The Stations of the Leonard: Sylvie Simmons on Leonard Cohen

Sylvie Simmons signs booksSylvie Simmons is an award-winning writer and renowned music journalist. Her latest book is I’m your man: The life of Leonard Cohen. On Tuesday 14 May, she spoke (and sang, and played ukulele) in Christchurch. Her performance was brought to you via The Press Christchurch Writers Festival and her next appearances are at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Sylvie was in conversation with Philip Matthews of The Press, and her musical interludes were accompanied by Adam McGrath of The Eastern on guitar (and occasional harmonies). They sang three Cohen classics: Sisters of Mercy, Famous Blue Raincoat and Suzanne.

Discovering Cohen

Search catalogue for I'm your manSylvie first heard Leonard Cohen on a compilation called Rock Machine turns you on (check out a YouTube playlist of the album). The Cohen song featured was Sisters of Mercy. It was:

Literally the day I hit puberty … something in that voice picked me up and threw me against the wall.

Sylvie said his poems and songs are often autobiographical, a combination of reportage and the metaphysical. And many are stories about women. Cohen sees “no difference between word and song” and in his discovery of the poetry of Lorca, he “heard the music of the synagogue”.

She had a three day interview with Leonard, and found him to be more himself on stage and off than any star (other than Keith Richards). He wore a suit, spoke in perfect sentences, and had a meticulous, elegant quality even in such simple things as making a cup of tea.

Cohen on stage and on tour

When Leonard Cohen first went on tour, he was nervous about exposing his songs on stage. He asked his lifelong friend – sculptor Mort Rosengarten – to make him “a mask of Leonard Cohen”. Sylvie suggests he “needed that extra layer of skin”.

He started the latest tours due to needing to recoup stolen funds. He found it hard to inhabit his earlier songs – coming as they did from a time of deep depression. Leonard played the role of “Rat Pack Rabbi” to the hilt. But nowadays he loves the life of touring, what he calls “the feeling of full employment” – he has even gone back to some of the older songs like Avalanche.

Biographer / detective

Cohen’s father died when he was young, and he lived with him mother and older sister. Women are a huge part of “The Stations of the Leonard”.

Search catalogue for Neil YoungSylvie says the biographer has to “go in like a detective” … ” a detective with a bit of poetry in my heart”. She felt she was polishing a gem in her writing, and noticed how Cohen is “disciplined in his quest and yet so emotional”. Her goal was to present his story “with diligence and heart”.

She has also written on Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young . What the three men have in common is “each is a one-off”.

Questions from the audience

Audience members sought insider information on Cohen’s dramatis personae in certain songs.

One mentioned a New Zealander Graeme Allwright, a New Zealander who moved to France and became a famous singer (and interpreter of songs by artists such as Cohen in French). You can find some clips on YouTube including  L’Étranger / The Stranger Song which shows both Leonard and Graeme.

What (or who) next?

Who is the next artist Sylvie will write about? After her long sojourn in Cohen world –  “Cocktails and cabana boys” she said wryly.

Anticipated highlights #3 – AWRF 2013

Cover: Life after LifeThe last of my anticipated highlights is also one of the last sessions of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. It’s a panel made up of two authors I know and admire, and two I have never read. By this stage of the programme difficult choices have been made, bargains have been struck with colleagues and panic that you’re going to miss an author you really want to see starts to set in.

This is why writers festival panels are a great invention. Festival-goers can cram a viewing of several writers into one session time, they can see unfamiliar writers (always good for the For Later list), check up on old favourites,  and the speakers change before concentration can flag.

What the writers choose to read is another great thing about panels – for this one they will “read selections from their work that reference the repeating of history”. This is the only time I will get to see Kate Atkinson and Charlotte Grimshaw, both writers I really like. I’ve seen them before so traded their main sessions for writers I hadn’t, but  the way history tends to repeat is fundamental to their work, so their choices should be very interesting.

Cover: WulfHamish Clayton’s Wulf features terrifying old Te Rauparaha – the possibility of his history repeating itself  is not an inviting prospect – but of course Clayton doesn’t have to read a published work; it could be something to add to the much later/eagerly awaited list.

Tanya Moir studied at Christchurch’s very own Hagley Writers’ Institute and has moved from straight historical fiction in La Rochelle’s Road, her first novel, to a mix of contemporary and historical elements in Anticipation, her latest. Both books have very well reviewed, which sometimes influences me and sometimes doesn’t.

