Sylvie Simmons: Leonard Cohen Revealed

by Guy Somerset / 18 May, 2013
'He’s loved women horizontally, yes, but vertically and every other angle in between.'

If somebody were to track down the copyright for 25 Lessons in Hypnotism: How to be an Expert Operator, they could make a mint. 25 Lessons is a book Sylvie Simmons found in Leonard Cohen’s archives while researching her biography of him, and she describes it as almost like “Leonard Cohen for dummies – how to become Leonard Cohen”.

Cohen, at 78, has put behind him the drugs (at one point he reeled off those he’d used and got to speed. “I said, ‘No. Leonard Cohen on speed?’ He said, ‘Darling’ – he says that to all women, it’s not just me – ‘you should hear how slow I am when I’m not on speed’”).

He’s done his five years in a mountain-top Buddhist monastery and his crippling depression has lifted.

“It wasn’t the blues. As he said to me, it was waking up every morning and thinking, ‘What can I do to get through today? What combination of women and song, wine, drug, will get me through this day?’ This was the kind of depression he had.”

As a result, he’s enjoying his late-career performing renaissance after years of finding concerts torture (“you see him backstage and he’s got a little grin like an eight-year-old boy”).

Who wouldn’t want to become Leonard Cohen – the epitome of intellectual and sartorial cool and the ultimate ladies’ man?

“If you spend any time with him, I swear you come out with a blush in your cheeks, smoking an imaginary cigarette without having touched him,” says Simmons. “He’s got this way with women. But he’s loved women horizontally, yes, but vertically and every other angle in between.”

Sure, most of the relationships (or encounters) haven’t lasted (So Long, Marianne began life as Come On, Marianne, but he broke up with her while completing it), but on the plus side: “He loves them, leaves them and then they get a great song.”

And the exes tend to feel no rancor. (His mother taught him “never to be cruel to women”.) Even actress Rebecca De Mornay, to whom he was engaged before throwing her over to go off to his monastic retreat. “Except she said it’s done wonders for her reputation that ‘People after you, they become monks.’”

It was with the help of 25 Lessons that Cohen set off down the road to a lifetime in thrall to the opposite sex and the opposite sex in thrall in return, utilising what he learned from it as a 13-year-old to hypnotise his well-to-do Montreal family’s maid and get her to take her clothes off so he could glory in her every curve before making love to her. With anyone else, it would sound creepy and put you in mind of the disgraced Jimmy Savile. With Cohen, it sounds impossibly sexy. An expert operator indeed – with Simmons suggesting the maid was probably under his sensual spell rather than the effect of any hypnosis.

It’s a spell Cohen seems to have worked to one degree or another on every woman he’s encountered, including Simmons, and many he hasn’t, including the session’s chair, Noelle McCarthy, and half the audience.

As for the hypnotism, it could well explain much of his general savoir faire. “Some of the things [25 Lessons] said just stunned me,” says Simmons. “It was ‘Speak very slowly and softly’, ‘Let your voice go deeper, deeper to just above a whisper’, ‘Do not hurry, you’ll fail if you hurry’ and things like that that basically he seemed to base his career on, although maybe he was drawn to hypnotism because that was his innate form to start with. Chicken and egg has always been one of those difficult things to decide.”

Softly spoken herself – although with a little-girl voice rather than Cohen’s gravelly growl – Simmons is a quick wit who doesn’t miss the opportunity for a good one-liner (when McCarthy talks about Cohen being on the Greek island of Hydra addressing the daisies, Simmons pipes up, “He was on Hydra but he was also on acid”) and is the perfect guide to Cohen: enchanted and admiring but not blind to the comedy in him. She also has the evocative turn of phrase that marks out the best music writers, saying of his songs “the metaphysical just seems to melt into reality with him and back out again” and that with Cohen “there are no straight lines, it’s a helix”.

He is, she says, “a very serious man”, but can also be funny. “It’s not like you’re sitting with the great professor or a rabbi, although I’m sure he can switch that on. But he’s actually very amusing. He’s kind of like if you imagine one of those courtly gentlemen from the old days mixed up with Benny Hill. He’s very cheeky.”

Modest and shy, he doesn’t swear often but when he does it’s “in a wonderful manner”.

“He also goes to McDonald’s every now and then” – where he buys a filet-o-fish he washes down with a good red wine.

As Simmons says, with Cohen “there were surprises around every corner”.




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