How many times have you heard a song and said, “I wish I’d written that”? With me it doesn’t happen very often; sure, the royalties on “Call Me Maybe” must be off the charts, but I rarely hear a song I think is clever and moving enough to wonder what was in the writer to create it.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of those beautiful songs I want no part of after reading Alan Light’s book about it, The Holy or the Broken.
Cohen’s been so tortured by the song throughout his career that he had his agent send the author an email giving his blessing to the project, but the artist himself wasn’t going to be part of it.
It took Cohen years to write and finally record the song – he put 80 verses together before finally getting it together in the studio in 1984, and when he finally did, his record company said the album he put it on was awful and refused to release it.
So it languished, again.
Cohen is one of the tortured writer set. Every detail has to be perfect. He’s spoken in interviews, Light writes, about being drunk in his underwear on a hotel room floor with papers scattered around him. This is not romance; these are demons.
The version many people are familiar with originates with Jeff Buckley, but the song’s history takes a stop-off at John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground, first.
Listen to Cohen’s version (above, top). It’s road-weary. It’s weathered. It’s sarcastic. On the whole, it’s more pessimistic than optimistic.
Cale’s version (above, lower left) has the same weathered, pessimistic feel. He is a few years younger than Cohen, but still someone who has been around and lived some life. He first did the song for a Cohen tribute record. When he asked Cohen to send over a lyric sheet, he came home to 15 faxed pages on the floor, with all 80 verses. He picked five for the tribute album, and it was that version that Jeff Buckley (above, lower right) first heard.
You can see how his simple accompaniment derives from Cale’s, along with his selection of verses. But Buckley is young – eternally; he died while taking a swim on the way to a recording session – and his version is optimistic and romantic. And there’s another thing: Buckley was a perfectionist. If you’re familiar with the studio recording he did for “Grace,” you know it starts with a breathy sigh. You could certainly interpret that as intimacy, given how sexy his version is. But, Light writes, it was a sigh of exhaustion. They’d done so many takes that night, he was beat.
The song, though, probably would have kept languishing if it weren’t for two things that both happened in 2001: The September 11 attacks in the U.S. and the animated film ‘Shrek.’
John Cale’s version made it into ‘Shrek’ (Rufus Wainwright is on the soundtrack because Dreamworks had the film and Wainwright), and Jeff Buckley’s started appearing over photo montages on the music networks.
And all of a sudden, it was everywhere. It became the default overlay for tragedy montages on TV dramas and sitcoms and in films. And everybody decided they had to cover it, and they had to do their best Jeff Buckley. Here are Wainwright, Allison Crowe and John Bon Jovi:
And somewhere along the line this happened, and Bono – who loved the sardonic humor in Cohen’s version when he first heard it – nearly destroyed the song forever, on a 1995 Cohen tribute album.
Oh, my, Bono, what have you done?
It’s also now appeared on many seasons of “American Idol” and “X Factor,” because, well, it takes some concentration and some range to do the Jeff Buckley version, which is really what’s done these days.
My take on the song: I love Buckley’s guitar intro; it has such an incredible resolve after a minor buildup. But Cohen’s closing verse isn’t done nearly enough. It goes like this:
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel so I learned to touch
I’ve told the truth; I didn’t come to fool ya
But even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
My take on the book: This is great if you’re a real music nerd. Really, it’s not for the weak, the casual fan or the “Pop-Up Video” crowd.
One more version – one of my favorite covers, even if it’s not iconic, to go out with.