Sylvie 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.
Sylvie 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”.
Sylvie 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.