Remembering Leonard Cohen: Biographer Sylvie Simmons was allowed into his inner sanctum

One year on from his death, we look back on Leonard Cohen's life and the Hot Press interviews with those who knew him best.

"He charms you so much that you feel like you've got the best interview in the world!" she told Paul Nolan.

A hugely respected rock writer who has contributed to Q, Rolling Stone, The Guardian and The Times, Sylvie Simmons is the author of the definitive biography, 2012’s I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen. Previously, she had written Serge Gainsbourg; Fistful Of Gitanes, a superb account of the life of the cult French singer, which was deemed book of the year by no less than JG Ballard. 

Cohen himself turned out to be an admirer of the book, which Sylvie discovered when conducting a long interview with the singer for Mojo in 2001.

“That book on Gainsbourg had just come out,” she recalls. “Leonard had it with him and asked me to sign it. We talked a little bit about other things, and the interview took place over three days. I’d come back in the morning and off we’d go again. It wouldn’t be the whole day because he had other interviews to do – he’d come to London to promote the album Ten New Songs. 

“We’d sit and have a couple of glasses of wine and do this interview. After that, we emailed each other for a short time, but it wasn’t like we became best buddies. He wasn’t living around the corner – I was in London and he was in LA most of the time. But we had a friendly relationship, so I felt it was worth approaching him about doing a book and seeing what the reaction might be.”

Having been a Cohen fan since hearing a song of his on a compilation as a kid (“It just lifted me off the bed, I’d never heard anything like it”), Simmons was eager to explore all aspects of his fascinating career. Cohen was hugely accommodating to her research requests, allowing her to speak to anyone she wished, and even granting access to his extensive archives in Canada. What was the most surprising thing she discovered about the singer working on I’m Your Man?

“Probably the most astonishing aspect was just how Leonard Cohen he was,” reflects Sylvie. “If you were to drop in on Tom Waits, he wouldn’t be the same guy as on stage. Clearly the essence is still there, but he’s not going to look and speak exactly as he does while performing. But Leonard Cohen was Leonard Cohen when he was taking out the garbage. He was completely sui generis, one of a kind. 

“He studied deeply all his life, and his home really always was like a cell. There were no pictures on the wall – he didn’t like distractions. I remember talking about that. I told him that Serge Gainsbourg had said that his place always had to be in order, because there was so much disorder in his head. When I told that to Leonard, he nodded quietly and meditated on it for a while.

“Then when I saw Leonard’s home, it was the same: plain wooden floors, white walls, not much in the way of ornamentation. He said that same thing in the last press conference he gave – he needed order.”

Simmons did conduct another series of interviews with Cohen, but left them to the very end of the research.

“I thought before I talk to Leonard, I have to assemble all the evidence, I have to know how to phrase these questions,” she says. “That was all necessary for him to tell me the answers in the way I needed to have them. Ultimately, we did another three days of interviews. I live in San Francisco now, so I would fly down to LA. It was really nice – we’d sit around and talk. People always mention how much he feeds everyone! So you’d end up going back four pounds heavier... We’d talk and there would be plenty of normal conversation, and then we’d maybe go through a box of his photos.”

The singer was unstinting in his support.

“He didn’t ask for anything from the book,” notes Sylvie. “He didn’t even ask to read it. The only thing he said, which I thought was absolutely remarkable, was ‘Don’t let them whitewash it, I don’t want a hagiography’. He actually said that to me when I was having some difficulties with my US publishers.”

The first time Simmons interviewed Cohen was in the mid-’90s. Did she get any insight into his time in the Buddhist monastery?

“He had this terrible depression,” she reflects, “and one of the reasons for going to the monastery was his love for this guy Roshi. It was one of those strange things: the two of them had been almost melded together since the ‘70s. Roshi had gone into the studio with him occasionally and would tell him, ‘Make it sadder, make it darker’. He’d also go on the road and join him in the tour bus! It wasn’t like he was holding Leonard’s hand, but they were very close. 

“Leonard went to the monastery for this discipline that he’d been drawn to since he was a child. When he was a young kid, he wanted to go to military school but his mother wouldn’t let him. His father was all for it, but then his father died. Leonard had a couple of times in his life where he wanted to be a soldier. I think that was a way of quieting the depression: if you can just fight through it, and have something to do every minute of the day, it really helps. He said it was like the marines of the Buddhist world, a perfect Leonard quote.”

Ultimately, Simmons feels that Cohen cast a peculiar spell on interviewers.

“Any journalist who has been in the room with him will know it,” she says. “He charms you so much that you feel like you’ve got the best interview in the world. He spoke with this beautiful articulacy, like he was giving a speech or participating in a debate. Having said that, he was one of these people who didn’t give the whole story. Getting the background to his stay in the monastery, for example, took some persuasion. Luckily, he had a lot of trust in me as a writer.” 

 

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