Writing a definitive biography of someone who’s still alive is a tricky business. The least difficult thing about it may be just deciding that the time is right, which seems to imply that, while the subject may have life left to live while remaining in the public eye, the vital part of the career is essentially done, and the life itself has gotten as interesting as it’s ever going to get. In the case of most pop stars, the most likely proposition ought to be that the last few decades will be devoted to exile and decline, with maybe a scandal or some halfhearted comebacks to try to keep a famous name alive. But nothing about Leonard Cohen’s life and career has ever been likely. In fact, for a 78-year-old “youth poet” turned rock star and international sex symbol, he doesn’t seem to have ever been particularly youthful. He tells biographer Sylvie Simmons (Neil Young: Reflections In Broken Glass) that he was “born wearing a suit,” and photographs in Simmons’ latest, I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen, prove he developed that look of doctrinal seriousness early on. (The trace of self-amusement only began to creep in with middle age.) Covering the sessions for the Phil Spector-produced Death Of A Ladies’ Man, which resulted in not just the worst album, but the worst professional experience of Cohen’s musical career, Simmons notes that there was always something off about the idea of the man called “the first tycoon of teen” collaborating with a singer-songwriter who quite possibly “never was a teenager.”
Cohen was young once, but doesn’t seem to have been cut out for it. In his very early teens, he began “going out late at night, two or three nights a week, wandering alone through the seedier streets of Montreal,” dreaming of being a man in his twenties. “Leonard walked slowly past the working girls on the street, but in spite of the need and longing in his eyes the hookers looked over his head, calling out to the men who passed, offering them what Leonard had begun to want more than anything.” Happily, he was eventually able to make up for lost time. Although Simmons alludes to how full Cohen’s dance card got, her treatment of his love life focuses mostly on a few important women in his life who spoke to her for the book, notably Marianne Ihlen and Suzanne Elrod (the mother of his two children, Adam and Lorca, the latter named for Leonard’s favorite poet), and Rebecca De Mornay, whom he once escorted to the Academy Awards. (He wrote famous songs about the first two; De Mornay was awarded a production credit on “Anthem,” because, Cohen says, “I generally designate the producer as the person without whom that particular track wouldn’t exist.”)
In 1984, Columbia Records, which put out Cohen’s first seven albums in the United States, declined to release his first new album in five years, Various Positions. In what was probably an attempt to balance straight talk about Cohen’s low visibility in the U. S. market with an acknowledgment of his critical reputation and popularity in Europe, the president of the company told him, “Look, Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” He found out when a song from the album, “Hallelujah,” slowly percolated into the most covered song of the new millennium, and Cohen’s next couple of releases, I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992), broke through to the indie-rock audience and cemented the image of their fiftysomething creator as a timeless icon of world-weary cool.
After this late-life triumph, things threatened to quiet down until financial scandal forced the septuagenarian Cohen back onto the touring circuit: Millions were siphoned from Cohen’s retirement account by an employee (and former lover) whom he trusted to such a degree, he placed a “do not resuscitate” order in her hands, in case of his failing illness. The general reaction to these recent performances (and his latest album, Old Ideas) tends to confirm that the image is built to weather the long haul. Simmons certainly thinks so; like most of the people she interviews, she plainly adores her subject. This might make for slushy reading if Cohen himself didn’t come across as so sane and good-humored throughout. (Accepting induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, he invites the audience to recall “the prophetic statement by Jon Landau in the early 1970s: ‘I have the seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and it is not Leonard Cohen’.”) The book is a seductive tribute to a master seducer.