A pioneer whose four-decade career shuffled her through the some of the greatest ages of rock ’n’ roll, Sylvie Simmons’ voice has become a staple of rock journalism.
In the late 1970s, Simmons moved from her native London to Los Angeles, where she acted as a correspondent for several print publications. In a male-dominated profession, she carved out her own legacy interviewing some of the biggest names in music in the last century.
Her interviews with Michael Jackson, Stevie Nicks, AC/DC, Mick Jagger, Motorhead's Lemmy, Johnny Rotten, Steely Dan, Black Sabbath, The Clash, Johnny Cash and others have appeared in a number of publications. She’s written mostly for the U.K.-based MOJO, but has appeared in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The Times, Harp and Blender as well.
After famed singer/songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen returned to public life following a stint as a monk, Simmons interviewed him for a piece on his latest album. The interview sparked an idea for a book, and Simmons published the definitive Cohen biography, “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen,” in 2012.
In lieu of a traditional book tour, Simmons embarked on an unorthodox tour to bookstores, record stores, libraries and literary festivals around the world where she shares stories and performs Cohen songs on the ukulele. In her 50s, she garnered a record deal for her original ukulele tunes, and she is now co-writing the biography of Blondie’s Debbie Harry.
Simmons will be in the Savannah area for a talk, Q&A and performance March 30 at The Book Lady Bookstore, as well as a concert with Jim White on April 5 at Bluffton's The Roasting Room Lounge, which kicks off the pair's East Coast mini-tour.
In an interview with Do Savannah, Simmons talked about being a music nerd, embracing the journalism gene and the exhaustion of living in Leonard Cohen's mind while crafting his biography.
What initially sparked your interest in rock journalism?
Simmons: I wish I had a magical answer. People who write about rock have to put up with this stereotype their whole lives that they were all failed musicians; unfortunately, I was one of those failed musicians.
I kind of failed myself early on. In my teens — I am not quite sure what age, it might have been 17 — I got on stage with a band of boys singing a Joni Mitchell song. I just froze. I couldn’t deal with the stage fright. Immediately, instead of getting back on stage, I realized I wasn’t the new Joni Mitchell. I was probably Minnie Mouse. I became a rock writer. It was one of those decisions.
I was always obsessed with music and rock music. Even from when I was a tiny kid, I would save up any pocket money and buy Beatles singles. I was that person who would memorize liner notes and put my singles in alphabetical order. I guess, really, I had the rock journalist gene in me. It was kind of a strange time to do it, because there weren’t many women doing it back then. Certainly not young girls.
Did you face challenges and push back when you got into it because you were a female?
Simmons: At the beginning — it was only early on. In England, where I am from (I was born and raised in London), there were every week four different rock weeklies that came out. They used to call them the inkies, because the ink would rub off on your hand when you read them, it was such a cheap paper. No color, all black and white. I devoured as many of those magazines that I could either steal, borrow or read in the news agencies. I got in touch with all of them, presenting myself as the future of rock ’n’ roll writers. They either said no way, or we’ve got our girl.
I moved out to L.A. fairly early on in 1977. For some reason out there, it became a lot easier. I didn’t get as much push back, because I had my own kingdom, I guess. I offered myself as a correspondent back when there wasn’t really anything to correspond with. You had to call in your articles over the phone or put them in the post. There weren’t even faxes.
It sounds like you were one of the original music nerds. People who just devour not only the music, but the stories behind the music, right?
Simmons: I did! And I was also a person who believed what I read in the papers in the beginning. I read all of the things on the Beatles. I could probably still tell you John Lennon’s collar size. That’s kind of "teen magazine" — where you get all the details of their favorite color, so you wear it the rest of your life hoping to run into John Lennon.
It was a real obsession. I think a lot of people, at least back in that era, got obsessed because there wasn’t an awful lot going on in the '60s in the U.K. If you got into music, you got into music. There wasn’t all the distractions of the different apps you can get these days to keep you occupied.
I was definitely a nerd. I've still got a bit of that. At a certain turn, someone will press a button, I’ll start going into history of krautrock or something.
Were you drawn to literature as well as music? With any kind of journalism, I think there’s a sense of wanting to write the stories really well.
Simmons: I think so. In the beginning, there’s that sort of juvenile side where you absorb all of the rock writers you’ve ever read, which were mostly men. You kind of absorb that style of it and then you start getting confident. I don’t even know when that comes in. I think it’s just sheer volume of writing.
When I was living in L.A., I would correspond for a U.K. magazine, I wrote for an American magazine, a Japanese and German. And so you’re constantly writing and in the end, you forget you’re meant to be sounding like some cool guy who wants to be Lester Bangs, or in my country Nick Kent, and you sort of have your own voice that comes into it.
As you sat down with all of these rock stars over the years, what was your approach? It seems like you were able to get a lot out of them that others weren’t.
Simmons: I have ways! (Laughs). In the beginning, it sounds stupid, I didn’t really think that much about being a girl. I was brought up with brothers, I didn’t have any sisters, so I was used to being in a boys' club. I went to a girls' school and it tortured me for a while. Maybe that pushed me into the boys' club very quickly.
