Unmediated: Alan Light and Sylvie Simmons Converse on the Unlikely Yet Enduring Iconhood of Leonard Cohen...
Unmediated is a new feature here at The Daily Swarm where we take two fascinating eminences in the music world who share something in common, and then force them to communicate via the magic of social media. True to the title, this conversation is unmediated by the presence of a journalistic moderator, and is allowed to veer unmoored into topics however esoteric, disparate, and over extensive as the subjects care to be.
For the inaugural column, we’ve chosen two figures bound together by destiny – both acclaimed authors who have chosen the same unique and individual subject, and approached him with distinctly different strategies. Sylvie Simmons is one of the U.K.'s most cherished voices in music writing, from her sprawling, intensive features in MOJO to books like the first-ever book on Mötley Crüe (sorry, Neil) to her gripping biography of Serge Gainsbourg. Nothing previous in Simmons’ career, however, prepared for the masterwork she published in late 2012. Now based in San Francisco, Simmons spent many years crafting I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen – one of the most trenchant music biographies you’ll ever read. In it, Simmons details the rise, fall, and rise of one of rock’s most enduringly iconic songwriters, scissoring through his infamous mythologies with incredible research and insights.
Strangely, in the same year as Simmons put out her tome, Alan Light, a revered veteran of American music journalism, put out his own take on the Leonard Cohen legend – but from a decidedly different tack. In The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah, Light drew upon critical and investigative skills he’d honed during his stints as the top editor of Vibe and SPIN and an illustrious stint at Rolling Stone to explore the impact of just one song: Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In this idiosyncratically specific exegesis, Light draws out compellingly what transformed this once-unheralded song into perhaps the most ubiquitous standard of recent times, from Cohen’s original to versions alternately rendered by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Bon Jovi, and seemingly every contestant on singing-competition shows. In the process, it becomes an essential view into not just Cohen’s composition, but the various forces of culture, pop and otherwise, that rocketed this song into the collective consciousness in slow motion.
Taken together, these two books become indispensably complementary; reading both of them one after the other, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve finally pieced together the elusive soul of Leonard Cohen’s unlikely ascent into posterity. So, naturally, we wanted to see what happened when we put these authorities together in unloosed conversation via Facebook’s chat function. The oh-so-lightly edited results follow:
Sylvie Simmons: Hello from rainy San Francisco. It’s been weeks since I saw you at that event at Housing Works that you hosted. I was just thinking of that the other day, and Suzanne Vega’s story about Leonard’s hypnotism skills.
Alan Light: Yes, that was a good story – that, and the way that he was able to conjure women in bikinis while reading to her poolside in L.A.
Sylvie Simmons: Just by the sound of his voice, they rose from their sunbeds like Lazarus and walked towards him
Alan Light: It’s always funny for me to hear the “Leonard-as-Lothario” stories since, as you know, my dad was a classmate of Leonard’s in college at McGill University, so I always have that feeling of “Oh, come on – I know what a Jewish Montrealer of that age is really like.”
Sylvie Simmons: Aha. So, as a public service to women who write Leonard Cohen biographies and therefore get to spend time in Montreal, are you going to reveal what that is?
Alan Light: Well, I love my father very much, but it’s hard to envision him in the tormented, Hamlet-like persona we have sometimes heard from Leonard Cohen. The great thing is that my dad is kind of obsessed with his summer camp experience, and the one thing he always wanted to know was which camp Leonard went to – which you answered in your book. In a footnote, you also included that Leonard actually went to my dad’s camp one summer and was bored stiff there!
Sylvie Simmons: The summer camp stories were a delight to me, too. Leonard actually enjoyed summer camp – it was his best friend Mort Rosengarten who found it boring, and still, all these decades on, seemed to resent that Leonard’s mother let him go to a more adventurous camp. These things are very exotic for someone from England, where summer camp was where you went with your parents, not to get away from them.
Alan Light: I loved reading that kind of stuff in your book. You think of Dylan’s quote to the effect of, if you’re really a poet, a poet isn’t someone who takes out the garbage, or goes to the grocery store, or whatever his words were. Still, it’s good to see the regular side of Cohen’s experiences – economically privileged though they were – before the words and music took over. When you’re with Leonard, are you aware of his different personae (the lady killer, the tortured poet), or do you think we have a confused sense of all that?
