Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen came out in 2012 while the great Canadian poet and musician was still among us. Cohen’s honest and illuminating contributions transcend the typical rock star biography and make it a moving and spiritual read. The book also presents a person far different than the melancholy aesthete Cohen tends to be portrayed as. He lived a remarkably full life that sometimes collided with historic events. Here are a few of his adventures and the songs inspired by them.
¡Viva la Revolución!
On the eve of publishing his second volume of poetry in the spring of 1961, Cohen did what any ambitious young writer does to promote their work: go solo to revolutionary Cuba. He ditched the fine suits, donned fatigues and grew a beard. For the most part he drank a lot, and unexpectedly for the author of “Suzanne,” deeply ruminated on violence stating, “I was very interested in what it really meant for a man to carry arms and kill other men, and how attracted I was exactly to the process. That’s getting close to the truth. The real truth is I wanted to kill or be killed.” After the C.I.A. sponsored Bay of Pigs Invasion, things heated up for foreigners, and Cohen got out of Cuba in time to do a reading from The Spice Box of Earth, sans beard and back in a suit. This one-man covert action is the inspiration of his song “Field Commander Cohen.”
Greek island burnout
The island of Hydra in the Aegean Sea was a bohemian destination in the early 60’s. Cohen bought a home there with no electricity or plumbing with a small inheritance. He started friendships with poets who visited Hydra such as Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. While writing the novel Beautiful Losers, he used LSD and speed heavily to fuel the creative process and ended up hospitalized for several weeks after finishing it. During this time, he lived with Marianne Ihlen, a stunningly beautiful Norwegian divorcee, who was his muse and caretaker. A photo of her in the house on Hydra appears on the back of the album Songs from a Room and the song “So Long Marianne” is about their relationship.
Master of crowd sedation
The 1970 Isle of Wight festival could have been the UK equivalent of Altamont. Several hundred thousand more people showed up than expected, many protesting the price of admission that was eventually waived. The crowd grew more tempestuous as the festival continued, with Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez getting booed and a flare thrown during Jimmy Hendrix’s act, which lit the top of the stage on fire. Fresh from a nap and a healthy dose of Quaaludes, Cohen stepped out in the early hours with his band, The Army. Producer Bob Johnston recalled, “he started out singing, very slowly – so slowly it took him ten minutes to sing it – ‘Like . . . a . . . bird.’” Cohen later beckoned, “Can I ask each of you to light a match so I can see where you all are?” Under his spell, the formerly raucous crowd complied. Having seen Cohen perform on his final tours, I can attest that the overall feeling was that of serenity.
Gigging for Israeli troops during the Yom Kippur War
Cohen found another opportunity for adventure when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in October of 1973, beginning the Yom Kippur War. Although he yearned for a combat role, stating, “I will go and stop Egypt’s bullet. Trumpets and a curtain of razor blades,” his Israeli musician friends concluded that he’d be better suited to entertain troops. During the month-long war, Cohen played scores of intimate sets at hospitals and military encampments. He said that his song “Lover, Lover, Lover” was “written in the Sinai desert for soldiers of both sides.”
Early internet adopter in the monastery
In 1993, Cohen quit the music business and entered the Mt. Baldy Zen Center to study under Roshi Joshu Sasaski, becoming an ordained Zen Buddhist Monk in three years. Yet for all the rigor of the daily regimen, Cohen found time to use the monastery’s dial up connection to get in touch with the Finnish website The Leonard Cohen Files. He posted new original writings, drawings and music to forge a relationship with fans in a way that few artists did back then. His embrace of technology was summed up by a Cohenesque statement, “They say that the Torah was written with black fire on white fire. I get that feeling from the computer, the bright black against the bright background. It gives it a certain theatrical dignity to see it on the screen.” Although the song is from the 80’s, “Everybody Knows” presaged the lack of privacy that we experience online today.
Simmons, Sylvie, I’m Your Man. Ecco, 2012. Print