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Searching the soul of a soulful singer

  • New York Times
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 23, 2012, at 6:55 a.m.

“I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” by Sylvie Simmons (Ecco, 576 pages, $27.99)

Writing about a living subject, Sylvie Simmons says, means having “to immerse yourself in that person’s life to a degree that would probably get you locked up in any decent society.” It can also mean abandoning all hope of objectivity. But despite her simpatico feel for the life and work of her subject, Simmons’ “I’m Your Man” is the major, soul-searching biography that Leonard Cohen deserves.

As recently as this January, when his “Old Ideas” album arrived, an idiotic news release described Cohen as “a spiritual guy with a poetical streak.” So even now, nearly 45 years after the release of his first record (“Songs of Leonard Cohen”), Cohen, 78, is not universally understood. Neither is the need for a biography as thorough as this one, perhaps — but Simmons doesn’t care and neither will her readers. “I’m Your Man” is a mesmerizing labor of love.

Simmons, a seasoned rock journalist whose warm-up to writing about Cohen was a book about that other grand lady-killer, Serge Gainsbourg, is careful to incorporate the many facets of Cohen’s complicated story.

“Darling, I was born in a suit,” he tells her, alluding to his prosperous, scholarly Montreal family with garment-business connections. He showed early talent as a hypnotist; obviously, it has never left him.

Cohen was a man of letters, both poet and novelist, long before he set words to music. His fellow Canadian Michael Ondaatje was one early, attentive critic of his work. “The gospels diverge on exactly when and where Leonard decided to become a singer-songwriter,” Simmons writes, but she credits Judy Collins as the person most responsible for paving his way to a musical career.

“I’m Your Man” goes on to provide glimpses of a well-chosen few of Cohen’s relationships with women; his search for spiritual enlightenment; the experiment in terror that was his collaboration with Phil Spector on “Death of a Ladies’ Man”; the extravagant drug and alcohol use that explains some of his stranger recordings; the financial scandal that robbed him of his savings; and his miraculous comeback — an unexpected fringe benefit of that larceny — as a septuagenarian live performer.

When he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010, Cohen managed to look younger than he had at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame event two years earlier. He claimed to have had “a sublime experience.” The old smoothie posed for a picture with his arm around Taylor Swift.

Even then, he still could say, “I’m your man.”

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