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Holy Man of Song: Andrea Nagel Reviews I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen

By Andrea Nagel for The Times

You don’t have to be a fan of Leonard Cohen’s music to enjoy reading music journalist Sylvie Simmons’ book, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, but you may well end up being one by the time you’ve finished.

Simmons is clearly enamoured with the 78-year-old singer and has done a meticulous job of researching the life of this self-proclaimed ladies’ man, detailing the intricacies of his story, but without ever becoming sycophantic.

I’m Your Man is one of a spate of new books about music stars that has been released lately, testifying to our abiding interest in their rock star lives. Bruce, an authorised biography of Bruce Springsteen by Peter Ames Carlin, was published at the end of last year, following on the success of countless others like Life by Keith Richards, published a few years ago, and Mick by Philip Norman, about the life of Mick Jagger, also out last year.

Simmons’ book is so dense with interviews and accounts from Cohen himself, from his family, lovers, music industry associates and fellow musicians that even Cohen aficionados will learn a few new and interesting facts.

Kris Kristofferson, who gets a mention in the book (as do Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Joni Mitchell, Phil Spector and lots of other famous faces whose paths Cohen crossed), could have been writing about Cohen in his song “He’s a Pilgrim”. It goes like this: He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned.

As the song goes on to say, “he’s a walking contradiction”, and Cohen certainly is.

The book starts at the beginning with his birth and early childhood, steeped in Judaism. His youth is defined by the death of his father and the intense love of his beautiful Russian-born mother, who, according to the author, “carried her past in her songs”. He’d also spend hours with his Rabbi grandfather, who developed in him an abiding fascination with spirituality.

Beset by the need to learn about life, by the age of 13 Cohen was wandering the streets of his home town, Montreal, Canada, peeking into bars, hanging out on the docks, and staring longingly at the working girls.

Born a writer, Cohen’s first love was poetry. He also wrote two novels before turning to music because he didn’t think he could make a living from his books. By his own admission, Cohen wanted to be a musician to attract the opposite sex.

“My books weren’t selling,” he tells the author, “they were receiving very good reviews … But I always played the guitar and sang, so it was an economic solution.”

Always a wanderer (he called himself a gypsy) Cohen’s lifelong search for meaning led him to many different houses of worship and into many different beds. Women adore him, and many of his long-suffering lovers reluctantly shared him. His need for female affirmation and problems he had with commitment are well-known and well-documented in his songs.

Simmons has such an extensive understanding of Cohen’s life, her research is so thorough, that the reader goes on the sometimes painful, sometimes joyous journey with him, admiring him, pitying him, loving him and occasionally hating him a little. Along the way we are reminded of the raw beauty of his music, its ability to touch our souls, and the huge contribution he has made to the industry.

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