Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Expert Witness

I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

I'M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN
By SylvieSimmons
Harper Collins, 2012

Leonard Cohen already had a biography, a pretty decent one by rockbook standards. Published in 1996, in the middle of a prolonged monastic retreat that appeared to put an end to the 62-year-old's public life, Vancouver English professor Ira B. Nadel's Various Positions is strong on Cohen's Jewish identification and poetic career if not so hip about the music that's why the book happened. But in I'm Your Man Sylvie Simmons blows Nadel away. Up there with such recent competition as RJ Smith on James Brown and Chris Salewicz on Bob Marley, she's constructed a hard-thinking music journalist's book where Nadel's is an openminded literary academic's. Having interviewed damn near everybody where Nadel did very little such digging, the San Francisco-based Brit isn't just much better than Nadel on Cohen's many music-biz enablers--she's better on his privileged youth in Jewish Montreal too.

Most important, she's infinitely better on what she--ponder that pronoun: she--has the common sense to make thematic from her title on out: women. G-d knows how many of the holy creatures Cohen has bedded in his 78 years--hundreds for sure, including Joni Mitchell and once Janis Joplin, unnamed seekers in that monastery, and briefly manager Kelley Lynch, who eventually robbed him of something like 10 million dollars, thus rousing him to a level of public activity and prestige few performing artists of 78 have ever achieved. Even Nadel mentions a few liaisons Simmons doesn't. But Simmons has gotten the details the major ones deserve: the saintly Marianne Ihlan of "So Long Marianne" fame; hot-headed Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children and his common-law wife for 10 years (the only one who seems bitter, although he's close to the kids, singer-songwriter Adam Cohen and Lorca Cohen, who has long lived downstairs in his Los Angeles duplex); distant Parisian photographer Dominique Isserman; May-December smart-beauty-with-a-dirty-mind Rebecca de Mornay; and his consort and collaborator for the first eight years of this century, Anjani Thomas.

OK, so we knew he's been quite the ladies man. But by soliciting the memories and insights of the Ihlan-Elrod-de Mornay-Thomas succession (Isserman didn't sit for an interview), Simmons portrays a man who was a remarkably intense serial monogamist no matter how much he got on the side--an adorer of women and a votary of beauty. No wonder, as Simmons reports, the fans at Cohen's European concerts in the '70s were three-quarters female. Yet she's equally diligent tracing Cohen's other non-artistic obsession: religious enlightenment. She details his devotion to the Jewish rituals passed down by his rabbi grandfather; fully describes the disciplines imposed by his now 105-year-old guru Roshi, who ordained him a Zen priest; devotes many pages to Cohen's substantial and decisive post-ordination studies with a Hindu teacher in Mumbai; and respects his early fascinations with Catholicism and Scientology as well.

These twin obsessions, one carnal and one spiritual, are source and content of Cohen's laboriously perfected, stubbornly prolific body of work, which Simmons doesn't neglect to analyze and appreciate. I'd say she overrates such works as Beautiful Losers, Death of a Ladies' Man, and Dear Heather. But that's a privilege she's earned. Though you'd never guess it from the awards showered on him--after all, he's touring at 78, and a Canadian citizen to boot--Cohen isn't Yeats or Lorca, and knowing the backstory of this lifelong depression fighter and belated superstar may not altogether allay your skepticism about his ultimate aesthetic import. But it will certainly induce you to understand where he's coming from, and why.

Expert Witness, December 11, 2012