The Obscure Case of Leonard Cohen
The Mysterious Mr. M.
by Bruce Pollock
After Dark, February 1977
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sure I'd have him begging me to send him one (if not all seven) of my unpublished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 minutes."
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first novel --still unpublished --my own expectations and fantasies.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 alive."
"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 looks.
"Actually, I've grown a lot better looking since I began calling myself ugly."
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 interview.
"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----.