Sylvie Simmons On Her Leonard Cohen Biography, The Uke, & All Sorts Of Good Stuff

Sylvie in GG park 2009

Sylvie Simmons - Golden Gate Park (Summer 2009)

Sylvie Simmons Does Leonard Cohen – Coming Soon To A Publisher Near You

A biography of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist, has been acquired by Random House imprint Jonathan Cape. The title was won through a “heated” auction between nine publishers which went “on and on and on” according to CCV publishing director Dan Franklin. Franklin signed a “high five-figure sum” for UK and Commonwealth rights through Julian Alexander at Lucas Alexander Whitley. I’m Your Man will be published in autumn 2011. The author is English rock journalist Sylvie Simmons … . She has interviewed Cohen several times.” There has not been a definitive book [on Cohen]—nothing that’s taken into account his amazing comeback,” said Franklin. …  “I have always been a fan of Cohen.” said Franklin. “There’s a massive market now for people of a certain age who buy books, if you get it right.” – From Cape takes Leonard Cohen title at auction by Katie Allen (Bookseller.com, May 11, 2009)

Rock writer Sylvie Simmons’s I’M YOUR MAN, a biography of musician and poet Leonard Cohen, covering his early life and  and career as a celebrated poet and writer, his rise to fame through his iconic lyrics and songs and his retreat to and return from a Zen Buddhist monastery, in the wake of which he is playing to the biggest audiences of his career, to Dan Halpern at Ecco, in a pre-empt, and to Ellen Seligman at McClelland & Stewart in Canada, by Sarah Lazin at Sarah Lazin Books. . US rights were previously sold to Norton, and UK rights have been sold to Little Brown UK.  – From Publishers Marketplace (October 26, 2009)

Dan Halpern at Ecco pre-empted U.S. rights to I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons’s biography of musician Leonard Cohen. Sarah Lazin at Sarah Lazin Books brokered the deal for the title, which follows Cohen from his time as a struggling poet through his rise to fame as a lyricist and songwriter. The book also touches on Cohen’s recent time in a Buddhist monastery and his late flush with touring success. Ecco is planning a fall 2011 publication.  – From Deals – 10/26/2009 by Rachel Deahl (Publishers Weekly, October 26, 2009)

Sylvie Simmons, who, as you may have heard, has convinced a number of publishers that she will complete a biography of Leonard Cohen in the foreseeable future, recently wrote me a note  complimenting the Heck Of A Guy blog and, not coincidentally, asking my assistance in her preparation of this biography.1

You know what this means, don’t you?

Yep, that’s right – it means

Sylvie Simmons is contacting every living Leonard Cohen fan
to solicit help writing her Leonard Cohen biography2

There are, one notes, worse ways to approach this task – or, for that matter, to sell books.

In any case, Cohen admirers, Sandra Millard (Topeka, Kansas), Darika Gupta (Mumbai, India), and Ethan Anderson (Ottawa, Ontario), should not be surprised to receive email from Sylvie today.

What Else Has Sylvie Simmons Done?

For starters, she appears to have interviewed every important rock and Americana musician at least once and written for every major magazine dedicated to pop music as well as  most of the newspapers that devote space to that topic. She shows up on radio, TV, and documentaries to lend her perspective to the proceedings. She has written biographies, including the impressive “Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful Of Gitanes”3  (which earned Leonard Cohen’s “An excellent piece of writing”), crafted a batch of interconnected short stories published as “Too Weird for Ziggy,” and contributed essays to all manner of anthologies.

Leonard Cohen fans may recognize her name from the byline on the 2,000-word liner notes for Leonard Cohen, Live At The Isle Of Wight, the 11 page article on Cohen she wrote for the Dec 2008 MOJO, her November 1997 MOJO review and interview, Leonard Cohen: More Best Of, or her November 2001 MOJO piece, Felonious Monk.

MOJODEC2008cover

Sylvie Simmons also openly admits to playing the ukulele.

Sylvie Simmons and Ronny Elliot at Yard Dog in Austin Texas (SXSW 2009)

Video from Wisegeorge

The Heck Of A Guy – Sylvie Simmons Q&A

Although she has worked as a journalist – in the field of rock music, no less – for decades, Sylvie Simmons turns out to be too gracious to turn down a request to answer a few questions.

It’s hardly her fault that I didn’t specify that her answers were to be responses to my questions.

