I started reading about music when I was 10. That’s about when I started really obsessively listening to music too – buying tapes and reading music magazines. Then it was to bios – I read about The Stones and The Beatles and some of it went over my head but that was okay, I would re-read all that stuff later. And then again for good measure. By the time I was 13 I was buying several music mags a month, borrowing some too. And I always had my nose in a music book. I didn’t stop reading novels but I really went for the music books. It was all men too. I didn’t – for a while – notice any of the names. Later I would make a list and tick off Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus and Richard Meltzer, buy collections of their work, study up on who they were, follow some of their tips but before there were names to follow I noticed that there was hardly ever a female name.
And then I spied the name Sylvie Simmons. I don’t know if that name stuck out because it’s the double ‘S’ – like Simon Sweetman. I doubt it was that, but I certainly noticed that name before I noticed Holly George-Warren or Lisa Robinson or any of the others. It probably helped that I had moved on from Santana and The Beatles and all the stuff my parents had loved, well not moved on entirely, but I had moved on over via Deep Purple and Zeppelin and Sabbath to Def Leppard and Ratt and Guns N’ Roses and Bon Jovi and Poison and some of the metal-related acts of the day. Sylvie was writing metal. She could also write country – as I’d later find out. And almost anything else too. But I discovered her first for all that hard rock/metal stuff. Sounds and Kerrang! and Creem and Rolling Stone – I would find what I could, read whatever I could find.
A few years on I read her book about Neil Young. Then her book of short stories – Too Weird For Ziggy – and her bio of Serge Gainsbourg. An interview with Lou Reed that Simmons wrote for Mojo about a decade ago is still one of my all-time favourite pieces of music journalism.
I admired Sylvie Simmons for her way with the word. And the passion is there – the knowledge too. There’s humour too. In her work. I like that.
Somewhere in and around reading all of her stuff, or as much as I could find, I had started to write about music myself. A few columns here, some reviews and then to blogging. Eventually a book myself. Still reading as many great music writers as I can – still getting through music magazines most months and of course reading online. And then I hear that Sylvie Simmons is writing a biography of Leonard Cohen. Perfect subject – and a great writer to tackle it. There have been plenty of Cohen bios. I had read a few already, hadn’t ever read a good one.
I handed in the first draft of my book (On Song – it’s dirt cheap in the Warehouse now, nothing lasts forever). I took a pay cut and changed my working hours so that I could spent time with my infant son. We took a holiday to Las Vegas and San Francisco. While on holiday I tentatively sent an email to Sylvie Simmons. I knew she was California-based, I didn’t expect I’d hear back from her straight away – I was thinking I could maybe interview her one day. Over the phone. I’d have a few extra hours at home, etc. Instead I get an email back with a phone number. You’re in America now? You’re in San Fran? Call me. Come for a cup of tea. Five minutes later I’m on the phone with the person who put Lou Reed in his place in print. Five minutes later I’m talking to the person who introduced me to the world of Serge Gainsbourg. Five minutes later I’m talking to one of my writing heroes. An author I admire. She’s just cleared her schedule to fit me in for a cup of tea.
I cab over to her place. We have a chat. She’s still working on her Cohen book at that time but clears a couple of hours and answers any question I have. I babble on about who she has and hasn’t met. I talk about some of my favourite interviews she’s done. I ask about her book. She asks about mine – even offers me transcripts of interviews she’d done with Neil Finn in his Crowded House days. She goes to a filing cabinet that’s taller than her (okay, that’s not exactly that hard) and finds amid thousands and thousands of words a handful of pages about the brothers Finn. She makes photocopies. Gives them to me. Gives me her blessing. And after a couple of songs on the uke, a quick strum of her guitar and a damning assessment of Paul McCartney’s son’s first gig she sends me off back to the holiday home. I disappear down a graffiti-filled alleyway listening to The Velvet Underground’s Loaded. My mind is buzzing. They say never meet your heroes – I’ve just had a cup of tea with mine. She was lovely. She gave me some of her work!
A year later, almost to the day, I’m on stage interviewing Sylvie. Her Cohen book is a smash – she’s on an extended book tour, going around the world playing songs, chatting to audiences, signing copies. Enjoying the 15 minutes – after years and years of hard work. Later that night she will sign my copies of Too Weird For Ziggy and I’m Your Man. She will write “To S.S. from S.S.”
The next day she’ll get the times wrong on her flights and end up needing a place to crash. She’ll sit in our lounge, our new friend. Sharing wine and telling stories of Suzanne Vega and Johnny Winter. And we’re just naming names to test really. But it’s never any sort of challenge. She’ll even sit with our cat named Sylvie. We will miss that photo-op. Then figure that some things are better off without the cellphone snaphot.
They say never meet your heroes. I say fuck that. Meet them if you can. They might become your Facebook friend. They might exchange emails, share ideas and stories. Invite you in for a cuppa, crash the night.
A few days after hosting Sylvie in Wellington we ended up in Sydney at the same time. We go to see Kraftwerk perform their Autobahn show. I hooked Sylvie up with a ticket. I’m thinking it’s the least I could do. The lights go down; we put on our 3D glasses. The audience is reading and waiting. Sylvie Simmons turns to me and says – “I might just write some notes on this, if that’s alright. It’s the sort of nerdy thing I like to do”. And if there was ever a better way to watch a Kraftwerk show than sitting next to a Mojo scribe and Leonard Cohen biographer, a new friend and writing hero then I’m sorry but I just couldn’t believe you.
Authors I Admire started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page