Getting to the Essence: An Interview with Sylvie SimmonsBy Kevin J. O'Conner
November 05, 2012
For the past thirty-five years, author Sylvie Simmons has imbued the pages of music’s most important print outlets with an engaging style and her incisive views of the industry. The London-born journalist (now based in San Francisco) has written for the likes of Sounds, Creem, Q, Rolling Stone, Music Life, and MOJO; she’s also had articles appear in The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, The San Francisco Chronicle, and other newspapers.
Beyond her proficiency in all things pop, Simmons penned a catalog of pivotal features on the emerging L.A. metal scene in the 1980s; perhaps most notably, she was the first journalist to devote serious attention to then-unknowns Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe.
In 2001, she penned her first biography: Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes, later authoring a hardcover book for the Johnny Cash: Unearthed box set, as well as Neil Young: Reflections in Broken Glass, and Too Weird for Ziggy, a free-wheeling foray into short-story fiction.
With her latest release, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, Simmons takes on one of history’s most celebrated songwriters. Coinciding with renewed interest in Cohen as he tours in support of his latest album, Old Ideas, the book quickly landed on the New York Times best-seller list, and has attracted nearly unanimous acclaim.
Clocking in at almost double the length of most other Cohen biographies, I’m Your Man presents a strong case for best of the bunch. Not only is it the most comprehensive and up to date, but Simmons eschews the dull, academic tone that renders the earlier biographies so dull and sloggy, instead favoring a compelling narrative approach. This is where her years as a music journalist clearly work in her favor; the book reads so easily that you quickly forget you’re reading a 576-page book—and when you get to the end you want more.
During a break from her ongoing book tour, I recently had the chance to talk with Simmons about Leonard Cohen and her new book.
Kevin J. O’Conner: There have been a number of Leonard Cohen biographies already; were you surprised by the amount of cooperation and involvement you got from him?
Sylvie Simmons: I wasn’t so much surprised as just kind of delighted by it. When I put in the proposal for the book, I kind of got the deal within a day of proposing it. I just approached the call as a journalist would, and spoke to his manager. I said, “I really feel that Leonard has been under-served by biographers—I’ve got shelves full of great books on Dylan, but nothing really great on Leonard—and I really want to make an effort at doing it.”
And then the word came back that Leonard was supportive—that was the word. You always have a pet word, and his word was “supportive.” And he has been extremely supportive, right down to, at the end, sitting with me and giving me very, very frank and involved interviews, lending me his pictures from his personal collection for the book, and allowing me access to his archives.
So I had the perfect solution, in that he didn’t care what I wrote, no great interest in what I wrote, but was very interested in me—and I don’t mean as a woman—very interested in me and in the process, and in being as helpful as he could—basically, he kept feeding me. I think he thought I might die of starvation (laughs) on his watch, so he just kept feeding me. Food, photos, and access—a biographer can’t ask for more.
Especially over that amount of time—you spent, what, three years on the book?
Yes. Pretty much the first year was taken up just with research. I’d started, kind of like I guess most people would, mapping out what I thought the book would be, based on my previous interviews with Leonard—and all the other biographies, of course, I read from cover to cover. And I kind of put a little plan, thinking of who I’d like to speak to along the way in each of those.
And then, as soon as I got going, I realized there was so much more to him. So many stories that hadn’t been told, and so many facts that had either been gotten wrong in previous books, or hadn’t even been mentioned in previous books, that kind of made this little road map completely wobbly—it looked more like a lava lamp than a map, you know. And so, everything kind of led to other paths, and the book turned out to be much longer than I envisioned. And then it [was] a case of trying to cut it down to something vaguely manageable—600 pages as opposed to the kind of Winston Churchill: The War Years volumes that could have been.
Where did you see the greatest need for a new take on Leonard Cohen?
