My imaginary dinner party guest #1: Leonard Cohen

It’s a classic silence-breaker question. If you could invite anyone in the world to a dinner party, alive or dead, who would it be and why?

I have four guests at mine, and here’s the first. Oh and before you ask, we’re having pasta bake.

Leonard Cohen

This was the man who wrote the line: “Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah” and yes, like most of the world it was the Jeff Buckley version I heard first, when I was sixteen years old and first discovered Last Goodbye on a compilation album called Acoustic Love that I bought in HMV during a particularly unbearable bout of unrequited love. The thing about Cohen’s Hallelujah is that he agonised over it for five years, writing and rewriting verses feverishly, frustratedly. The original was a slow, moody, 80-verse epic that was passed by all the big record labels. In 1984 it was finally released by a small independent but it was described as ‘dark’ and ‘turgid’, and no-one really noticed it.

It became famous in a really unlikely and quite convoluted way. Seven years after its tiny unnoticed release, John Cale, the Welsh lead singer of The Velvet Underground, released a Cohen tribute album featuring a cut-down version of Hallelujah. It’s important to appreciate that it was a fairly obscure covers album bought by a handful of people, but one of its purchasers – a young woman from Brooklyn, unknowingly changed everything. One day she went away and left a guy she vaguely knew to house-sit her apartment for her. The guy, rooting through the woman’s record collection looking for something to listen to, stumbled upon Cale’s cover album and liked Hallelujah so much he decided to perform his own version with his guitar at a small bar in Manhattan’s East Village. The guy was Jeff Buckley. It was only when he disappeared forever in the Mississippi River in 1997 that anyone took any notice of him, and Hallelujah became the fervent, heart-breaking, gut-punch of a hit that it is today.

But enough about Jeff Buckley. Cohen has the invite (sorry Jeff). Leonard Cohen was a wonderful poet. Honest, self-deprecating, funny, astute. His eyes were open, that’s the feeling I get when I read his poetry. He saw and recorded life as it was: fleeting but full of pleasure and pain, both of equal interest and importance to him. He drifted around the world, seeing everything. Some people get full and heavy with life, and some people – like Cohen, let it sluice right off them. They turn it into something beautiful and move on. He took lovers but he never let love consume or define or destroy him like so many artists and writers throughout history have. Love was something to marvel at; women were creatures of beauty and he was at the centre of it all, growing old and cynical and ugly all the time, but never letting it matter too much, not even at the end. He died at 82, a few months after releasing his final album You want it darker.

I don’t know what we’d talk about at my dinner party. Pasta. Cheese. He could talk about anything and that deep, gravelly voice would make it momentous. I’ll finish with the lyrics to my all time favourite Leonard Cohen song.

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel

You were talking so brave and so sweet

Giving me head on the unmade bed

While the limousines wait in the street

Those were the reasons and that was New York

We were running for the money and the flesh. And that was called love for the workers in song

Probably still is for those of them left/

Ah but you got away, didn’t you babe

You just turned your back on the crowd

You got away, I never once heard you say

I need you, I don’t need you

I need you, I don’t need you

And all of that jiving around.

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel

You were famous, your heart was a legend

You told me again you preferred handsome men

But for me you would make an exception.

And clenching your fist for the ones like us

Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty

You fixed yourself, you said, “Well never mind,

We are ugly but we have the music”

And you got away, didn’t you babe,

You just turned your back on the crowd

You got away, I never once heard you say,

I need you, I don’t need you

I need you, I don’t need you

And all of that jiving around.

I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best

I can’t keep track of each fallen robin

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel

That’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.

Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel #2

Thanks Leonard.


3 responses to “My imaginary dinner party guest #1: Leonard Cohen”

  1. I have been a Cohen fan for many years. I saw him in Concert, twice in Germany 1978 and 1979. He lived a wonderful life. What he could tell us, if he wanted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re lucky to have seen him! I’m so glad he wrote so much.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. He had been one of muses for many years. We miss, the Poet of song.

        Liked by 1 person

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