On Saturday at the Sydney Dance Theatre, legendary Californian rock writer Sylvie Simmons spoke about I’m Your Man: the life of Leonard Cohen, her new biography of one of popular music’s most enigmatic figures. “Like a DNA helix – take one strand away and the whole thing will collapse,” she said of the poet, musician, songwriter and womaniser, whose life is a mix of the sacred and the profane.
Leonard grew up in a comfortable home in Canada. His great-grandfather established a synagogue, his grandfather was a rabbi. His home was filled with deep thoughts. He was proud of being part of elite, with a maid, chauffer and nanny.
Leonard was nine years old when his father died. He did not cry but, as his father lay in a coffin in the living room, the boy began to write. As a teenager, when his Spanish guitar teacher failed to show for their fourth lesson. Leonard phoned the man’s landlady and learned he had killed himself.
Until recently, he was plagued by severe depression. Every morning he would ask himself what combination of work, wine and women could get him through this day.
As a teenager he learnt a handy skill when he read Twenty-five Lessons in Hypnotism. Perhaps the book’s greatest contribution to Leonard’s career was the injunction to speak slowly.
Encouraged by his success in hypnotising his dog, Tinky, Leonard hypnotised the maid into taking her clothes off. Later, his lovers included Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell. He met his most important muse on a Greek island, and the beautiful Norwegian Marianne Ihlen was immortalized in So long, Marianne.
Sylvie attributes Leonard’s more outrageous acts to LSD. Suprisingly, Leonard was also a speed freak. With his characteristic drawn-out delivery he told Sylvie: “You… should… hear… how… slow… I… am…
Work is what drives Leonard. He is a perfectionist: “I couldn’t inhabit a song in a way which made it authentic,” he told Sylvie. Bob Dylan once asked him how long it took to write Hallelujah. Leonard was too embarrassed to admit the torturous process of honing his authenticity and told him two years. Hallelujah actually took five years.
His fans are delighted that he is again on tour this year, although it was financial necessity that prompted a return to the stage in his 70s, after his former manager and lover, Kelley Lynch, notoriously stole his retirement savings while he was at a Buddhist retreat on a mountain in Tibet.
“He’s the only man I’d take my clothes off for,” said Valerie, one of hundreds of eager women of A Certain Age who queued for the event. “Mind you, it would have to be with the lights off.”
Sylvie spent three years on I’m Your Man. Would she ever write another biography? “If I can tweet it.” she said.