Writers & Company

Remembering Leonard Cohen: biographer Sylvie Simmons on Montreal's beloved poet

In this 2017 interview, Eleanor Wachtel speaks to music journalist and biographer Sylvie Simmons about the man behind the music, poetry and fiction. Cohen's posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, has been nominated for a 2021 Juno Award in the album of the year category.

Cohen's posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, has been nominated for a 2021 Juno Award

Leonard Cohen sits for a portrait. The Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist died on Nov. 7, 2016 at the age of 82. (Aaron Harris/The Canadian Press)

In 2017, Montreal celebrated Leonard Cohen on the first anniversary of his death with a star-studded tribute concert, major art exhibitions, giant street murals and more.

As part of these events, Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Sylvie Simmons onstage at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal about her biography, I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. It's a story that begins in his hometown of Montreal and follows him on his journey to become one of the world's best loved singer-songwriters.

Simmons spent three years speaking to Cohen and sources close to him, delving into the life of a man who was, despite his stardom, quite shy and private. His early poetic influences, his muses and musical inspirations, his struggles with depression, his spiritual explorations, his remarkable comeback tour — they're all covered in this illuminating, wide-ranging 2017 conversation.

Cohen's posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance, has been nominated for a 2021 Juno Award in the album of the year category.

Leonard Cohen's love of Montreal

"Montreal is huge to him. He would never have been a poet or a singer-songwriter had it not been for Montreal.

"He said it was a very nurturing and kind environment, where poets who already had a reputation would take him under their wing and look after him. 

"He really believed that the scene in Montreal was probably the greatest on Earth and that he was lucky enough to be born in the right place, in the right family, in the right environment. 

Montreal is huge to him. He would never have been a poet or a singer-songwriter had it not been for Montreal.

"He would never leave his home in Canada. I think he'd love the fact that people in his city love him as much as he loved his city."

A portrait of Leonard Cohen adorns a Montreal high-rise. The mural was painted to honour the singer-songwriter. (Michel de la Chenelière)

The story behind Hallelujah

"The head of his record company said [of his album Various Positions], 'We can't release this.' And they didn't. Then, of course, [the song] got covered by the whole of humanity, much to Leonard's horror for a while.

"It was a song he originally wrote as a sweet little acoustic thing and then his producer came in, and they made it more of this grand hymn. If you listen to the words, they are rather confusing and mysterious.

"There's naked people, there's all sorts of stuff going on. But it somehow became this secular hymn.

It's almost like a summary, a tight ball of Leonard Cohen-ness in this one song.

"Part of it, I think, was the actual structure of the song. It had that simple chorus, it had an uplifting feel. It is a Biblical story, there's love and there's sex in it, there's love that is not working out.

"It's almost like a summary, a tight ball of Leonard Cohen-ness in this one song."

The moment Cohen became a musician

"He was walking down the street one day and there was a bookshop with a rack outside of used books. He found the collected works of the Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca, and opened it at a passage (which he later recited to me by heart).

"What he said happened is that he heard music — the little hairs stood up on his arms and neck as he heard the music of the synagogue. And I asked him, 'Did you mean that this was a spiritual experience, a religious experience?'

"He said 'It was just music.' 

What he said happened is that he heard music — the little hairs stood up on his arms and neck as he heard the music of the synagogue.

This very dignified, beautiful minor key music would come to his mind. It was almost like the Big Bang of Leonard because he was 15 years old when this happened and that was the same year he bought his first acoustic guitar." 

Sylvie Simmons (right) with Eleanor Watchel before their interview at the Leonard Cohen tribute concert on Nov. 6, 2017. (Francois Letourneux)

Leonard, the tortured artist

"Leonard seemed to be somebody who existed best in a state of longing. All of his best poems to a woman, for example, were taken from a place of longing.

"One of his first well-known poems before he became a musician, For Anne, was created after he broke up with Anne. This goes on and on.

"There was a song that he wrote called Come On, Marianne. By the end of its recording, it was So Long, Marianne. This state of longing was something that was also a bit of a torture to him — he always needed to be filled.

Leonard seemed to be somebody who existed best in a state of longing.

"He needed to have something going on, but emptiness was the place in which he could work."

Sylvie Simmons' comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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