I really didn’t think about it too much. There were the occasional things that now would come under the Me Too side. But, back then, it was just boys behaving badly. You got used to telling them, “I have the last word, do you really want me to say what you’re up to and write a very unpleasant description of what you’re showing me now?” After a little while, after you’ve been doing it for a year, it kind of dies down because they know you’re a journalist and you are getting into print. They know they’ll look silly if they play up.
I think — and I don’t know if it’s true because I’ve never been a man journalist — but some of the rock artists that I spoke to did open up more. There was an element of trust there. In the era that I started in the late '70s, in a way the journalist had a sort of rock star air themselves. It was an era before MTV came in, so the English and American music press would break bands. For example, Elvis Costello and Elton John were both people who were put on the covers of British magazines before they had a record deal.
There was a different element between journalists and musicians back then. There was a lot of competition going on between the male writers and male artists. There were a few noses punched. I remember the incident when Guns N’ Roses' Axl Rose walked into the offices of one of the English rock press and peed on the desk. It was kind of a territorial thing. That would be difficult for a woman to do.
I think part of rock journalism is that you just fall in love with music.
Simmons: Yes. I am still in love with it.
Yeah, you’re a fan, too. So what was your approach to keeping those things separate, because I am sure you were a fan of the artists you wrote about, too?
Simmons: Oh, yeah. In the beginning, I had to almost take a very deep breath. If I had known about meditation then, I would have sat down cross-legged for five minutes.
You get put into a room with people whose music you grew up on. I think the first [person] who answered that description was maybe, Rod Stewart. You got into a room with these people and part of you wants to say, “Oh my God, that song you wrote meant so much to me.”
Then you realize that you’re going in with different agendas. Partly, it’s what I want to find out. Partly, it’s the magazine or publication you’re working for wants to find out. Then it’s what other people might want to know. So you have that put together with what they’re trying to tell you. Somehow that conversation turns into something that gives some insight into the person. That’s always what I go for, trying to get on the inside.
I think it helps to be a fan. You formulate questions that are more important or that maybe the other fans will want to hear about, too, right?
Simmons: I think that was part of it. In the beginning, I used to be super prepared. You couldn’t do your homework so easily back then, because there wasn’t an internet. If you had a big artist to talk to, if you didn’t know them already, you were probably in trouble. You get the press release and all the things the person wants to talk about and from there you try to formulate what fascinates you about it. Most of the time, you don’t really get consulted. You have [notes] there as a prop in the beginning and if everything falls apart, you can consult your paper and ask them something. But generally, something would turn into a little conversation and take it into a area that answers all of your questions.
What were some of the bigger lessons you learned during your career?
Simmons: I guess I am still learning them. The main thing was always homework. As much as possible. Knowing the basics. I remember going to a press conference once with Eric Clapton up there. One woman shouted out, "What instrument do you play?" The people who have been put on the beat to talk to someone and they have no idea. Or, it could have been one of those crazy things they threw out there to see how angry he could get. I think the homework thing is so that you feel confident you can have this conversation and it will go somewhere. Being aware of what you’re writing for, what the brief of that story is.
When did you transition into writing biographies?
Simmons: The biography thing is interesting. There are journalists who have written more than I have. I was working nonstop in journalism, that I didn’t have time. I was doing these mini-bios. I think the reason to write a biography is if you’re in love and sort of fascinated with your subject and there’s been no books on them that you particularly like, if you haven’t been able to unpeel the onion or find the mystery out in anything that you’ve read. For example, I love Bob Dylan, but there are so many good books on Bob Dylan, I don’t think I’d write a book on him.
With Serge Gainsbourg, he didn’t have a British biography, so I thought I better do that one. Leonard Cohen was a lifelong love of mine, as far as music is concerned. I did an interview with him in England after he came down from the mountain after being a monk for five years. He did an album called “10 New Songs.” This was in 2001. I was doing an interview with him for the British magazine MOJO, which had these long 12,000-word pieces.
We did the interview over three days. At the end of it, sort of figuring that I had gotten the best interview with Leonard Cohen, had a little smile on my face. Then I realized that he had pulled the wool over my eyes like with everybody else by using such exquisite words, managing like a politician to mask anything that was deeper. I always said I was going to write the book on him. Finally I knuckled down and was happy that he gave me his support in it.
Was it intimidating talking to him?
Simmons: No. Not really. By the time I had spoken to him, I had been doing this for years. That shyness that had stopped me from being on the stage had gone away. He knows why I had come to speak with him. It’s not like you’re meeting someone at a party that you haven’t met and interrogating them. It’s a kind of special dance that someone who has the celebrity that someone like Cohen had, knows all of the steps. It’s what’s expected. He’ll do a little dance with you.
With the biography it was a much deeper project. It took up my mind for a long time. I was living in Leonard Cohen’s mind for a good long time. I told him, he wore me out, living in his head. He gave his little smile and said, "I know darling." It was a labor of love to do that project and certainly the one that I am most proud of.