Do reviews influence you?

Ghastly war and glorious romps: Sir Max Hastings

Sir Max HastingsSir Max Hastings  – author, journalist, broadcaster, editor – spoke in  Christchurch on Tuesday 14 May, a guest of The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. He will be in Auckland as part of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

It was a near-packed house and the audience was treated to a man who knows a lot about war and history, and can spin facts, anecdotes, letters, and diaries into an utterly compelling narrative.

Editor of The Press, Joanna Norris, introduced Max as “one of the giants of our industry”- a man with qualities of ballsiness, fearlessness and even a dash of foolhardiness.

Max talked about his book All hell let loose – a human history of World War Two. It contains his own thoughts on great issues.  He wondered if the “unfulfilled threat” of Luftwaffe attacks might have been worse than the actuality.

The book aims to convey “What was the war like?” as a “global portrait from the bottom up” – with a focus on the men, women and children of embattled societies. He acknowledges that for a small group of people WWII was a “glorious romp” (as it was for his father). But Max’s knowledge of relevant statistics and figures were sobering – 27,000 people a day died due to to war and its related effects. 92% of German military deaths were at the hands of the Russians. 350,000 Poles dies by Russian oppression. 1 in 4 Russian soldiers died.

Max also spoke about nationalistic perspectives of World War Two. Many French fought the British, and instead of fighting with the Free French, many evacuated Frenchmen went back to live in occupied France.

The situation in India was also complicated, as  Churchill refused to grant India independence. Nehru said “How can I fight for a thing that is denied to me?” In the Bengal Famine of 1943, between 1 and 3 million died of starvation while British officers continued to dine in their clubs. Churchill would not re-route shipping to get food to the people.

Food emphasised the relativity of suffering. The British has rationing. 4 out of 5 Belgian children had rickets. The Nazi and Japanese regime involved starving subject populations. The Americans had “fantastically generous allocations of food”. 800,000 died of starvation in Leningrad, and there were numerous incidents of cannibalism.

Max emphasised the moral ambiguities of war. In 1945 Stalin was in power in Eastern Europe, and the Poles in Britain were ostracised as “human sacrifices to the realities of power”. The West “lacked the political will and military means” to truly liberate those who were the original reason for going to war.

There was a lot of grief and sorrow in Max’s talk. Undertaking research for his book Bomber Command, he spoke to the crew of a flight where a young airman stayed on a plane to let the others eject: “What was the point of having a posthumous V.C. if you died at 19 without ever having kissed a girl?

Max answered a lot of questions from the audience. Behind me, was a Falklands navy veteran who reminded Max that he had been honoured to give the Editor of his favourite paper The Daily Telegraph a tour of his ship.

Speaking of his next book Catastrophe on how World War One came about, he explained the strong connections between WWI and WWII. The Kaiser’s plans were not much different from Hitler, except for Jewish genocide. The war poets spoke eloquently of the “ghastliness” of war, but offered no alternative or solution.

On today’s situation, he said the Afghan war is a “ghastly failure”. He called Dick Cheney “that idiot” for calling Muslim terrorism the greatest threat to Western civilisation, and advised “be very very careful what you get into” when discussing Syria. In his opinion:

“Something must be done” has caused more trouble in the world …

He ended with a funny maxim from his father:

Marry a girl with fat legs because they are better in bed.

Thanks Sir Max for a thought-provoking talk. If you are lucky enough to be going to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival get along to one of his sessions.

Sir Max Hastings


Aranui loves reggae

Aranui LibraryTo celebrate Aranui Library’s entry onto the scene, Christchurch City Libraries have decided to fund a big music event in Aranui Library during New Zealand Music Month. It takes place on Wednesday 22 May 2013, 3:30 to 5:30pm.

Merchants of Flow is a successful and impressive local reggae band, with links to Aranui High School, so we roped them in.

And playing support will be Imprint, an energetic local group, which features current and ex members of Aranui High.

The gig will be broadcast on RDU 98.5FM  (you can listen to RDU98.5 FM or on the internet), and will feature interviews with the bands.

You’re all welcome to join us at this, or any of our NZ Music Month gigs.

It is free and it’s fun and we’d love to see you there.