Among the most-played songs in my iTunes library are four immortal (and often-covered) compositions by Leonard Cohen: “Sisters of Mercy,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Hallelujah” and, of course, “Suzanne.” Significantly, “Hallejujah” is a meditation on the “sweet singer of Israel,” King David, although Cohen himself is, famously, a Buddhist monk and, not so famously, a former student of Scientology with a “Senior Dianetic, Grade IV Release” to show for it.
Before he achieved his current stature as a celebrated songwriter and an éminence grise of (North) American popular culture, however, Cohen more closely resembled a character out of a Mordecai Richler novel. Young Leonard was born in the wealthy Jewish neighborhood of Westmount in Montreal, the son of a man who made his fortune in haberdashery and insurance, and he served as president of the Menorah Club at Westmount High School, but he reinvented himself as a faintly Byronic figure with poetry that he fully intended to win prizes and readers.
The whole story of Cohen’s life and work is told in “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” by Sylvie Simmons (Ecco: $27.99), a rock journalist and biographer (“Neil Young: Reflections in Broken Glass”). It is a sweeping and yet penetrating book that gives us the elusive Cohen in full light and intimate detail.
Simmons brings her flair for the arresting phrase to her work. “By inclination he is a private man, rather shy,” she writes, “but if probing is required he’ll put his feet in the stirrups with dignity and humor.” And she succeeds in capturing the alchemy by which Cohen turned his adolescent angst into gold: “The Big Bang of Leonard, the moment when poetry, music, sex and spiritual longing collided and fused in him for the first time, happened in 1950, between his fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays,” she explains, “when he happened upon ‘The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca.’ ” Young Leonard never looked back.
Sylvie Simmons. Photo by Alissa Anderson
By 1954, Cohen had published his first poem. Two years later, his first book of poems, “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” was in print in an edition of 400 copies. He was praised in the Canadian press, but he aspired to the Big Apple: “Leonard had gone to New York to be a writer — a serious writer, but also a popular one,” Simmons writes. But he soon ended up back in Canada, where he was reduced to working as a camp counselor. Only when he managed to make his way to England, then Israel and finally Greece did he fully grasp the role that would make him famous — the tortured but muse-inspired artist whose life (including his sex life) is a restless search for meaning.
“[W]hat served Leonard best was his survival instinct,” Simmons writes. “Leonard was a lover, but when it comes to survival he was also a fighter.”
His breakout book was a poetry collection titled “The Spice-Box of Earth,” another explicitly Jewish reference, but “the poems dance back and forth across the border between the holy and the worldly, the elevated and the carnal.” He was now writing novels and, although not yet 30, a memoir titled “The Favorite Game.” Cohen understood how to call attention to himself, as when he delivered an intentionally inflammatory but also self-revelatory talk at the Montreal Jewish Public Library.
“Jews were ‘afraid to be lonely’ and sought security in finance, neglecting their scholars and sages, their artists and prophets,” the author writes. “ ‘Jews must survive in their loneliness as witnesses,’ he told them. ‘Jews are witnesses to monotheism and that is what they must continue to declare.’ ”
Simmons interviewed Cohen for her book, but she also sought out those who knew him in one way or another throughout his life, including Suzanne Verdal, the woman who inspired the poem and song titled “Suzanne,” and who now works as a masseuse in Santa Monica. “I sensed a deep, philosophical side to Leonard that he seemed to see in me as well,” the original Suzanne recalls, “and he got a kick out of it that I was a sort of fledging in a way, just emerging as a young artist.”
The famous song, as it turns out, provides a good example of what Simmons does best in her biography. Cohen asserts that he convinced Judy Collins to record “Suzanne” — a breakthrough moment in his songwriting career — by “playing [the song] to her over the phone from his mother’s house in Montreal.” Simmons, however, sought out Collins herself and checked out Cohen’s version. “ ‘B---s---,’ says Collins.” The fact is that Cohen performed three of his songs in person for Collins, and “Collins recorded the songs as she heard them.”
Recently, I caught a screening of the 1965 documentary titled “Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen,” which — as Simmons rightly puts it — “depicts Leonard doing an assortment of cool-looking things in various cool-looking Montreal locations to a soundtrack of cool jazz.” He was not yet the maker of metaphysical love songs that he would soon become, but the talent, drive and sheer charisma that turned him into an icon were already on display.
So it is with Simmons’ rich, compelling and provocative book, which is a star-studded but also frank account of how the music industry really works and, at the same time, a discerning portrait of one especially important musician. Along the way, she describes how an ambitious and gifted young man rescues himself from a career in the family shmata business and remakes himself into an artist and a celebrity — two very different identities, both of which Leonard Cohen has managed to embody without going entirely to pieces.
Sylvie Simmons discussses her book on Sept. 24 at Book Soup in West Hollywood. For more information, visit booksoup.com.