Sylvie Simmons – Mr Cohen Revealed at #AWRF

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, 17 May, 5.30pm

Sylvie Simmons – click image for source

Both host Noelle McCarthy and writer Sylvie Simmons looked every inch rock’n’roll for this session, both head to foot clad in black velvet/lace/denim. One of the world’s leading rock journalists, Simmons is the author of a recent biography of Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man  during the writing of which she had access to both the man himself and his archives. (She has also written biographies of Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young.)

She charmed the audience from the first minute with her honesty, wit and ability to tell a tale well. Clearly this was a session filled with music-nerds and Leonard Cohen-devotees hoping for juicy details and original anecdotes from biographer Simmon’s close proximity with the enigmatic musician, and she delivered both in abundance.

cv_i'm_your_manNoelle spoke of how Simmon’s strength as a biographer was the way she cultivated a sense of intimacy between the reader and the subject: “She allows you to meet the artist and to be party to their whole life: their creative process, their family, their public and private faces.” Simmonds described Leonard Cohen as “wise, droll and cool”, a man who was enjoying “a tsunami of love and affection at the end of his life.” Earlier in his career, his home country Canada and the USA were slow to see his genius and he was bigger in (according to Simmond’s) “the darker countries: the UK and Scandanavia.”

Early on, Cohen had a very conflicted relationship to his career. He suffered depression and always questioned his own motives for wanting fame. He said that taking his music on tour in the early days he felt like “a parrot and a pimp” but now he enjoys performing and touring and enjoys the irony of having “full-employment” in his seventies. He said of returning to touring after his long absence: “It was like returning to a beach years after your last visit to see if a sandcastle you’d built was still there.”

Sylvie Simmonds said she was shocked to discover the Cohen still enjoys drugs, including LSD and speed. When she commented on his use of speed, Cohen said “You should hear how slow I am when I’m not on speed.” She described the process of writing a biography of a living subject as being like “writing a murder mystery without a corpse” and enjoys the deep research involved. She said the the haunting quality of Leonard Cohen’s music was due to it being a mixture of ‘the sacred, the profane and the humane” and that Cohen (primarily a poet) saw his songs as “a mixture of prayer”.

This session was thick with wonderful details about Leonard Cohen, real gems, delightful morsels for the Cohen fan. My favourite morsels were:

  • Cohen likes McDonald’s ‘Fillet’o’Fish’ burgers, but prefers to get it to take-away so he can eat it at home with a glass of wine
  • As a young person, he was told by his family and his family Rabbi that he couldn’t sing
  • As a teenager he learned hypnosis and mesmerism, some of the skills of which have been useful in his performance career
  • Leonard was given slightly special treatment when he joined the Zen monastery on Mount Baldy: he had his own toilet, and was allowed to have a coffee and a cigarette each morning at 3am before joining the other monks for meditation
  • When meditating, he said he always had to work through his ‘Top 40’ sexual memories before he could settle his mind to meditation

There was much more besides, but perhaps the best way to get the low-down on Leonard Cohen is to read Simmons wonderful biography. At the end of the session, an audience member asked Simmons about how she became a rock journalist, she said it was all that she ever wanted to do because of her passion for both music and writing, but “because I appeared not to have a penis, I had to leave the UK for the USA where in Los Angeles I had a shot at it.”

Noelle McCarthy did a great job of hosting the session with energy and intelligent questions and Sylvie Simmons finished the session with a live ukelele version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ showing that not only is she a phenomenal writer, but she can sing with a beautiful high voice which sounded like early (pre-heroin) Marianne Faithful.

Here she is singing the same song at a different event:

Leaving the session with a new version of a classic Cohen song resounding around my head was the perfect way to exit this juicy, funny and riveting session.

Written by Helen Lehndorf.

Thank you to Auckland Writers & Readers Festival for providing Helen’s ticket to this event.

 I’m Your Man
by Sylvie Simmons
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9780099549321