On the eve of his first tour as a musician in 1970, a nervous Leonard Cohen – aged 34, an acclaimed poet and novelist itinerant between hometown Montreal, the Greek island of Hydra and New York’s Chelsea Hotel – requested a mask of his own face be made for him to wear while performing. As biographer Sylvie Simmons – astutely unpicking Cohen’s life, lyrics, poems and relationships – observes, “Leonard clearly had enough self-regard that he did not want to operate behind someone else’s face.”
In Simmons’s assiduously researched 500-page book – written with Cohen’s cooperation but without his interference – she pulls away Cohen’s many masks to reveal a man who has always been an outsider: the teenager prowling the streets at 3am looking for inspiration and night people; the young Canadian writer among those many years his senior; the besuited singer with a briefcase among much younger hippie musicians; the 50s poet who had nothing in common with the freewheeling Beats; the 60s musician whose style owed even less to the rock world he inhabited.
Simmons reveals a man nakedly ambitious, self-centred and monastic in manner yet hedonistically indulgent (acid, speed, hash and many women), never in doubt of his genius but plagued by uncertainties. Even his elegant fasting was a vanity “to keep the edges sharp”, says Simmons, who draws parallels between Cohen’s early retreat into austerity on Hydra (no power or running water) and the Zen monastery in California where he lived for years. Here, too, is the self-styled Field Commander Cohen who went to enlist in Israel when the Yom Kippur war broke out in 1973 – “War is wonderful … It’s so economical in terms of gesture and motion.” Although a longtime Zen practitioner (still Jewish), he ironically found emotional redemption on a brief trip to India after leaving the monastery.
Former partners testify Cohen was kind, caring and a gentleman – but always had one eye on the door. Over time, the 78-yearold moved from the Socratic “know thyself” toward the Zen “no Thy-self” … and now his eye is on the darker door.
I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN, by Sylvie Simmons (Jonathan Cape, $37.99).
Graham Reid is a writer and reviewer, and host of the website Elsewhere.