather dull Leonard Cohen. Ten New Songs (2001) only had five good ones. Dear Heather (2004) was utterly negligible. (Cohen might agree, as it was the only album, other than Death of a Ladies’ Man, which was not represented on his 2008 tour or at least in the Toronto show I saw that year.) And his most recent album, the more spoken than sung Old Ideas (2012) is only a partial return to form.

What Simmons fails to do or at least do adequately is get beneath Cohen’s (carefully cultivated) public image of the decent guy who respects women, avoids most of the negative ills of the rapacious music business and writes some of the best, most incisive songs on the planet. That is all true: Cohen really is the mensch (Yiddish “for a person of integrity and honour.”) you’d expect him to be. (The worst Simmons gets on him is some admitted drug use – not heroin or cocaine – earlier in his career and an inability to remain faithful to his girlfriends, in his younger years, though it must be said that Marianne, for one, accepted his wandering ways. Cohen’s depression and incipient alcoholism was known and is hardly a condemnation of him.) But surely beneath that upright patina is a man who is more than he seems to be, even if he is humble as he was during that Toronto concert when he exclaimed that that last time he toured, in 1993, he was “ just sixty years old, just a kid with a crazy dream,” of success in his future. That surprise at the sublime love-in – I was part of it –  was genuine but Simmons’ book doesn’t end up going too far into his real depths and turmoil that he likely didn’t disclose to anyone no matter how close they were to him.

Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, early 60s in Hydra
It’s ironic that upon finishing Foran’s Richler bio, I felt he’d at least answered all my questions about the man, even if I wasn’t satisfied with the book, but Simmons’s superior tome left me wanting more. I also twice met Richler (briefly) so I could glean at least something about him. But Cohen, like my favourite writer Harlan Ellison (whom, unlike Cohen, I’ve met) is the interview that got away. (I can take some satisfaction that my review of Cohen’s 2008 Toronto concert in the Canadian Jewish News was at least sent to him by a friend who had his contact info. I hope he read it.) After all, Simmons writes that Cohen was great at deflecting really personal questions with wit and disarming language, which means he’s not as forthcoming as one would assume him to be. The singer may not be the song as much as almost everyone who perceives Leonard’s words to be the reflection of his real inner feelings believes. Perhaps Sylvie Simmons can’t unveil the real Leonard, who despite his supposed introspective nature, filtered through his work as writer and singer, never once considered psychotherapy to find out more about the ills that plagued him. He didn’t think it had anything to offer him. That’s not entirely surprising, as Simmons points out that Leonard never liked to look back on the past, but it is somewhat puzzling as Cohen used religion, Jewish and Buddhist, drugs, sex and the solitude of the monastery to try to heal himself at various times throughout his existence. Psychotherapy would have just been one other method or tool of sifting through the vicissitudes of life, something that a polymath like Leonard Cohen ought to have at least tried to engage. (Cohen's also an incredible perfectionist, jettisoning dozens of  his recorded songs as not being good enough for his albums. In fact, he kiboshed Columbia's initial efforts to add some unreleased tracks to the recently re-issued early albums of his career, which does explain why we're not going to get a real Leonard Cohen box set, with unreleased songs, demos etc., anytime soon. His first 14 albums were put out in a boxed package sans extras.) Simmons, who admits in her Author’s Note that she’d been a fan of Leonard’s since she heard his music when she hit puberty, may, in fact, be too much the fan to get at that particular conundrum of the man and his demons.

