Pico Iyer Journeys

I'm Not Your Man

Yet underneath all the surfaces and gambits is someone rock-solid at the core: after his 18 year-old son Adam was involved in a serious car crash in 1990, Cohen spent the better part of four months at his boy’s bedside in a Montreal hospital, often reading aloud from the Bible. He’s “developed the tenacity and character to sit still within the suffering,” his former lover Rebecca de Mornay says, and even though he’s never been shy of sex and drugs—extending acid to one woman on the tip of his white handkerchief–he’s never seemed to kid himself that running from the truth will solve anything; his songs rarely give himself the benefit of the doubt, but also don’t spend too much time wondering where the arrow in his side came from.

Simmons has worked heroically, for more than ten years, to unearth every detail and to evoke every Cohen setting from the Chelsea Hotel to his monastic cabin; impressively, she seems agile and shrewd and dry enough herself to keep up with one of the more elusive and gypsy-like artists around. But perhaps her greatest strength, as she clears the ground around Cohen, is to leave a space in the middle as rich and enigmatic as an empty chair. More than presuming to tell us who Cohen is, she often—and usefully—tells us who he isn’t, how far he lives from our projections and myths.

He was never, for one thing, a rebel, even though he’s always gone his own way; he simply ignores revolutionaries as much as he ignores the status quo they’re reacting against. He never felt at home amidst the looseness of the Beats or what he saw as the naivete of the hippies (he was more in his element, she suggests, amidst the urban experiments of Warhol’s Factory); he has never been pacifist or vegan or New Ager. Touring Europe in 1970, he gave his supporting band the name the Army, and three years later, he went to Israel the day after the Yom Kippur War broke out, hoping to enlist, and ending up performing up to eight concerts a day for Israeli soldiers around the desert; he once—perhaps in part to provoke and evade those who would pin an idea on him–confessed to a “deep interest in violence.”

At the same time, he’s never been the dour or humorless soul some imagine from the songs; everyone who knows him testifies to his being, as one back-up singer says, “one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.” And a large part of his magnetism comes from his ability to efface himself. “He moves into leadership naturally,” his friend since boyhood Nancy Bacal, points out, “except that he remains invisible at the same time. His intensity and power operates from below the surface.” When asked to draw a portrait of his vital organs in a book in which many others had done the same, he simply wrote, “Let me be the shy one in your book.” Yet his songs strip him bare in public with a lack of shyness few other artists would dare.

I’m Not Your Man is really the title the book should have worn, if only to catch both his enduring refusal to be defined and his unreadiness to be simplified or pushed into a box; the confiding air, on record, in person, draws you in, but that closeness is best enjoyed if you remember the distances that remain.

It’s in this regard that it helps that Simmons is a woman (as most of his earlier biographers have not been), and it is on the contradictions in his love-life that she is strongest. Women have always been the ones to respond most intensely to Cohen’s seeming openness and vulnerability, and not to be distracted by his strategies and fine words; it was women who first gave his songs prominence—Judy Collins, Nico, Buffy Sainte-Marie—and it’s Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas who have co-written many of his songs in recent years. His sound engineer for almost four decades, unusually for the profession, is a woman (Leanne Ungar); his gruff croak has always been decorated—made musical—by the high sweet chime of female voices in the background.

More deeply, it is women who have always been wisest to the competing demands of the singer and the man, as he hungers for company and adventure even while needing to be alone, longs for surrender even as (in Simmons’s fine formulation) he always needs “freedom, control and an escape hatch.” The biographer already of (perfectly) Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young, Simmons excavates some of his beautiful letters (often to say goodbye) to Marianne, and tracks down the Suzanne of his famous song (now living in a wooden caravan in Santa Monica and writing out her autobiography by hand); she extracts beautiful sentences from Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Cohen’s son and daughter, and talks to his recent partner, Anjani Thomas, in part about the difficulties of such a solitary perfectionist being involved in such a collaborative exercise as music. From all of them she seems to have picked up a spirit of wry devotion, of being alert to his maneuvers and his needs and yet ready to forgive much, precisely because he remains such an honorable and often selfless character.

As Joni Mitchell put it, indelibly, in “A Case of You” (listen to the song, and to her “Rainy Night House,” if you want another brilliant writer’s version of Cohen when they were both young):

“I met a woman

She had a mouth like yours

She knew your life

She knew your devils and your deeds

And she said

“Go to him, stay with him if you can

But be prepared to bleed”

He was in her blood “like holy wine,” she famously went on, “tastes so bitter, and so sweet.” She could drink a case of him—and would still thirst for more; her fellow Canadian had taught her about both yearning and satisfaction.

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