Rant ‘N’ Roll: Leonard Cohen Is My Man

Longtime music journalist Sylvie Simmons has achieved the highly improbable: Her new book, I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen (Ecco/HarperCollins) is such a tremendous artistic/literary success that it actually equals the art of her subject. Beautifully written, thoroughly researched, with the blessing and the intimate participation of Cohen himself, the poet comes vibrantly alive within these 576 pages. The reader understands him and lives in his skin. His art is opened up like the slitting of a fish. Her prose makes you want to run out and buy The Complete Studio Albums Collection box.

The journey starts in Montreal as Leonard is born into a well-to-do Jewish Montreal family, complete with chauffeur and nanny. When he was a kid, Leonard learned hypnotism and got the maid to expose her breasts. This nifty trick would help him later in life when he performed at The Isle Of Wight rock festival on an island off the coast of England. As mobs rioted and set fire to the stage during Jimi Hendrix’s set (he kept on playing), Leonard knew he was up next. Totally wasted on Mandrax (a super down), he wound up hypnotizing the crowd of over half a million into peaceful acceptance of his mellow music.

Leonard’s poetry was published in Canada in 1956; 44 poems he wrote as a teenager. He moves to London, lives on the cheap, meets people, travels to Israel and, upon inheriting money upon the death of his grandmother, buys a house on an island off the coast of Greece.

Always the seeker, he dabbles in Socialism and Scientology, writes two novels, the second of which profoundly effects Lou Reed whom he befriends in New York City. He moves into Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel and gets involved with Nico of The Velvet Underground, who resists his advances but becomes his muse. (Nico has no problems, though, taking a teenaged Jackson Browne to bed.)

So at 33, a decade older than his peers, he first becomes a singer-songwriter, signed to Columbia by the legendary John Hammond (who signed Dylan and Springsteen). His first two albums are moderately successful, then he can’t seem to sell any records in the States for years. Meanwhile, though, the rest of the world is falling in love with him. (It takes until the late ‘80s before he’s successful here.)

He romances Joni Mitchell. He gets produced by Phil Spector who holds a loaded gun to his neck. He hates to tour. He likens touring to “some parrot chained to his stand night after night.” He hates his own performances so much he wants to give audiences their money back. He invites audiences on stage with him or back to his hotel room. He considers wearing an elaborate mask for the stage and has one made but demurs. He enters one stage on a white horse and infuriates the audience so much a crazed man runs to the stage with a gun forcing Charlie Daniels to quit the band! He goes out into the crowd and starts wildly making out with a female audience member. Remember, in his mind, it’s not really him on that stage, just a reasonable facsimile thereof, that’s why he wanted to wear a mask in the first place.

So finally, universally beloved, engaged to a beautiful young Hollywood actress, at the age of 61, a time to finally revel in his accomplishments, he chucks it all and goes to live on Mount Baldy Zen Center in California with his spiritual master, Roshi, where he proceeds to become an ordained Buddhist Monk. He lives a hard life—this is no celebrity zen retreat—of waking up at ungodly hours, performing exacting physical labors, then chanting and praying and meditating for hours and hours on end in uncomfortable positions. He stays there for six long years, with brief moments of leaving, getting in his car, going to McDonald’s, going home to watch The Jerry Springer Show, yet returning for months and months of menial tasks, chanted meditation and serving Roshi. Then he, as a Zen Buddhist Monk, goes to India to live and study under another master, Ramesh S. Balsekar, and immerses himself in Hindu philosophy.

All the while, though, he had no idea his manager was robbing him blind. He loses his entire fortune, somewhere between 10 and 13 million dollars. This causes him to go on the road yet again, at 73, practically penniless, borrowing money for production costs and not knowing if he even still had an audience left. Nervous, scared, anticipatory and trepidatious, he hits the stage that very first time not knowing what to expect.

“The applause was deafening. It bounced off the walls of the small theater and resounded in Leonard’s ears. The whole room was on its feet. A minute ticked by, then another. Leonard had not sung a word and no one had played a note, but still they applauded. Leonard smiled shyly. He took off his hat and held it over his heart, in a gesture of humility, but also as armor.”

So begins his renaissance of universal love and acceptance, one that has yet to abate some six years later. As I type this, he’s still out on the road, having recovered his 13 million dollars and more, becoming, at 78 now, a song-and-dance man of the highest order.

The worst part of this book was that it had to come to an end.