Sylvie Simmons: Something that kept coming up during the year I spent researching my book was the word “mask.” Just before he went on his first-ever tour, he asked Mort, who was a sculptor, to make him a mask to wear onstage – a mask of himself. Lots going on there… When you’re with him offstage, the person you see is pretty much as you’ll have seen him onstage during these last two tours. He wears a suit, he’s gracious and generous, and there’s a twinkle in his eye. He’ll even dance for you. Have met him over the years as a journalist? Did you meet with him at all for your book?
Alan Light: I have only met Leonard briefly once, and spoken to him on the phone once – nothing extensive. I assumed that he wouldn’t talk to me for my book, but I wanted to get his blessing and support – which, via his manager, he quickly gave. In the end, I didn’t really think it was that crucial that I speak to him. Given the aura around “Hallelujah” at this point, even if he told me “I thought of that line while brushing my teeth,” how would it really add to the legacy? It seems like his stories about writing “Hallelujah” kind of settled into a few set pieces – how long it took, how tortured he was; that seems to be what he has to say. As to the afterlife popularity/phenomenon of the song, my sense is that he’s kind of bemused by it, and really looks at it as something that doesn’t have much to do with him. Does that seem right to you?
Sylvie Simmons: Absolutely. He said doesn’t like talking about individual songs in any depth, anyway; it messes with the magic. I’d interviewed Leonard on the phone in the past – he’s one of those artists that gives good phone – and finally met him in London in 2001, when he was promoting Ten New Songs, his first album since coming down from the mountain. The interview ended up continuing over three days and with a couple of follow-up emails (you know those long MOJO pieces!). It was in one of them he told me his hero was Muhammad Ali – takes a lickin’, keeps on tickin’.
Alan Light: Ah, for the days of the three-day interviews The more I thought about it, the more I felt that even if he was someone who actually did interviews, I would still understand if he didn’t want to talk about this. But it was such a fun story to tell – yes, fun, and never fully turned into the torture of, y’know, writing a book – because it wasn’t really a creation story at all. I felt that it was a book that didn’t have to go on to the “Making Of/Classic Album” shelf because the story really is what happened 10, 15, 20 years later.
Sylvie Simmons: It’s a wonderful story. When I was writing my book and got to the part on “Hallelujah,” I realized that the story of the song had a life of its own – I found I was writing page upon page about it. I had to cut it down, but it’s still a lengthy passage. I was so pleased when our mutual agent told us you were writing a whole book about it.
Alan Light: Ha! And of course, when I got your book, I breathlessly went to the index to see how much of the “Hallelujah” story you got into. I was curious, though – given that, as I mentioned, it seems like when Leonard has spoken about the song, he kind of falls into similar stories, was it a challenge to get him to break from familiar patterns and accounts? Or because he speaks so infrequently, did it feel like he was telling you things that were fresh?
Sylvie Simmons: I know what you mean. Which is why, before I interviewed Leonard for the book, I interviewed more than a hundred other people, from every strand of his life – his rabbis and fellow monks, musicians and producers, editors, lovers, etc. – and did the usual due diligence in checking their stories. At the very end, armed with all this information, I had not just a good idea of his life, but of what it was specifically that I needed from my conversations with him. I remember these occasions where I’d be sitting with him in his kitchen, Leonard at the stove cooking rustling up something or other to eat (he seemed determined not to let his biographer die of starvation on his watch) where I’d feel like Detective Simmons: “What were you doing on the night of April 1st 1968?” And when he’d come up with a reply, I’d be like, “Now, now, I have evidence you were in Studio B at Columbia, recording a song that was then titled “Come On, Marianne,” and so on So it was a very different experience from a journalist interview with him, where your requirements are somewhat different.
Alan Light: I absolutely get that – I mean, the guy is 78 years old and has been a public figure since the early ’60s (or, per my dad, at least a semi-public figure since his days as a folksinger and president of his fraternity in college ). It’s understandable if he has ways that he recalls his history. It reminds me of how I approached my work on Gregg Allman’s memoir last year: the more targeted and specific I could come to a session, the better the results. One really amazing thing about talking to all these different people who sang “Hallelujah” was how much thought every single one of them had given their performance. You expect a certain level from Bono or Rufus Wainwright or whoever, but even the “American Idol”/“X Factor” singers had strong ideas about the song that they were eager to discuss; it really felt like not one person approached it blithely or casually.
