Writing a good biography is an extremely personal piece of detective work.
At least, that's Sylvie Simmons' take on it. The veteran music journalist, British expat, and Mission District resident spent three years sifting through the minutiae of revered Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen's life for her tireless biography I'm Your Man. She contacted 110 people, tracking down Cohen's friends and former lovers, his childhood rabbi, even monks he knew later in life.
"To spend that much time investigating someone so closely, it really is like stalking in a way," Simmons says. "It is a sort of intrusion of the laws of most civilized countries."
Simmons, all 5 or so feet of her, is at her kitchen table in her apartment in the Mission — which is sandwiched, to her liking, "between great Mexican restaurants and yuppies" — nursing a bowl-sized mug of English tea. Ukuleles, her new hobby, and vinyl records are scattered about her kitchen. She's tired. Following the release of I'm Your Man in September, she's been across America and Canada promoting the book, with a U.K. tour to follow. But she doesn't let this lethargy break her custom of hugging new people upon introduction, even other journalists.
Information about Cohen comes out of Simmons almost automatically. But over a two-hour conversation — which often drifts into war stories from her 35 years of music journalism — her unmistakable mischievousness becomes clear. "There was something in my DNA that seemed to be setting me up to be a music journalist," Simmons says, explaining her background. After a pause, she adds, "Except that I didn't have a penis."
Growing up in north London, Simmons loved to sing and tap dance, alphabetize her album collection, and memorize liner notes. But crippling stage fright led her away from performing music and toward writing about it. Her considered, mannered responses suggest remnants of leftover shyness. She grew up with brothers, which prepared her, somewhat, for future stints on the road with all-male rock bands. She began working in Europe as a music writer, but grew frustrated; she'd be getting assignments to cover pop idols like the Bay City Rollers and David Cassidy when she had eyes for Blondie and the Ramones.
On a whim in 1977, Simmons legged it to Los Angeles, arriving in town in the wake of Elvis' death. European record companies vouched for her to their American counterparts, via telex. She got lucky early, nabbing an interview with Steely Dan that made the cover of the now-defunct Sounds in the U.K. The assignments never stopped coming.
In 1977 music journalism was a different beast than today. There were fewer reporters around, and major newspapers would only cover big acts, Simmons says. Music magazines dominated the market, and musicians were accessible. It wasn't until well into the '80s and the advent of MTV that this would change.
L.A. bars such as the Roxy and the Whisky a Go Go would give journalists an open bar tab, and Simmons claims to have existed in those days largely off Kahlua, cream, and peanuts. Articles had to be sent via airmail or read out over the telephone, and she says that you could always blame the Postal Service if you were too drunk to make a deadline.
The invasion of British metal acts in America during the late 1970s saw Simmons perfectly placed to capitalize on increased interest at home. Just barely out of school, she went on the road with Black Sabbath. The metal musicians were sweethearts, she says. Black Sabbath even warned the band's roadies to leave her alone. "One or two offered me their bodies. But you'd decline. You knew where they'd been," she says. In the early '80s, to meet demand for content from home, Simmons adopted a blond alter ego, Laura Canyon, so she could write simultaneously for two magazines, Sounds and Kerrang!, as bylines ran then with author photos.
Simmons' experiences have armed her with a cache of stories that would slay at the average dinner party. Mick Jagger, she says, was shy and difficult in interviews, and always kept someone around to break them up if he got uncomfortable. Neil Young, after a dozen interviews to date, still claims to not remember who Simmons is. Lou Reed was unpleasant, and their last interview got so awkward that she burst out laughing.
Robert Plant, Simmons says, is the least corrupted celebrity she knows. The last time she interviewed him, in Los Angeles, he agreed to meet in broad daylight on the Santa Monica pier. They talked, mostly undisturbed, and finished the outing off with a game of skee-ball, which he won. He explained to her that if you keep a cool head, the fame thing could be turned on and off.
There's a certain glorious irresponsibility to the life of the globetrotting music journalist, moving, as Simmons has, between Los Angeles, London, France, and San Francisco, where she's been since 2004. She jokes about the profession self-deprecatingly. "No one says they want to be a rock chick when they ask you at school what you want to do as an adult," she says.
Granted, the freedom and the stories don't come with any financial security; after several well-received music books, a book of short stories, and 30-plus years of constant freelancing for outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the U.K. Guardian, Uncut, Kerrang!, and Mojo, she's moved up from living like an undergraduate student to the life of a postgraduate student, she says. Her apartment is comfortable, and furnished mostly with music: either recordings, books, or instruments.
Simmons' edge over her peers is attributable to old-fashioned journalism skills. Her longer profiles build up a vivid sense of their subject with carefully chosen character detail. Each of her sources for I'm Your Man received a transcript of their interview that she hand-typed herself, an exercise in openness that helped her win the cooperation of a large roster of Cohen's former lovers.
The undeniable care taken by Simmons in researching I'm Your Man means that as the story moves through the different phases of Cohen's life — poet, author, musician — he comes to the reader as much more than just another depressed, brilliant artist, self-medicating his torment from a string of doomed relationships with beautiful women. In Simmons' hands, Cohen's search for both spiritual and artistic release is ultimately relatable and uplifting, and never pretentious.
The biography racket became a source of national speculation soon after the release of I'm Your Man, thanks to the romantic dalliance between former CIA Director David Petraeus and his own biographer, Paula Broadwell. Simmons bristles as she relays the remarks of one Canadian reviewer who commented that they "couldn't find any evidence that she did a Petraeus."
The key difference between the methods of Simmons and Broadwell is critical distance. Broadwell was embedded with Petraeus; Simmons interviewed Cohen at length twice toward the end of her research. He was but one very important source from over 100. He certainly helped Simmons nail the three-dimensional man behind Leonard Cohen's charming façade. But then, as Simmons says, "sometimes the person you're covering isn't always the best source for information."