The Obscure Case of Leonard Cohen
The Mysterious Mr. M.
by Bruce Pollock
As I hustled up Sixth Avenue toward the Algonquin Hotel for an interview
with Columbia recording artist Leonard Cohen, writer of such heavyweight
literary pop songs as "Suzanne," "Bird on a Wire," and "Dress Rehearsal Rag,"
I anticipated an epic conversation, a gargantuan verbal feast, an orgy of
philosophical anecdote and analogy. Cohen, after all, far from being merely
another songwriter, was a published poet when he was fifteen, is a novelist
twice over (Favorite Game, Beautiful Losers), and I was about to be
a published author myself. Cohen had read my book; I had read both of his.
We'd be two authors talking shop. Before the afternoon was through, I was
sure I'd have him begging me to send him one (if not all seven) of my unpublished
novels. Perhaps a correspondence would result --the famous Cohen-Pollock
letters, later to be collected in an expensive, coffee-table edition.
When I entered Cohen's room, I was rather surprised to find another
interviewer in the process of finishing up his visit. How were Cohen and
I to achieve any literary epiphanies with this eavesdropper, obviously a
rock-and-roll degenerate, sitting on the couch drinking wine? Cohen sat in
a chair at a table in the far corner, wearing the same gray pants and black
shirt he'd worn during his concert the night before.
"If you'd rather be alone, M---- will leave," Cohen said as I set up
my tape recorder on the table.
"He can stay," I said, then after a pregnant pause, "another five
That settled, I commenced questioning Cohen about his first novel. How
did he react to its publication and subsequent commercial failure? As he
was fashioning a response, I began preparing myself to tell him about
my first novel --still unpublished --my own expectations and fantasies.
However, before I could verbalize them, he spoke.
"My training as a writer was not calculated to inflame the appetites,"
he said with ease. "In Montreal in the fifties, when I began to write, people
didn't have the notion of superstars. The same prizes weren't in the air
as there are today, so one had a kind of modest view of what a writing career
I couldn't have put it better myself. M----, still on the couch, showed
no signs of leaving. Steadily swallowing wine, he ogled us with a slight
smile with which he seemed to be transmitting signals to Cohen. "I just hope
this doesn't get too boring for you," I told him. "I mean, for all I know,
I may be asking him the same questions you did." Of course, I knew that wouldn't
be the case. I'd be asking him insightful, prose-writer questions. Meaty
M---- giggled. "Oh no," he slurred, "we didn't have that kind of interview.
We were on a totally different wavelength."
Rattled, I immediately quoted from an obscure article Cohen had written
eight years ago in an obscure publication called Books, about his
first performance onstage as a singer and the beauty of his utter failure.
Totally different wavelength, huh? I'd show the both of them wavelengths!
In the light of his career since then, would he still say it was better to
fail than succeed? I asked adroitly.
This was such an arcane reference that M---- was awed back into silence,
and Cohen himself was hard-pressed to recall it. However, when he did, I
could see he was impressed. His answer came in the form of an allegory.
"A man visits a master who's living in a very pitiful terrain and the
man says, 'How can you survive here?' The master says, 'If you think it's
bad now, you should see what it's like in summer.' 'What happens in summer?'
asks the man. The master says, 'In the summer I throw myself into a vat of
boiling oil.' 'Isn't it worse then?' says the man. 'No,' says the master,
'pain cannot reach you there.'"
"That's really the way things are," Cohen continued after acknowledging
the chuckles from M----. "If you throw yourself into a kind of effort, it's
not better or worse. Like a chameleon, you take the color of the experience
if it's intense enough, and the pain cannot reach you there."
"Performing is definitely the boiling oil. You can't really develop an
intellectual perspective on it --I mean, you're in it. You realize the next
moment could bring total humiliation --or you could actually be lifted up
into the emotion that began the song. But you're already in the boiling oil
by the time you've gotten that far."
At this point M---- burst in and asked Cohen if a character in Beautiful
Losers was a real person. "Composite," Cohen answered. Then, before I
could regain my balance, M---- recited an entire paragraph from page 143
of the book --to Cohen's obvious delight. I too had read the book but had
not thought to memorize it. Score one for M----. Retaliating, I brought up
a moment from his concert, when he delivered a beautifully worded monologue
about searching for the women who inspired "Sisters of Mercy." I asked him
if he was, like the true romantic he set himself up to be, haunted by the
He seemed interested in the topic. "I think everybody is involved in
a kind of Count of Monte Christo feeling. You somehow want the past to be
vindicated. You want to evoke figures of the past. My own experience has
been that almost everything you want happens. I meet people out of the past
all the time. Not only that, I meet people that I wanted to create. It's
like Nancy..." Cohen went on, referring to one of his songs, caught up in
the idea. "The line is 'now you look around, you see her everywhere...' This
is just my own creation, but obviously there's a collective appetite for
a certain kind of individual; that individual's created and you feel you
had a certain tiny part in that creation."
