She’s Your (Wo)Man: Sylvie Simmons Reads/Sings/Saunters Thru I’M YOUR MAN at Americana Conference
With her valentine shaped and Tinkerbelle tuft of a ponytail, Sylvie Simmons may not seem like a death-defying truth seeker, but she is. I’m Your Man, her exhaustive bio of noted songpoet/ladies man Leonard Cohen, received the mainframe treatment by no less than Janet Maslin in the morning’s New York Times… and the light spright that’s all effervescence and a broad smile is as enthused to introduce Julie Christenson and Ron Cornelius as she is to talk about her work.
That exuberance for her subjects rubs off. To hear her read, to encourage others to tell their stories is to understand how even the most reticent enigmas open their memories and insights for her. It is how she coaxed out a portrait of the noted artist whose mystique and intense artistry that is both human and humane.
That same sensibility that informed 600 pages of reporting and lively writing is also present in Simmons’ reading. Pieces of chapters, songs, special guests. Each sparkles and draws you in, makes Cohen that much more beguiling, that much more intriguing, even as she draws back the curtain on the man who wrote “Suzanne,” “Bird On A Wire,” “Tower of Song,” “Joan of Arc” and “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
Her portrait of Leonard at 13 shows the germ of the man he would become. Hypnotizing a family maid, prompting her to undress – and falling into the abyss of female flesh, just the dazzling sort of target his life would be spent being drawn to. Drawn to and rejecting, the conundrum of his being – and the realm of which his best art was made.
For Cohen, who came of age and artistic reality, as a grown up man, an always slightly outside the arc of several realm, there is a cultural currency through his journey through the late 60s and 70s. Bob Dylan, Nashville during the back end of Countrypolitan when the creatives were their own wild scene, even the Andy Warhol Factory set are just some of the rooms Cohen passed through.
Passing through, but also being alive in the moment is what has made Cohen’s take on love, passion, poetry so interesting. Hearing both the book and her own observations fall from Simmons’ lips, the shared revelations are transfixing. Like Simmons herself, the unfurling narrative is enough to draw people into the story – whether they know or care about Cohen’s music, books or increasing Buddhist practice.
The juxtapostion of the German beauty/chanteuse Nico, an 18-year old Jackson Browne, the NYC scenester/Elektra A&R maven Danny Fields, downtown rock fixture Lou Reed and yes, Cohen is its own realm of how much creative lives foment amongst themselves. Mortal, venal, flawed, damaged, all the foibles of tragic beauty and dangerous creativity, Leonard Cohen’s world whirls and twists, tumbling into more enduring records, books, realms and reasons.
Loving told and even more loving re-told at the Legislative Terrace, Simmons offers an affection for a tragic genius. The more she tells, the more you wish to know. The story of Nico telling Cohen to go ahead, she was staying when they’d attended a Doors show together, the book of poems he opened and had the hair on the back of his head stand on end, the life becomes tactile more than heroic, stained by reality more than mythic projections.
That is the mark of good profiling: get the essence, scrap away the hubris and hopefully, the humanity that informs what’s celebrated emerges. For Simmons, who has also profiled noted ladies man Serhe Gainsborough, she understands the quixotic balance of ego and pain, desire and doubt.
To hear her talk is to be drawn in. To read her prose is to see compassionate honesty: the true realms and reasons, not just the scandalous and salacious. But with enough urchin to delight in the tale of pot grown while the band is on touerr in the banks of a Tennessee creekbed – only to return to find a lethally poisonous cottonmouth snake in residence – the pleasure on what was emerges.
In that, too, Simmons transforms the normally painful “author appearance” into a cavalcade of reading, reminiscence, song and special guests stars. Rather than a tenple of “and then I wrote…,” she weaves yet another spell – and that is the best we can hope for from our tellers of tales.