Yes, like Leonard Cohen and other veteran interviewees, Sylvie Simmons fully and effusively  answers those proffered questions she favors but adeptly reroutes less preferable questions through a series of conversational leaps to arrive at  a desired talking point. And, her expertise in commenting on the question itself (or the person asking the question) rather than answering the question is such that she comes off as intriguing rather than coy. Unlike Cohen, however, she does not plead forgetfulness, amnesia, or an absence of nostalgia. Instead, she relies on the less exotic but equally effective “I’ll get back to you” ploy.

Nonetheless, her responses are interesting, entertaining, and perhaps even revealing.4

DrHGuy’s Queries and Sylvie Simmons’ Answers, Some Of Which Correlate

DrHGuy: You’ve written articles and essays about scores of rock musicians and books about Mötley Crüe, Neil Young, and Serge Gainsbourg (which Leonard Cohen praised). How did you come to decide to devote your efforts to a biography of Leonard Cohen instead of, say, Mick Jagger or Tom Waits?

Sylvie Simmons: Is there anyone else on whom you would have been willing to have expended the time and enthusiasm you have to this site?

Biography writing is, to a great degree, torture. The fact that I’ve chosen to inflict it on myself might lead to some follow-up questions on my tastes but the truth is that to write a biography, or to do it properly and not just go through press clippings and recycle what other people have said, involves immersing yourself in someone’s life to a degree that’s not entirely healthy and would probably get you locked up in any decent society. As a writer you want to tell a story (in fact my last published book was a collection of short stories), but as a biographer you not only want to do that but have the responsibility of telling your subject’s story. So you’d be well served to choose someone who’s life you’re willing to be immersed in and whose story you want to tell. (That’s why I’ve turned so many offers down.)

So okay, hands up: Jagger or Cohen?

See.

DrHGuy: Given that book-buying is on the decline, who do you see as the purchasing audience for a Cohen biography (other than hard core Cohen fans who will buy anything with the words “Leonard Cohen” on it)?

Sylvie Simmons: Ah that’s what the webbies always say: who buys books when it’s all out there for free? I’m a big fan of your site, but man cannot live by Net alone; you’ve got to have the occasional solids. MOJO, the UK magazine I write for and have written for since its inception, is still doing fine despite the doom-mongers prophecising the death of the physical press. And I’m assuming that, what with Leonard Cohen’s fans being such a literate bunch, there’ll be a few who’ll buy my book. I hope so. I’m hoping to make it worth their while. There’ll be a ton of new interviews, all sorts of good stuff.

DrHGuy: LeonardCohenFiles.com  lists 11 Leonard Cohen biographies, including Ira Nadel’s “Various Positions” (1996) and the just published “Hallelujah” by Tim Footman.  What will be unique about your book?

Sylvie Simmons: How many of these have been written by uke-playing, revered female rock writers? Next question!

DrHGuy: What is your favorite

  • Leonard Cohen song?
  • Leonard Cohen album?
  • Rock and Roll biography written by someone else?
  • Font?
  • Blog rife with Leonard Cohen-based hilarity, essays on broomcorn, and proposals for a county seal featuring Dick Tracy that is written by a psychiatrist?

Sylvie Simmons: What is it with boys and their Best Of and Favourite lists?

I’ll have to get back to you on this, although I can tell you off the top of my head that my favourite Leonard song to dance to is Avalanche, my favourite album is Songs from A Room, my favourite song to sing to myself on a long, lonely car journey when there’s nothing to listen to on the radio is ‘Stranger Song’, my favourite cover of a Leonard Cohen song is Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, and… is Dr Heckof really a psychiatrist? Can I afford you?5

ihop imac

Sylvie Simmons & Laptop - Testily awaiting service at Las Vegas IHOP

DrHGuy: You’re thought of as a major chronicler of the good old days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Are you a fan of any performers that might surprise your readers? Loudon Wainwright III? Ronnie Milsap? Lovin’ Spoonful? Little Jimmy Dickens? The Archies? …?

Sylvie Simmons: Hmm, I’m “thought of as a major chronicler of the good old days of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” am I? By whom? Name names!

It’s been at least 25 years since I wore spandex and a tube top – oh okay, but that’s in private and my lawyers have kept the pictures off the internet. These days I’ll just as often write about Americana, folk and country artists. One of the most incredible experiences I’ve had is spending five days with Johnny Cash at his house in Hendersonville, Tennessee, not that many weeks before his death, interviewing, writing a book with him for his box set ‘Unearthed’. I interviewed Billy Ray Cyrus fairly recently; while I was talking to him, sitting on the balcony of the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, he had a vision of an angel. This never happened when I toured with Black Sabbath or the Clash.

