Leonard Cohen — restless spirit, poet
"I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen" by Sylvie Simmons; Ecco (576 pages, $27.99)
Deep inside, Leonard Cohen wrestles with a restless soul.
In "I'm Your Man," rock journalist Sylvie Simmons' exquisitely researched and elegantly written biography, she depicts a man in perpetual motion, hellhound on his trail, living a life filled with turmoil and self-doubt, love, sex and fleeting relationships, spiritual searching and rare moments of peace.
Through it all, Cohen has remained an icon and a unique voice in both literature and music, with his friend Bob Dylan perhaps the only other artist who compares.
Simmons uses almost 600 pages to meticulously trace Cohen's life. And in a refreshing change for a modern biography, she begins at the beginning, with Cohen's birth to a prosperous and proper Jewish family in Montreal. Their affluence, Simmons points out, was relative. After all, the Cohens' chauffeur drove them in a Pontiac, rather than the Cadillacs favored by families farther up the hill.
His mother doted on him, especially after his father's death when Cohen was 9. And even as a teen, he'd leave his house late at night and ramble through the dark streets of the city.
Cohen's talents were evident early, and though he was a so-so student at McGill University, he won two literary awards. With two friends, he formed his first musical group, the Buckskin Boys, and developed in his own idiosyncratic way as a guitar player.
After graduation, Cohen's life shifted to a much faster gear. His first book of poetry garnered good reviews; his second was a flat-out success. Well-dressed and charming — the word appears repeatedly in the book — Cohen settled in New York for a time, then Europe, eventually finding himself on the storybook Greek island of Hydra.
The book tells how he finds love and a muse with a Norwegian model and young mother, driving her to Norway at one point for her divorce hearing, but then inviting her and her son to Montreal where he largely ignores her before disappearing completely. He surfaces in Cuba, drawn there by the revolution.
Over the years, there are similar relationships, with Cohen loving the idea of love and certainly the sex that comes with it, but finding the reality chafing. "I'm Your Man" is liberally sprinkled with Cohen's relationships, some long-standing and others one-night stands. The latter includes a night with Janis Joplin, recounted in sharply different ways in two of Cohen's songs, including this barbed reference in "Chelsea Hotel 2": "I can't keep track of each fallen robin. I don't think of you that often."
Cohen's emergence as a musician of note didn't come until he was in his 30s, almost ancient in that world. And at first, his songs, sung by others — most notably Judy Collins with "Suzanne" and "Bird on a Wire" — brought the attention.
As with Dylan, with whom parallels abound, Cohen has a somewhat limited vocal range, but a compelling style. Though other singers might approach a song like "Hallelujah" with greater vocal gifts, Cohen's version will raise the hair on the back of your neck.
That song, perhaps Cohen's most covered, points to the other major theme in "I'm Your Man": Cohen's relentless search for spiritual meaning. Though he remains adamantly Jewish, singing the traditional songs on holidays with his children, he spent some time in the Church of Scientology, knows and appropriates the images of Christianity and immersed himself in Buddhism — even being ordained as a monk.
Now 78, Cohen continues to tour regularly, again, much like Dylan. But Cohen seems to have found a level of contentment.
"I have come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I am going to die," he said.
Asked about reincarnation, he said he didn't fully understand the concept. But just in case, he said, "I would like to come back as my daughter's dog."