I’M YOUR MAN: The Life of Leonard Cohen. By Sylvie Simmons. Ecco. 570 pages. $27.99.
“Darling, I was born in a suit,” Leonard Cohen tells Sylvie Simmons, author of the delicious new biography, “I’m Your Man.”
It’s a charming line from a child of wealthy Canadian garment manufacturers but also an instructive one. Based on the evidence of Simmons’ thorough research, Cohen managed to evolve as an artist and person without discarding bits of himself. The impeccable dresser sits side by side with the bohemian artist; the novelist and poet gets along well with the rock star; the Buddhist monk remains a Jew. With rare exceptions, he seems never to have lost a friend. Simmons is a Cohen fan, clearly. Her access to the man himself, his friends and his archive nourish a crisp, detailed book.
Leonard Cohen was 33 in the don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 ’60s, when his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” came out. Before that, he was a golden boy of Canadian letters, already the subject of a documentary film. Before he was a poet and novelist, he was a BMOC at McGill University (president of his fraternity and the debate team) and beloved son of a prominent family that included rabbis and Talmudic scholars. He eased into the music business by singing an occasional song at poetry readings. Eventually, Judy Collins, “an aristocrat of the Greenwich Village scene,” heard and recorded his song, “Suzanne.” Soon Cohen, or his song anyway, was everywhere.
Simmons winds her way among the settings and characters of Cohen’s long and mobile career, not least tracking down his many loves.
Although the Beats thought his poetry too formal, they still hung out with him on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s. He was at the Chelsea Hotel when it counted and was a sometime visitor to Andy Warhol’s Factory. Less expectedly, he was also in Cuba for the Bay of Pigs and tried to enlist in the Israeli army during the Yom Kippur War.
Fans are well-aware of Cohen’s retreat to a Mount Baldy Zen monastery in California, where he was ordained as a monk in 1996. Few know of his brief involvement with Scientology in the late 1960s.
Cohen, the consummate survivor, came out of seclusion in the 21st century, when his business manager stole a huge sum: between $10 million and $13 million. The loss sent him on the road.
Looking like a “Rat Pack rabbi,” Cohen recouped his lost savings and then some in a series of sold-out world tours that brought his music to a fresh and age-diverse audience.
Cohen always has written songs of spiritual faith, and Simmons makes a convincing case that he has also kept faith with himself. She supports the almost unanimous consensus of more than 100 interviewees that Cohen is a kind, thoughtful man.
The same adjectives keep cropping up: gentlemanly, honorable, impeccable, generous. With his haunting sadness, excesses of love, Cohen offers himself and his songs: “Here I stand, I’m your man.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.