Now that was a serious concept, something only two fiction writers could
really get to the bottom of. But just as I was about to sink my teeth into
it, M---- hurled himself once again into the flow. "Does that song have anything
to do with Marilyn Monroe?"
"No," said Cohen, "it was about a real Nancy."
By the time they'd finished discussing Marilyn Monroe, my momentum had
been lost. Although it hadn't been in my original game plan, I pulled a surprise
by asking Cohen about longevity in songwriters, why so few lasted past
"I think there are a number of things that bear on that," said Cohen,
fielding the hot shot and throwing me out by a good two feet. "You can burn
yourself out, for one. The late teens and twenties are generally the lyric
phase of a writer's career. If you achieve enough fame and women and money
during that period, you quit, because that's generally the motivation. I
mean, I didn't get enough money or women or fame for me to quit. I don't
have enough yet, so I've got to keep on playing." He laughed. "I know it's
rather unbecoming at forty to keep it all going, but I have to do it."
I couldn't decide if he was putting me on or not. While my own train
of thought stalled, M---- roared in on the express. "Why do you in your songs,
refer to yourself as ugly?" he asked.
Cohen smiled at him. "How do I look today?"
"You look handsome," said the now besotted M----, "energetic and
"I need a haircut," parried Cohen.
"Maybe I will have some wine after all," I said, although no one
had offered me any.
M---- passed me the bottle while Cohen extemporized further on his
"Actually, I've grown a lot better looking since I began calling myself
M---- accused him of self-hatred.
"Maybe it's self-hatred," Cohen allowed, "maybe it's bending over backwards
"Cheese?" I said to no one in particular, "why of course, thank you."
"I mean, in the sixties when I was writing the songs that come out of
that experience," Cohen explained, "I saw really beautiful youths around.
It's all a relative thing. If you're at a bar mitzvah, you may look pretty
good; however, if you're with a bunch of lead guitarists at the Chelsea Hotel
in 1966, and they're all beautiful tall blonde youths..."
"I don't think so," M---- protested. "I think a lot of them just look
very hairy. I think it's harder to look good at forty."
"Most of these lead guitarists don't make it to forty," I felt compelled
to insert. They both ignored me. I drained the bottle.
"I feel okay these days, you know. I'm making a living. I managed to
get away from my family. I've been through a war. I'm okay."
M---- suddenly turned to me. "Go on," he said, motioning me back to my
"A friend of mine said about poetry," Cohen told M----, "that the two
things necessary for a young poet are arrogance and inexperience."
M---- seemed to identify. "What about a prose-writer?" I cried in panic.
"Do you think it's the same thing, too?" However, M---- was already reciting
one of his poems to Cohen. Although I thought it a paltry work, Cohen seemed
to like it. I cursed myself for not having had the sense to bring along one,
if not all seven, of my unpublished novels for him to read. While M---- recited
another poem, I realized they were on the wavelength I had wanted to reach.
M---- was up there with Cohen, poet to poet, while I trailed a distant second,
the interviewer, straightman, fink.
Finally M---- got up to go to the john. Alone at last. Here was my big
chance. With one sweeping question I could re-establish myself as an equal
in Cohen's eyes. Instead I wound up asking him if he ever got letters from
his fans and how he responded.
"You've got to play it by ear," he said. "You can involve yourself totally
in the lives of your listeners, and it has got to be disaster. I mean, I
put my work out the very best I can. It comes out of my life. It's a very
large chunk of my life. I can understand if it becomes important in another
life. But whether you involve yourself personally in these other lives is
"I'm not talking about somebody who has a fantasy of a singer. These
are people who really relate to your own experience and vice versa. Now maybe
they're living some kind of milieu where they don't have people to relate
to. You set yourself up as a kind of kin to these people and they see it
and it's true. That's the fantastic thing about it. You meet them and immediately
you see they are people who have your own experience. So over the years I
have somehow fallen into some lives that my songs have led me into, and some
of these lives have ended --rather violently, rather sadly..."
When M---- emerged from the john, Cohen told us that he must leave for
a recording session. M---- asked if he could tag along, but Cohen said no,
which pleased me no end. I suggested to M---- that if he were going downtown,
I'd walk him part of the way. He said okay.
There's really a one-to-one relationship between Cohen and his songs,
his books, of that much I was sure. Here were M---- and I filling up yet
another chapter --two seekers, neophytes, in a foot race to the door of the
master. At least we'd be leaving together. Not only was I salvaging a tie
out of the day's proceedings, but I felt I was rescuing Cohen from a potentially
maudlin evening with M----. In the next life Cohen might thank me.
However, as we neared the elevators, as if he'd forgotten something,
M---- wheeled around and headed back to Cohen's room, advising me to go on
without him. What a move! I stood flatfooted in the hallway with no other
choice but to leave, which I did. Score another one for M----.