A cup of tea with Sylvie Simmons

Last updated 11:57 18/07/2012

One of my highlights of being in San Francisco for a week earlier this year - and there were many - see here and here for just two of the music-related ones - was getting to meet one of my writing heroes.

I had a cup of tea and a chat with Sylvie Simmons.

She's interviewed every musician you can imagine - written short biographies of Neil Young and also Serge Gainsbourg and a book of short stories, Too Weird For Ziggy.

Sylvie SimmonsShe is one of my favourite writers.

In the end it was as easy as emailing her, suggesting an interview at some point. I was thinking it could be over the phone - down the track sometime. Then I find she's in the same city as I am or rather I'm in the same city as her temporarily; she's lived in San Fran for a few years now. A day later I'm on the phone having a friendly chat. Later that afternoon I've got a giant mug of tea and I'm hearing all about the Leonard Cohen biography that she's been working on ("been consumed by") for the past three years.

I'm sure it will be superb. The timing is right and Simmons is a brilliant writer. Add to that the fact that she's managed to get people on the record who haven't gone on tape about ol' Laughing Len before. The 600-page tome drops in September. I'm sure it'll be the must-read/must-have music bio of 2012.

So we talked about that. We talked about her interview with Lou Reed - one of my favourite pieces; he was such a prick, she handles it so well, hangs him by his own words, shows him up with the little details, makes smart observations.

We talked about Blog on the Tracks and the book that I've just finished writing.

We talked about how, as a teenager, new to writing, in love with music, she was on the tour bus with Black Sabbath (and a then relatively unknown Van Halen). She smiles cheekily as she remembers laughing off advances. David Lee Roth was smitten; he lists her as a character in his autobiography.

One time, more recently, Van Morrison flew her out to speak to him (he'd admired her Gainsbourg bio). He had her in "the crummy hotel" across the road from "the flash one" where he was taking his time to ready himself to speak to her. Expenses had been paid, Simmons had been told to be ready - for whenever he felt ready. She sat in a hotel room for four days, waiting. He wasn't ready. She was sent home. On the way to the airport the shuttle was in a collision. She ended up in hospital. Van's manager rang her some time after, requesting they set up another time to chat. Van's been told when he's in San Fran he can make the time to meet her at her place. He might even get offered a giant mug of tea.

So many stories.

Simmons has a Wellington Ukulele Orchestra T-shirt. Her friend Howe Gelb picked one up for her one time when he was in New Zealand. She's a big ukulele fan. She plays Leonard Cohen songs on the uke - billed as Sylvie Plays Lenny. Next thing we're off to see her collection of instruments - there's a cello in the room where we've been sitting supping tea. But down the hall and into a dedicated music room there are a handful of ukuleles. She plucks away at one for a bit.

And then it's into the office where she has a filing cabinet that's taller than her. It has transcripts of all of her interviews. Typed up, there for reference.

So many stories.

She fires up the computer and plays me one of her songs. It's good. But of course I was going to say that. I'm sitting listening to her song thinking about how, in the future, when I read her words in Mojo I'll be thinking back to this time - me perched on a wee step-ladder in her office. Two shelves of Leonard Cohen DVDs, books and CDs just above my ear. I'm already imagining that moment to recall as it is happening.

Strangely it wasn't all that weird just walking in and visiting someone I'd never met before; someone I know only through her words. It felt pretty close to normal. Even if I was silently reminding myself the whole time to not tell her that we named our cat Sylvie. (Because that would be weird, right?)

Every time Sylvie Simmons talks about Leonard Cohen there's a glint in her eye, there's the feeling that a huge project is so very near completion - a labour of love. So, even with some weariness - there's such a sparkle and it shines through. Every time.

She had wanted to do a Tom Waits biography. That might happen next. I certainly hope so.

So after nearly a couple of hours of sharing stories it was time to go. To head out into San Francisco and the warm spring sun. And to find my way back to where I was staying.

The Velvet Underground's Loaded playing on my iPod. Bah-ba-ba-bah who loves the sun?

I'd just met one of my writing heroes. One of the best music writers I've read - a woman who stood up to the challenge of taking on (and taking down) Lou Reed and managed the task so eloquently; with dignity intact.