Leonard Cohen has had, you know, so many different strengths to his life—he’s an extremely complex and very elusive man. But even if you just take two parts of his life, he was a poet and a novelist, and continued to be one after he became a musician, so there’s these two elements to his working life. And I found that most books were either kind of stuffy, academic, concentrating on the academic and poetic, novel side of his life—or they were music biographies that kind of skimmed past the poetry and novels. They mentioned them, but not with any kind of depth—whereas I wanted to treat all of the art equally.
I wanted some kind of equal measure, because what I’d worked out about Leonard—pretty early on, I think—is that one thing of him didn’t exist without the other thing. For him, music and word were exactly the same. There was music behind every word he wrote, he’d said, and that’s true. Even when he was writing his novels. I found 30 drafts in his archives in which one of the novels was called “Pop Novel”—and at one point set to guitar chords. So there was this kind of interchange between music and word.
And also, [there are] the other strands of his life that a lot of people know little about, like the depression that was the engine of his life for the longest time, really—in his work, in his pursuits of religion and drugs—a huge amount of drugs—and women (we know about his ladies’ man reputation)—but all of these things are actually tied together. And so you have to take these strands, examine them, but somehow wrap them back up into this DNA of Leonard. And that was why I used that line from Tom Waits, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” I thought that so applied to Leonard.
So you were looking for a less detached approach? More integrated?
What I was looking at was to try to get to the essence of him. To try and get the DNA, you know, see if I can get to the soul or the essence of Leonard, by getting everything about him examined. It was full examination, but which I wrote—I hope—so that it would dance off the pages, and people who just want a story can read it as a story. But I wanted it as complete as possible, and I haven’t seen a biography on him that does that, that is not only complete on his work, on his life—not many people really examined his depression, or examined his relationships with women, which aren’t all horizontal, there are a lot of vertical relationships. His first manager was a woman, and the first people who covered him were women—and he was a ladies’ man, and I wanted to speak to the muses and the mother of his children, people who woke up with him every day and so knew what he was like. These are all parts of his psyche, and I wanted to really get to who he was.
One of the things that kept coming up in the book was the difference in Leonard’s perception of how other people saw him—that whole sense of not quite fitting in—versus the way they actually saw him. What do you think was behind that?
Part of it I think goes back to the fact that he’s from Montreal. He was a Jew, but he lived in basically an Anglo-Protestant area, [a] very wealthy area in Montreal. So the Jews were slightly outsiders within this thing, and the Anglo-Protestants were outsiders within Quebec, which was a French province—and they were outsiders within Canada, which was an Anglo country. So everybody had this kind of romantic view of themselves as an outsider. And I think that that suited Leonard very well; he tended to be very, very sociable and a very charming person to be around, and he loved the company of women and the company of his friends in art circles—but he never really felt like he belonged to anything. It may also have to do with his depression—that people with depression, especially when it’s deep and it’s chronic, have a sense of detachment.
Another thing I noticed is that he’s made, over the course of his career, what would seem to be some unexpected connections. The ones that struck me were Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Hendrix—I was surprised to find out Charlie Daniels was in his band…
Oh, isn’t that funny, I know! Charlie Daniels then [wasn’t] the rabid right-winger he is these days. But he was still very charming to talk to; I’m sure if we’d got on to politics, we’d have killed each other, but he’s still a charming man to talk to. But yes, I mean, [Cohen] was living in Nashville for three years. I was actually talking in Nashville recently about that; I think they were quite shocked to realize he was living in a log cabin, you know, outside of Nashville for three years. But, yeah, Leonard very much adapted to that.
What I also thought was very important to get into the book was a social and historical context, because Leonard was born in 1934, and just happened to live through all of these amazing eras when there were these groups of people. He gravitated towards communities of artists, so—you know, he was at one point living on the Greek island of Hydra, where there was an expat arts community, and in New York he kind of gravitated towards what I guess was then the leading kind of art movement of that time and community, which was the Warhol set. So a lot of it was partly being in the right place at the right time, you know. He happened to be very involved in the Chelsea Hotel, and Janis was staying at the Chelsea Hotel.
