He’s Our Man

It takes a combination of head and heart to capture the great Canadian troubadour

Early in this Leonard Cohen biography, the writer Sylvie Simmons quotes Virginia Woolf, who said, “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.” It struck me as a bit of disclaimer as, even at 570 pages, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen is a comprehensive but not exhaustive biography. Mind you, given Cohen’s extraordinary life to date, I doubt even someone with the patience of a Talmudic scholar and the promise of a boxed set could hope to approximate the complete story.

This biography is a definitive work, masterfully told. It is a rollicking good read packed with hair-raising anecdotes, broad history, fine attention to detail and big-hearted humour that profiles the life of an extraordinary artist who would seem to have embodied scores of those thousands of creative selves.

The book adopts a linear timeline and chronicles Leonard’s early childhood as a babe in arms, his family history, his school days and summers at camp. We see the beginnings of his love of language and there are charming tidbits about early interests. Simmons describes his voyeuristic prowling of the streets of Montreal after dark and pinpoints his interest in hypnotism, for example, when he successfully puts the family’s maid into a trance and then has her remove her clothes. It reads as an innocent story, but, given the tales of his legendary power over women, especially in his later days, singularly and in concert, it is a mesmerizing (pun intended) glimpse into the boy inside the man.

The biography settles nicely into a youthful community in Old Montreal with Mordecai Richler and Pierre Trudeau, and Leonard’s enduring friendship with Irving Layton, providing a glimpse of bohemian Canadiana not often studied by non-residents. As you might expect, there is a great collection of stories about Marianne, Suzanne, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Phil Spector, among others, which are deeply sourced from personal interviews, fellow musicians and media collected along the way. Simmons describes the artist’s battles with depression and pharmacological self-medication, and his search for spiritual sustenance in Judaism, Buddhism and Scientology is a recurring narrative thread through the book. Leonard’s seemingly lifelong struggle to square the private self with the public self is examined and the reader gets a profound sense of how difficult it is to thrive in disparate artistic worlds: one that requires quiet seclusion to create, and the other that demands the big communal gestures of the touring performer. It is all very left-brain right-brain, and the book explores how complicated this duality is for Leonard, his lovers, his family, his friends and how his answer to the demands of commitment is often to immerse himself in the solitary routines of the would-be monk. That he has navigated this creative life through the challenges of being true to his artistic spirit while succeeding in an often callous business is a testament to his longevity as a poet and performer.

Given my professional history with Leonard (as president of Sony Music Canada guiding the release of Ten New Songs, among other albums), I could not help applying a personal litmus test to how the business of being his record company is handled. In that regard, this is not the most expansive account; many people who were instrumental in launching and promoting Leonard’s talent and records over the years are barely mentioned, if at all. The contribution of Mary Martin, for instance—one of his earliest and most significant boosters in the United States—is, to my mind, understated. Perhaps the industry folks were not as useful as media archives, or maybe a “non-disclosure” got in the way, or it is just my singular point of view.

Still, there are lots of remarkable moments recounted. The book does include that fabulous quote from Walter Yetnikoff, president of Columbia Records, who, when presented with the Various Positions album in 1984, commented: “Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.” The label then proceeded not to release the record in the U.S. even though it was available everywhere else in the world. And the biographer’s sense of humour shines when she comments on the eventual release of Various Positions in the United States in 1986 that it “did not trouble the U.S. charts.”

Artistic turbulence throughout Leonard’s life was not limited to the recording industry. The book includes similar tussles in the book publishing world. Of particular interest to Canadian readers will be the inclusion of often testy letters between Leonard and his publisher at McClelland and Stewart, Jack McClelland. Like Yetnikoff, McClelland occasionally struggled with Leonard’s work, trying to balance what he recognized as genius with the commercial vagaries of the marketplace. Leonard’s novel The Favourite Game had to seek validation elsewhere and was for sale in the United Kingdom and the United States a full seven years before it was finally released domestically in Canada. Well, that’s us Canadians. We always did love an “expert from out of town.”

Leonard’s long career in books and music has had its share of ups and downs over five decades and the book is tender in chronicling those times when Leonard lost his faith, either in his own creative abilities or the abilities of those who were tasked with representing him. Perhaps it was a bit of serendipity, then, that the world conspired to urge him on. Simmons does a splendid job of detailing the enormous success of his song “Hallelujah.” That song, which was originally released (and almost forgotten) on the aforementioned Various Positions album, has now been covered by more than 300 artists around the world, from Jennifer Warnes to k.d. lang, from Jeff Buckley to Bono to Bob Dylan. Add up all the covers, not to mention the placements in movies and TV shows from The West Wing to The X Factor to all the weddings and funerals of ordinary people, and you could certainly pronounce “Hallelujah” to be a massive hit song. Just not in the way the charts typically tot up the hits.

I’m Your Man ends appropriately in the present day, where Leonard at 78 is enjoying a massive renaissance of reverence. Forced onto the road by financial damage from his former manager, who drained him of millions, Leonard is now touring the world to sold-out arenas and adoring fans, joking that he could not afford to retire and wryly reflecting on the karma of it all. Despite a lifetime of conflicted resistance to touring, he appears to be loving every minute of it now, bowing and humbly thanking all.

It is a tricky thing to write about Leonard Cohen—he who honours the word so reverently and treats language almost liturgically. When I would email Leonard in my capacity as his record company executive, I would often save the note in draft for hours before pushing “send,” worried a word or phrase out of order might be imprecise or awkward. It was silly, of course, as Leonard’s Buddhist training has provided him a sanguine grace. But imagine you are a writer, writing about an artist who is an exacting wordsmith willing to work on poems and lyrics for years before pronouncing them finished to his satisfaction. Imagine also that you are writing about a man with a labyrinthine life story and an army of ardent fans so devoted that the slightest inaccuracy would be ferreted out and displayed online for the world to see. It makes the idea of a comprehensive biography fairly daunting. So choosing to write Leonard Cohen’s life story took real courage. Happily, Simmons brought a caring heart to the task as well. She, like so many women, is charmed by Leonard. It is not a bad thing for this biographer, as it is precisely her combination of heart and head that makes the book significant, captivating and well worth reading.