None of this is to suggest that you shouldn’t read Simmons' book, which over 500-plus pages, contains relatively few (minor) errors, repetition or sentences needing clarification. (There’s also the odd typo, but that’s par for the course for any book published nowadays.) The American edition of I’m Your Man, incidentally, is slightly different from the Canadian edition, both cosmetically (its cover is blue instead of orange, Simmons’ name is made smaller and placed differently there and there’s only one batch of photos instead of two) and in its content. (The War Measures Act, used by Canadian Prime Minister, and Cohen friend, Pierre Trudeau in 1970 to briefly suspend civil rights in order to fight a terrorist threat is translated , somewhat inaccurately, as martial law in the U.S. edition of the book.) Cohen has been the subject of numerous bios, including Canadian Jewish writer Ira B. Nadel’s Various Positions: A life of Leonard Cohen (1996), which I reviewed and (dimly) recall as being quite slight. That doesn’t apply to I’m Your Man, which certainly tries mightily to unearth the ‘truth’ of the enigma that is Leonard Cohen even if it falls short of that goal. What you will take out of Simmons’ book are the fascinating facts of his life which distinguish him from anyone else in the music business. No one of Cohen’s stature ever began a music career in their early thirties, as he did with Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), ten years later than most anyone else in the business. None of his compatriots were published poets and novelists as he was (Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), Beautiful Losers (1966)), and acclaimed in both fields, before they began singing. And I can’t think of anyone else in the music business, except perhaps satirist Kinky Friedman, who wore their Judaism on their sleeve as proudly as Cohen. Cohen’s poignant song "Who By Fire" is even based on a somber prayer uttered on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. (Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, Cohen’s near equals as songwriters, only occasionally make reference to their Judaism inside and outside their music. Cohen pretty much always did.) Cohen’s appeal is also more widespread than any other serious music figure. Beloved in Europe and his native Canada, Australia and Israel, he’s always been bigger than Dylan worldwide. (Dylan’s latest album Tempest didn’t even place in Inrockuptibles Top 100 of 2012; Cohen’s Old Ideas was at No. 42. And while both Cohen and Dylan’s latest albums were in the top ten of MOJO’s best of 2012 list, it was Cohen who topped Uncut’s list.) Dylan, however, despite a touch of jealousy, was friends with Leonard, which only makes sense for those two poets. Simmons does particularly well in showcasing the experience of Cohen’s concerts in Israel; her descriptions of those concerts and the deep connection between this practicing Jew and the Jewish state are quite moving. Cohen was also one of those moral souls who resisted calls to boycott the Jewish state; he was never one for simplistic political statements. As for the U.S., the one benighted country that for the most part (except for Cohen’s albums I’m Your Man  (1988) and The Future (1992)) has been lukewarm to his charms, Simmons nails the ambiguity so many in the music industry felt about Leonard by relaying Walter Yetnikoff’s priceless quote, when as, head of Columbia’s music division (Leonard’s longtime label), he decided not to release Cohen’s Various Positions in 1985. “Leonard,” he said. “we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.” (The album was later released on a small independent label.)

Suzanne Elrod and Leonard (photo courtesy of Danny Fields)
But of particular interest is the incredible diversity of those entertainment figures who’ve adopted Cohen as their own personal fan favourites, testifying to the absolute unique nature of this particular singer / songwriter. (Apparently there have been hundreds of tribute albums dedicated to Cohen, emanating from 20 different countries.) Simmons lists the various musicians who’ve done so, from Nick Cave to Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright to Joni Mitchell (also a lover of his as was Janis Joplin, briefly), Judy Collins to Jarvis Cocker, Jennifer Warnes to U2’s Bono, but doesn’t pick up on the myriad filmmakers who have done so, too. (She lists a few of them to illustrate how Cohen’s music was starting to get out there in the early 70s, but doesn’t follow through on that observation.) I, however, am sure that there is no one, not even The Beatles, who’s been utilized by such a vast array of directors who’ve included his songs in their movies over the decades. That’s an incredibly long list numbering among them Robert Altman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman, Neil Jordan, Allan Moyle, Kathryn Bigelow, Oliver Stone, Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley, who named her second film Take This Waltz after one of Cohen’s better tunes. (The less said about Bird on a Wire, one of Mel Gibson’s worst flicks, the better.) And who else but Leonard Cohen could appeal to both an Israeli filmmaker, Assi Dayan (Life According to Agfa) and a Palestinian one, Elia Suleiman (Chronicle of a Disappearance)? That’s gotta be a first. Obviously Cohen’s music, more than any others, consistently reverberates with so many people of varying ages and nationalities. Cohen songs even regularly pop on TV series Homicide: Life on the Street, Once and Again and The West Wing, among them.

Most pleasing about I’m Your Man and now I’m speaking as a lifelong fan of Leonard Cohen, is how he comes out on top by the end. Simmons couldn’t have wished for a better outcome as she comes to the conclusion of Cohen’s trajectory but not his life. Nearing the age of 78, at the peak of his health, he is finally enjoying what he does and triumphantly pulling off a world tour which recouped all the money, and more, he lost to his unscrupulous manager. Cohen is still going strong and likely will for many years to come. (He launched yet another successful tour late last year, which continues into 2013.). As Simmons finishes her book, Old Ideas is just coming out to uniformly good reviews, and all those early Cohen critics, including the music reviewers in Rolling Stone, who predicted a short lived career for this ‘depressing’ singer/ songwriter, have been proved soundly wrong. In other words, nice guys don’t always finish last. There may be deficiencies in Simmons bio but, finally, I’m Your Man is the book Leonard Cohen deserves.
– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s Life Institute and will be teaching a course there on What Makes a Movie Great?, beginning on Feb. 8.

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