So there was a slightly Forrest Gump aspect: he’s there, and all this stuff is going on, and he’s the kind of guy who people are very drawn to and want to have as part of their set. He always kept a toe in the water, as he did with the Beats, but always considered himself a bit of an outsider.
Do you think that accounted for some of his appeal among those folks?
No, I think they appreciated him initially as a writer and artist. Lou Reed was one of the first of the Warhol set to go up to Leonard Cohen and just say, “I read Beautiful Losers.” And Jackson Browne, who he also encountered in New York, was kind of drawn to him because of his poetry. So, before he was even a musician, people were drawn to him. He’s a very, very engaging, hypnotic kind of man that people do want to be around.
I think they just saw him as a very serious and very deep writer. And that’s exactly what he is. At the end of it, if I found out one thing about him, it’s that he truly is as deep as you’d imagine he would be. There wasn’t any kind of front to him; there’s no sense of artifice or pretense, he’s absolutely somebody who works and works and works at his art, and doesn’t let it come out until he’s absolutely certain that it’s, in his view, good enough. He’s a perfectionist.
Old Ideas is his highest-charting album in the US; do you think that’s mostly because of the way charts are compiled now, or…?
Yes, that’s exactly it. I mean, it’s partly that people, after that amazing comeback tour—his first tour in fifteen years—that they were wanting to buy the record. But you know it’s not selling like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or anything, the sales numbers are low—because that’s what it is now, the music business has changed, so drastically, from when I first started writing about music in the late seventies. It’s a whole different thing now. So, it got more attention than he normally gets, but, no, it’s not huge sales.
Where he’s making his money is from the tour. Mostly with the big artists, it’s tours—and Leonard needed big money after his manager kind of purloined his funds. He was actually mortgaging his tiny little duplex that he has in LA to pay the legal bills to deal with that. So he had no choice. I mean, if he’d [only] put out a record, he wouldn’t be able to pay that back; he needed a really big, stomping tour with a huge promoter behind it who loved him, and that’s what he got.
Since his comeback tour, everything that’s written about him since mentions his age, and describes him as if he’s pretty much at death’s door; do you think his mortality is relevant, or is it a distraction?
Well, Leonard loves it. I remember asking him if there was something he was “dying” to do, and I sort of realized that, oops, that was a morbid choice of words, and he said, “Oh, darling”—he always calls women “darling”—“Darling, get more morbid. I love morbid.” So Leonard kind of talks about that—but I think it’s more of a habit than actually meaning anything to him.
It does mean he’s sort of speeding up the process of working; he realizes there’s only so many years left, from what he told me in December, when we last sat down to talk. And he said, you know, I really want to get my work done, and I don’t want to hang around. When this tour’s over, he’s going to be working on a new album, that he’s already started work on. That I do know; I don’t know when it’s coming out. But there is a sense of time running out. It sort of speeds up the older you get. But beyond that, he looks amazingly fit. When I saw him in December, he looked, you know—he doesn’t act like a 78-year-old. So, who knows?
I think he’s an absolutely miraculous guy, pretty amazing. And that’s a good thing, if you write about somebody and three years later you still like him. When you go into that much depth about somebody’s life, that really does say something about somebody, because when you spend that long and that involved time with somebody, you’re bound to find some stories where it’s—oh, my Lord, really? But those were very, very few.
Over your career, you’ve done feature-length articles, interviews, biographies, liner notes, fiction—is there a format you find particularly satisfying, or does pretty much everything come from the same well?
I think it all comes from the same well. I think because of being a music journalist for so long, I’ve been more in the habit of the short form, but a sort of longer version of the short form. The magazine I write for, MOJO, has these articles that are around 10,000 words long, usually—five to ten thousand words long—and that’s almost like a mini-book, a pamphlet book. And with writing fiction, I write short stories rather than novels, so the short form, in a way—it’s more of a habit than anything else.
Is there anyone you haven’t written about that you’d like to?
