inside, Leonard Cohen wrestles with a restless soul.
In I'm Your Man, rock journalist Sylvie Simmons'
exquisitely researched and elegantly written biography, she
depicts a man in perpetual motion, hellhound on his trail,
living a life filled with turmoil and self-doubt, love, sex
and fleeting relationships, spiritual searching and rare
moments of peace.
Through it all, Cohen has remained a unique voice in both
literature and music, with his friend Bob Dylan perhaps the
only other artist who compares.
Simmons uses almost 600 pages to meticulously trace Cohen's
life. And in a refreshing change for a modern biography, she
begins at the beginning, with Cohen's birth to a prosperous
and proper Jewish family in Montreal. Their affluence,
Simmons points out, was relative.
After all, the Cohens' chauffeur drove them in a Pontiac,
rather than the Cadillacs favoured by families further up the
His mother doted on him, especially after his father's death
when Cohen was 9.
And even as a teen, he'd leave his house late at night and
ramble through the dark streets of the city, knowing
forgiveness waited at home.
Cohen's talents were evident early, and though he was a so-so
student at McGill University, he won two literary awards and
excelled at debate. With two friends, he formed his first
musical group, the Buckskin Boys, and developed in his own
idiosyncratic way as a guitar player.
After graduation, Cohen's life shifted to a much faster gear.
His first book of poetry garnered good reviews; his second
was a flat-out success.
Well-dressed and charming - the word appears repeatedly in
the book - Cohen settled in New York for a time, then Europe,
eventually finding himself on the storybook Greek island of
The book tells how he finds love and a muse with a Norwegian
model and young mother, driving her to Norway at one point
for her divorce hearing, but then inviting her and her son to
Montreal where he largely ignores her before disappearing
completely. He surfaces in Cuba, drawn there by the
Over the years, there are similar relationships, with Cohen
loving the idea of love and certainly the sex that comes with
it, but finding the reality chafing. I'm Your Man is
liberally sprinkled with Cohen's relationships, some
long-standing and others one-night stands.
The latter includes a night with Janis Joplin, recounted in
sharply different ways in two of Cohen's songs, including
this barbed reference in Chelsea Hotel #2: "I can't
keep track of each fallen robin ... I don't think of you that
Cohen's emergence as a musician of note didn't come until he
was in his 30s, almost ancient in that world. And at first,
his songs, sung by others - most notably Judy Collins with
Suzanne and Bird on a Wire - brought the
As with Dylan, with whom parallels abound, Cohen has a
somewhat limited vocal range, but a compelling style. Though
other singers might approach a song like Hallelujah
with greater vocal gifts, Cohen's version will raise the hair
on the back of your neck.
That song, perhaps Cohen's most covered, points to the other
major theme in I'm Your Man: Cohen's relentless search
for spiritual meaning. Though he remains adamantly Jewish,
singing the traditional songs on holidays with his children,
he spent some time in the Church of Scientology, knows and
appropriates the images of Christianity and immersed himself
in Buddhism - even being ordained as a monk.
Now 78, Cohen continues to tour regularly, again, much like
Dylan. Time has taken its toll on both of their voices.
Dylan's is rough and raspy on his latest recording; Cohen's
baritone is as dry as a tobacco leaf too long in the barn.
But Cohen seems to have found a level of contentment.
"I have come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I am going
to die," he said.
Asked about reincarnation, he said he didn't fully understand
But just in case, he said, "I would like to come back as my
- Michael E. Young