It might not count as the most illuminating anecdote in Sylvie Simmons’ exhaustive new biography of Leonard Cohen, but it surely lingers as one of the more memorable. In the mid 1990s, Cohen, by then already in his early sixties, cloisters himself for five years at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center high in the mountains near Los Angeles, where the daily routine involves a combination of prolonged bouts of meditation and physical labour, lasting roughly from 3 a.m. until 10 p.m. Cohen’s only breaks from this ascetic regimen are the infrequent occasions when he leaves the monastery to spend a couple of days at his home in Los Angeles, where he dines on Filet-o-Fish sandwiches and vintage French wine, while gorging on episodes of Jerry Springer’s raucous TV show.
From the outset, Simmons sketches a portrait of a person who gained the spotlight without ever losing his essential reticence. During his high school years in Montreal, Cohen was the shy kid who, paradoxically, became president of the student council. More significantly, as his career progressed, first through poetry and prose and later through music, he never quite fit the profile – in appearance, style, or attitude – of the generation from which he emerged. Age difference accounted for part of this. Cohen was already 32 – officially past the age of being trusted by the hippie/yippie set – when he tried to enlist in the Israeli army during the Six-Day War in June of 1967.
Simmons, a London-based journalist known for her authoritative contributions to the U.K. music magazine MOJO, has written something more than a disposable rock biography. The book is assiduously researched and resounds with voices: Cohen’s own, but also those of his friends, acquaintances, and former lovers. The narrative also offers a close reading of Cohen’s work – not only the songs but also the poetry and prose – in the process shedding valuable light on the alluring, inscrutable author of those enduring creations.