Well, there is somebody, but I don’t really want to say who it is—simply because I was hoping to do a book on him, but he’s so anti the idea of a book that, you know, he might change his mind and I don’t want to tempt fate by using his name.
Fair enough. I know we touched on it a little earlier, but what would you say is the biggest change you’ve observed in the music industry since you started writing about it?
Well, it completely doesn’t exist—I mean, it really is almost non-existent now. I think the main thing is that, when I was growing up and getting into records, records were almost sacred objects. You bought them, you read the liner notes, you knew everything about everybody. I was a vinyl kid—I’m actually still a vinyl person, I love vinyl. But now, it’s just become kind of background music, Muzak wallpaper, and everybody wants everything for free, and so artists are struggling or having to do things that take them away from their art. And I think there’s a lot less respect and love for music and musicians now.
But that may just be a small phase. Like I said, it’s the wild west now, nobody knows how to get by, and at some point down the line it’s bound to change. You know, there’ll be a new sheriff in town, and something’ll get sorted out. And we’ll move on to another new way of listening to music.
At this point, an exterminator shows up at the door to take care of “a mouse problem” that developed while Simmons has been out on her book tour. As she answers the door, explaining to the exterminator that she’s just finishing up an interview, I’m able to get in…
Just one more question: What’s next for Sylvie Simmons?
Sea drops, cabana boy massaging my shoulders, and probably my next book of short stories. And back to being a journalist.
Thank you, Mr O’Connor, for this very interesting interview with Sylvie Simmons who is a fine biographer. I’m looking forward to reading her book on Leonard Cohen. From your interview it promises to be an excellent biography.
Θυμάμαι τον πολυέλαιο αναμμένο και τους γονείς μου να χορεύουν στο ρυθμό του κομματιού, και μένα με τον αδερφό μου να πάμε να πιανόμαστε στα πόδια τους.Εικόνα απερίγραπτης τρυφερότητας που τη μετέδωσες τόσο άμεσα κα απλά! Σε ζηλεύω που έχεις τέτοιες μνήμες από τα παιδικά σου χρόνια και με έκανες να κλάψω με αυτό που έγραψες σήμερα. Μάλλον γι’ αυτό βγήκες τόσο υπέροχα τρυφερό πλάσμα με τα παιδιά όπως δείχνεις να είσαι με τους μαθητές σου σε φωτογραφίες στο Φλικρ.Σου εύχομαι από βάθος ψυχής πραγματικά να χορέψετε to the end of love με όποια τυχερή σύντροφο ζωής βρεθεί κοντά σου.To εν λόγω τραγούδι χωρίς να είναι από τα πρώτα μου ακούσματα, αφού έχουμε τεράστια διαφορά ηλικίας, τυχαίνει να είναι από τα ιδιαίτερα αγαπημένα μου τραγούδια. Και γενικότερα θα έλεγα ότι μου αρέσει συνολικά το έργο του Leonard Cohen.Ετσι, σαν μία ελάχιστη συμβολή καταθέτω και γραμμένους τους στίχους του τραγουδιού, αν και εσύ σίγουρα θα τους έχεις και θα τους έχεις διαβάσει, αλλά περισσότερο για τους αναγνώστες σου.Πραγματικά με κατασυγκίνησες σήμερα με αυτό το ποστ. Να σε έχει καλά η Ζωή παλικάρι μου!Dance me to your beauty with a buinrng violinDance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely inLift me like an olive branch and be my homeward doveDance me to the end of loveDance me to the end of loveOh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are goneLet me feel you moving like they do in BabylonShow me slowly what I only know the limits ofDance me to the end of loveDance me to the end of loveDance me to the wedding now, dance me on and onDance me very tenderly and dance me very longWe’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us aboveDance me to the end of loveDance me to the end of loveDance me to the children who are asking to be bornDance me through the curtains that our kisses have outwornRaise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is tornDance me to the end of loveDance me to your beauty with a buinrng violinDance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely inTouch me with your naked hand or touch me with your gloveDance me to the end of loveDance me to the end of loveDance me to the end of love