Sylvie Simmons: That’s really interesting, that no one at all approached Leonard’s song casually. That’s something that extends beyond his work and into the person. I noticed that several people I’d speak to, who’d worked closely or spent time with Leonard for long periods, would adopt a tone of voice and a certain phraseology when talking about him.
Alan Light: It was really striking, actually. As you say, those around him certainly take him and his work very seriously, but I really did find that everyone who tackled the song, no matter what the context, had a strong sense that they were diving into waters that were deep and significant. Adam Sandler notwithstanding. So, did you do all your own fact checking on that kind of precision date/studio/etc. stuff? One great thing we did with the Gregg Allman book was to hire the very lovely guy who runs the Allman Brothers fanzine to look over all of that stuff; that way, we could really finesse it into accuracy without having to tear it all up at the very end.
Sylvie Simmons: I did most of the research and fact-checking myself, but – and something similar happened when I wrote my book on Serge Gainsbourg – along the way you acquire a kind of unofficial team of experts who offer their services.
Alan Light: It’s admirable of you. Maybe I’m hypersensitive to it since I started my career as a fact checker, but keeping the dates and details straight of however many dozen versions of “Hallelujah” I had to deal with, there’s no way could I have gotten it right without some assistance. So, I have to ask, since everyone asks me: Why do you think that of all the great Leonard songs, “Hallelujah” is the one that connected the way that it has?
Sylvie Simmons: Ah, see, it’s much easier when you write a comprehensive biography. They just ask you, “Why Leonard Cohen?” And the follow-up question, post-Petraeus, is “Did you…?” After I hit reply with this, I’ll answer your “Hallelujah” question as briefly as I can manage on a rainy afternoon…
Alan Light: “Post-Petraeus”: nice reference!
Sylvie Simmons: So, what made “Hallelujah” work? The one-word chorus certainly helped, particularly when that word automatically promotes an instant and often deep response in a great many people. For many, it’s an all-purpose ecumenical hymn, yet one with so many interpretations.
Alan Light: Fair enough. My two quick answers: that chorus and its sense of powerful but non-specific spirituality obviously feed a great hunger in people’s lives. And then there’s the great strength in Leonard’s writing that no one ever talks about: melody. That irresistible and elemental combination of notes connects with listeners well before the complicated imagery of the verses. It’s so easy to get hung up on words when you’re talking about this guy, but melody is how everyone first responds to any song. You will appreciate that the solo instrumental version by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro was the “Hallelujah” I probably returned to most often, if only to clear my head and remember what was most important here…
Sylvie Simmons: Ah, Jake – the man who has ruined it for us mortals who also play ukulele. The Jeff Buckley version was always my favorite; I’ve upset a few Leonard Cohen fans by saying that I prefer his version to the original. Buckley understood the strength of the melody. He sang it like he was in cathedral. Anyways, you’re right that music critics tend to focus more on Leonard’s words than on his melodies – being in the word business, that’s one of the hazards; also Leonard having been a published poet before he moved into music, his words do invite closer-than-average attention. It was interesting, in talking to Leonard, that he seemed to feel there was no difference between word and song. When he first read Lorca’s poetry at age fifteen, for example, what went through his mind was the music of the synagogue. Of course I did talk about his melodies in the biography, and that space in the melodies that seems to give other singers permission to sing them.
Alan Light: Of course you did, because you know what matters.
Sylvie Simmons: I forgot to mention that one of the great unexpected delights of writing this book was discovering that Leonard, as a child, had been a ukulele player. Over to you for the last word on the greatest unexpected delight from writing your book.
Alan Light: Oh, you must have exploded when you heard that he played your instrument! As for the greatest pleasure, without question it was talking to the real people, the civilians, who have used “Hallelujah” in weddings/funerals/religious services – who have turned to this song at the most critical and memorable moments in their lives. It’s easy for the likes of you and me to get cynical and feel like music doesn’t mean what it used to – that it’s gotten so commodified and isn’t really important anymore. But then you hear what this one song really means to people and how they needed it at these times, and you remember that music still does something that nothing else in our culture can do: when you need a feeling, a certain emotion for a certain event, a song can deliver things that nothing else can. It’s really and truly gratifying to see that, after all the years we have put into thinking and talking and worrying and rejoicing about this nonsense.