DrHGuy: Judging from the videos of interviews with Leonard Cohen,

… many women interviewers appear infatuated (men seem admiring or confused or both). Does Sylvie Simmons have a crush on Leonard Cohen?

Sylvie Simmons: In my experience, many men seem admiring or confused, period. But that’s fine with me, I’ve always loved men (and don’t ask for numbers). I definitely admire Leonard Cohen and I don’t believe I am confused, though by the time I’ve finished writing the biography this might well be the case. Leonard Cohen is, it must be said, is a very attractive man and, as I recall, very good company.

… my contention is that, beginning when he was interviewed as the wunderkind of Canadian poetry, Leonard Cohen has never given a bad interview, that he has effectively manipulated every interview for his own purposes, and that the first two points are not unrelated. Do you agree?

Sylvie Simmons: Grace and charm certainly have their uses, as does a brain and a way with words.

DrHGuy: Leonard Cohen calls you tonight to report that Javier Mas, who has played laud during the World Tour, is retiring before the next round of concerts. He then tells you he wants to replace Javier with you on the uke. Your response is … ?

Sylvie Simmons: Book the flight, tune my uke (not that they’re ever really in tune, that’s part of their beauty) and report to the Field Commander for duty. And pack my tape recorder and note book so I can get some stories for the book.

Meanwhile, I will sneakily try to elicit Javier Mas’ and the Webb Sisters’ phone numbers so I can take them on my uke tour, when I finally get around to recording my album. If Leonard would like to join as keyboard player-backing vocalist, I would have no objection at all.

DrHGuy: The majority of articles and books about Leonard Cohen are named after titles of his songs, and I see that publishers already refer to your bio as I’m Your Man. So, when the biography of rock and roll writer Sylvie Simmons comes out, what should its title be?

Sylvie Simmons: The only time I remember having my way on a book title was my Serge Gainsbourg biography. I called it ‘A Fistful Of Gitanes’ and the indie publishing house I signed with didn’t argue. My last book, the short story collection, I titled ‘Too Weird For Iggy’ but then Iggy Pop objected on the grounds that the book was, er, too weird for him. The major publishing house that released it had me change the name. In the end what’s important, I guess, is what’s inside the cover and that’s what’s keeping me up at nights right now and will be for the next year. So wish me luck.

fedoradivider

Credit Due Department: Photos of Sylvie Simmons are from Henry Wimmer’s iPhone and may or may not be included in the forthcoming “The Many Moods of Sylvie – Portraits Of A Diva.”

  1. While I’ve agreed to lend a hand, I am holding back the best stuff for my own gig as ghostwriter of the unauthorized autobiography of Leonard Cohen. []
  2. On the other hand, it could mean that there has been a tragic misunderstanding about the nature of this blog on the part of Sylvie Simmons such that, in fall 2011, a biography of Leonard Cohen will be published that indicates, with Heck Of A Guy as the footnoted reference, that the inspiration for “Suzanne” was actually Dolly Parton. That same volume will also include a photo of Leonard Cohen and Elvis Presley admiring Elvis’s Rolls-Royce, a meta-analysis of the hypothesis that Cohen’s apparent energy and stamina at age 74 was actually due to his use of stand-in lookalikes, and an exegesis on the significance of the Leonard Cohen On Ice concert and the Leonard Cohen Girls! Girls! Girls! Las Vegas Revue, all based on that same source. It will be, in a word, unique. []
  3. “Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful Of Gitanes” is a contender for coolest book title ever. []
  4. OK, it is highly possible that Sylvie Simmons, wily journalist that she is, charmed and seduced me. I can live with that. []
  5. For the record, I am indeed a psychiatrist, and, thanks to her big book advance and my policy of granting compassionate discounts to those afflicted with Ukulele Delusional Disorder (UDD), Ms Simmons can indeed afford me. []

3 Responses to Sylvie Simmons On Her Leonard Cohen Biography, The Uke, & All Sorts Of Good Stuff

  1. Great interview of the interviewer Heck!

    Sylvie seems engaging and fun and I look forward to the book. She was impressive on that uke too!

    • It was wonderful reading this, DrHGuy. You appear to be as creative with the questions as Sylvie is with her answers. I’ll be buying her book.

  2. Pingback: Winter Looks at Books « rockcritics.com