Sylvie Simmons and Don McGlashan and Leonard Cohen: “at the unpopular edge of pop music … where the most interesting stuff is”.

Last night Sylvie Simmons, Leonard Cohen’s biographer, and the awesome Don McGlashan joined forces. They sang their songs – and a few Cohen numbers. Sylvie played ukulele and Don the guitar, and they were introduced by music journalist Nick Bollinger.

In between the songs was discussion on Cohen, songwriting, and White Valiant for you McGlashanites. Don admitted he doesn’t usually like rock biographies as the are all “and then there was another amazing party and you weren’t invited”.

Highlights of this rather chilled out and beautiful evening:

  • Don enjoying doing an unplugged gig: “I normally wouldn’t tell that story, because there’d be a drummer behind me saying FFS.”
  • On Keith Richards writing Satisfaction after a dream, Sylvie said wryly: “I haven’t woken up to satisfaction for a long time”.
  • Sylvie on Leonard’s songcraft and constant honing of his songs: “He will just be perfectionist for ever and eternity”.
  • Leonard Cohen reading lyrics to Suzanne Vega, women on sun loungers moving closer to hear.
  • Don explaining White Valiant, and saying “I am at the unpopular edge of pop music … where the most interesting stuff is”.
  • Don playing the euphonium (not, as I suggested “blowing into an upside down tuba”). I think this was done on a verse of Famous blue raincoat, but correct me if you were there …
  • Don’s song Marvellous year. I am a huge fan of songs with lists (a la We didn’t start the fire by Billy Joel), and this is up there:

    We had Democracy, Dentistry, Waist-band elastic, Rhythmic Gymnastics, The Rule Of Law, The Rule Of Thumb, Fire, The Wheel, Rugby Union, The Petrol Engine, The Old-Age Pension, The Fire Of Hades, The Briscoes Lady, Dental Floss, Motorcross, The Koran, The Torah, Interflora

  • Don giving his guitar some astonishing effect pedal action on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne.

Set list:

  • This is London (Don)
  • Midnight Cowboy (Sylvie)
  • Sisters of Mercy (Leonard Cohen)
  • The Captain (Leonard Cohen)
  • Famous blue raincoat (Leonard Cohen)
  • Queen of the Night (Don)
  • A hard act to follow (Sylvie)
  • Marvellous year (Don)
  • Who knows where the time goes when it flies (Sylvie)
  • Suzanne (Leonard Cohen)

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.

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival – Anticipated highlights # 1

Now that I know I am really going to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, the time has come for a detailed examination of theCover: I'm Your Man programme while wielding a fluorescent marker. They don’t call them highlighter pens for nothing;  highlighting my anticipated highlights is in itself a highlight for me. Tragic.

Number one on my giddying up list is Don McGlashan and Sylvie Simmons singing their own songs and the songs of Mr Leonard Cohen. I am not familiar with Simmons’ work, as I still languish low on the holds list for I’m Your Man, but the combination of Cohen and McGlashan is unmissable.

Are you going to the Festival? What are your anticipated highlights?

I love Leonard Cohen (and literary events in Christchurch)

Christchurch has a stellar selection of book-related events coming up in May. Take a look!


Tuesday 14 May sees two events: Max Hastings and Sylvie Simmons will be talking at Middleton Grange.

I’ve just finished reading I’m your man: the life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. It is brilliant. Sylvie talked a lot to Cohen and those who know him. We delve into his family, personal life and history, and Cohen’s creative process is also unfurled and explored.

Her wealth of knowledge doesn’t get in the way of a  great story. I loved the anecdote about Iggy Pop and Cohen. Leonard spotted a personal ad in which a woman wanted to meet a man who combined the energy of Iggy and the class of Cohen. He thought they should reply as a double act – married Iggy was less keen – but the result is a fab photo of Iggy and Leonard on the couch. The Personal Ad woman must have flipped out.

PS If you want more Cohen stuff – CDs, DVDs, and books – the library has quite an impressive collection.

Max Hastings will be fascinating too. He is an author, journalist, and broadcaster who has written many books of war history and some great memoirs (I am in the throes of Did You Really Shoot the Television?: A Family Fable and it’s a witty and compelling read).

Sorry to report the Ben Goldacre event is cancelled …
Search catalogue for Bad scienceMonday 20 May: Another must-see is Ben Goldacre talking Bad Science, Bad Pharma at the Aurora Centre. Goldacre is the enemy of illogical baggy thinking. Bad Science is the kind of book that gets you all riled up. It stimulates your critical thinking and makes you look at the media’s reporting in a more jaundiced way. Crappy infographics! Science research corralled by advertisers! GGGrrrr.

His follow-up is Bad Pharma and it tackles the actions of pharmaceutical companies. Lots of library customers (including me) are keen to get their mitts on this.

These three authors will also be appearing at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Want more literary stuff? Try The Press Christchurch Writers Festival workshops:

  • Workshops on e-publishing with author Felicity Price and publisher Jenny Howarth.
  • The Good Prose – a two-day session with Lyttelton-based columnist and author Joe Bennett.

War & rock n roll & a fab prize – The Press Christchurch Writers Festival

How is this for a fabulous literary night out? On Tuesday 14 May, The Press Christchurch Writers Festival brings you Sir Max Hastings and Sylvie Simmons:

Sir Max Hastings: Accounts from Abroad
Sir Max Hastings is an author, journalist and broadcaster whose work has appeared in every British national newspaper.
(Search our catalogue for Max Hastings’ books).

Search catalogue for All hell let loose   Search the catalogue for Editor   Search catalogue for Finest Years

Sylvie Simmons: Stories from the Life of Leonard Cohen
‘I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ is the definitive account of an extraordinary life. Sylvie Simmons, biographer, shares stories, insights and songs in this evening of recollections on Cohen.
(Search our catalogue for books by Sylvie Simmons)
Search the catalogue for I'm your man  Search catalogue for Neil Young

Not only do you you get to listen to these authors, there is a Auckland Writers and Readers Festival Competition. The prize includes:

  • Three nights’ accommodation and breakfast at Hotel de Brett, Auckland for two.
  • The nights are: Thursday 16, Friday 17, Saturday 18 May.
  • A Take Ten concession pass, which can be redeemed for 10 tickets to any core festival sessions (excluding special events and workshops)
  • Two additional tickets to the NZ Listener Gala Night, Thursday 16 May, 2013
  • Value: $1,430

Visit The Press Christchurch Writers Festival to book tickets for the sessions, and enter the competition.