Listening to a song by Leonard Cohen or reading a line of his verse is a deeply immersive experience – enchanting and enlightening in equal measure – suffused with wisdom and grace, witty and subversive. This biography has a similar feel. Sylvie Simmons’ thoroughly-researched paean to the “Bard of Montreal” is steeped in admiration for her subject; the writing flows effortlessly and the reader will quickly become absorbed in the diverse tapestry of Cohen’s life; the rich Jewish-Canadian/Russian/Lithuanian heritage, the influences, the environment etc. There are plenty of revelations – so much so that as I read, not only did I think Cohen’s place as one of the most compelling figures of culture, music and poetry of the 20th/21st centuries is lucidly re-affirmed but his life brings to mind a line by Albert Camus, on the nature of personality and self, “We continuously shape our personality all our lives.”
Simmons is especially good at highlighting the themes that run like constant refrains in the fabric of Cohen’s life and work; sex, love, relationships, religion, depression, power, compassion etc. whilst accentuating what is, perhaps, his most salient trait: his resilience, “Leonard was a lover, but when it comes to survival he was also a fighter.” At times, it feels like there is a sense of destiny to Cohen’s actions, a knowingness laced with humility; anyone who has had the fortune to see Cohen perform live will testify to this. The blend of intelligence and humour is palpable, the mix of power and vulnerability hugely magnetic. Somehow, it feels no surprise that the flaneur who walked the streets of Montreal as a young man, questing for knowledge and fresh experiences would always end up as a legendary troubadour, displaying his gifts of observation and insights – about the great issues of life – to the world. His avenue? The open road of the globe.
The infectiousness that Sylvie Simmons has for Cohen shines out so much that one wonders whether she hasn’t been mesmerised by his fabled hypnotic powers. She is equally good at showing what makes Cohen tick as a man and as an artist. Yes, she is a fan but she writes with great skill and sensibility, “the great songs, the ones that keep drawing us back again and again are mysteries.” In many ways, Cohen’s output can best be described as a type of “assisted living”. Like Samuel Johnson’s perceptive quote on writing that it “enable[s] the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure”, Cohen’s songs have a similar pull. Or, as a fan from Cohen’s tour in 1974 starkly puts it, “I was suicidal and I put on one of your records and you saved me.”
For many, this book will just confirm what Leonard Cohen already is in their eyes: a man blessed with a singular talent for poetry, lyricism and songwriting. The eloquence and compassion – central elements of his character- are manifest. As ex-lover and fiancée Rebecca de Mornay articulates, “he is so fully present, with compassion for the underdog, as well as genuine compassion for the enemy – which is very hard to do and hard-won.” Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this terrific biography is that Simmons has unshackled Cohen from “banal” stereotypes that have attached themselves to Cohen over the years, like hackneyed labels which have become threadbare through repetition, and presented a rounded portrait of a highly sensitive, charismatic and intelligent man, whose greatest gifts have been for language and distilling experiences with a finesse of expression. In a nutshell, the opening line of this biography captures the essence of the man perfectly, “He is a courtly man, elegant, with old-world manners.” This is the kind of the book that will make readers want to rush out and grab some of Leonard Cohen’s books or listen to the albums. There can be no greater tribute.