I can't wait for the Leonard Cohen book. And whatever comes next from Sylvie Simmons. She'd do a great job on a Tom Waits book.

Hopefully, nearer the release of the book, I'll bring you a full interview with her. I just wanted to share this story - it was a special day for me. One of the highlights of my trip to America. One of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. And it was so easy. An email, a phone call, a taxi-ride. And there I was. And there she was. She was lovely. Very kind, friendly, interesting - very giving of her time and with her stories. Such a treat.

So have you met one of your musical heroes? And did it go as you hoped?

Postscript: This is the 1300th post in the life of Blog on the Tracks. So - as always - I thank you all for reading. I did not imagine making it to 1300 posts. But that's what happens when you have no exit-strategy...

Post a comment
Jonny   #1   12:22 pm Jul 18 2012

She's marriage material. Nice write-up.

Gomer   #2   03:21 pm Jul 18 2012

I think she writes in MOJO magazine regularly also.

Jillyfran   #3   04:45 pm Jul 18 2012

Great read, thank you Simon

Dear Sylvie   #4   06:04 pm Jul 18 2012

Dear Sylvie, on behalf of all women in New Zealand I apologise for the time you spent talking to this man. I know he will send you the link to this blog because he has that sort of ego. But you need to know he once wrote a blog called 'Men listen to guitars, women listen to Venus', it is here http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/blogs/blog-on-the-tracks/4829834/Men-listen-to-guitars-women-listen-to-Venus. While he was slobbering all over you in it, as I imagine he was while supping tea and draining all of the life force from you in real life, you need to know that he does not represent music writers in NZ. He is simply a misogynistic man. Please accept my apologies that he bothered you. At least you were only bothered by his opinions for two hours and not every day as we are here.

SE7EN   #5   07:31 pm Jul 18 2012

OMG. So cool you did an Article about Sylvie Simmons. (not sarcastic PS). OMG, so lame that you didn't mention the 80's Metal scene. Jeez Simon, a quick reference to Van Halen is not good enough. She lived and breathed the 80's LA scene, till it wasn't cool anymore. The interviews from then were her best work IMO. Case in point. Here's the LEGENDARY interview with Motley Crue. Pure Gold. http://www.absolute-motleycrue.com/creem_jan_85.html

Hipster-Douchebag   #6   09:30 am Jul 19 2012

Congrats on the 1300th post Simon, and good luck with the next 3700.

I don't have any heroes, and I've never met any of my favourite artists (although I've been to a few concerts of some of them).

Nathan   #7   11:09 am Jul 19 2012

Lovely piece Simon, oh and Happy 1300th!!I nearly almost met Tim Finn once.He was playing with Andy White and Liam from Hothouse Flowers at the Arts Centre in Christchurch when they toured as ALT.At the time, I worked nearby so went along to check out the sound check.In my bag I had my LP of Escapade and a marker pen just in case he wandered by.Sure enough, he wandered past and said hello on his way to the stage. I said hello back and left the LP in my bag as I was too scared to ask him to sign it.

Sylvie's Mum   #8   09:15 pm Jul 19 2012

She has a great christian name and excellent divining skills for fossicking out the hip, the eccentric and the genius.

I met Patti Smith last time she was here and ended up having dinner with her and her band before the show. This was all due to showing her daughter, Jessie, and Jessies minders around my workplace (the Xena/hercules set) that day. Pretty cool person, Patti. Gregarious and interested, she held NZ in high regard. I think she'd been exposed to a bit of NZ music and was pretty charmed.

chanel   #9   10:40 am Jul 20 2012

@Dear Sylvie. Don't you dare attempt to speak on behalf of the women in New Zealand. As a strong, assertive woman, i find your baseless whining to be that so much more offensive than anything Mr Sweetman has ever posted.

If you don't like Mr Sweetman's articles, then why bother reading? Is it that you go out of your why to read just so you have something to moan about?!?!

Anyway, hanks for further stereotyping the women in this country to be nothing more than a bunch of self obsessed whiners.

Dear Simon   #10   12:51 pm Jul 26 2012

#9 yet another post by Simon pretending to be someone else. Pretty easy to spot now simon, give it up.

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