Reviewed by Jeff DeBell
JEFF DeBELL is a retired Roanoke Times editor and reporter.
He penned “So Long, Marianne,” “Suzanne,” “Hallelujah” and other extraordinary songs too numerous to list; he’s in both the Rock and Roll and the Songwriters halls of fame; his work has been honored on multiple tribute albums by appreciative fellow musicians; he’s a novelist and acclaimed poet; he’s an artist of iconic stature in Europe and his native Canada — yet, when Leonard Cohen’s name is mentioned to Americans their response is often to ask, “who?”
Fortunately, they can fill this void in their appreciation of contemporary music by reading British rock journalist Sylvie Simmons’ thorough new biography.
It will be a challenge. The book’s 500-plus pages are filled with information almost to the point of excess. There are too few photos. There is little pretense to objectivity; though she doesn’t ignore Cohen’s shortcomings, Simmons clearly admires her subject. But the payoff is a comprehensive portrait of a singularly gifted artist who happens also to be as interesting off the stage as on it.
Cohen is going strong at the age of 78. He has spent much of 2012 entertaining European concert audiences in support of his 12th and latest studio album, “Old Ideas,” and is poised to launch the American and Canadian segments of the tour on Oct. 31.
The singer-songwriter was born in 1934 to a prosperous family of Jewish clothing merchants in Montreal. Perhaps as an outgrowth of his background, Cohen has always been a cool dresser. He has said he was “born in a suit.” He graduated from McGill University and flourished as a poet and author before moving into songwriting in his 30s.
Cohen was raised by women, his father having died when Leonard was only 9, and is known in part for his many associations with women as lovers, friends and muses. Simmons’ book is not a catalog of his romantic conquests (though there is humorous mention of a one-nighter with Janis Joplin in New York’s Chelsea Hotel); instead, the author smartly focuses on the most important relationships. One, apparently platonic, was with the singer-songwriter Judy Collins, whose recordings of his songs opened doors into the American music business for him.
Two Suzannes have been prominent in Cohen’s life. Suzanne Verdal was the inspiration for the song that bears her name, but was not a lover. Suzanne Elrod is the mother of his two children, though they never married. Cohen could commit to extended romantic liaisons, though not to fidelity and so far not to matrimony.
His other long-time lovers included the actress Rebecca De Mornay and a beautiful Norwegian named Marianne Ihlen, whom he met on the Greek island of Hydra and whom he immortalized in “So Long, Marianne” when they drifted apart.
Hydra was home to a colony of artists and intellectuals, many of them ex-pats, which Cohen first visited in 1960 and to which he would return periodically for rest and creative restoration. A man given to seemingly impromptu absences from the business of music, he has jokingly borrowed from Christian myth to dub himself “the wandering Jew.”
His sojourns at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California added up to five years and ended with his ordination as a Buddhist monk.
I hope it is evident from the foregoing that Cohen has had an amazing run, and we haven’t even touched on the tours, the drugs and booze, Cohen’s poetic and often ironic lyrics, the recording sessions and his sometimes maddening musical perfectionism.
Not to mention the ever-deepening near monotone in which he sings. It’s a turnoff to some (especially in the U.S.) and perhaps the reason even his most tuneful songs aren’t on radio (Roanoke’s “101 point five the music place” being a welcome exception).
It’s all in Sylvie Simmons’ big book and I recommend it, especially to Cohen newbies. I predict there will be converts, particularly among readers who play a Cohen tune or two between chapters.