It is rare that a song can so deeply permeate the popular zeitgeist that it is played at moments of deep communal grief and universal gratitude. A few standards, such as "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "A Change Is Gonna Come" or "Let It Be," come to mind, but Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," with its signature mix of a beguilingly simple melody and artfully ambiguous lyrics, has somewhat incongruously risen to standard status.
"Hallelujah" began its improbable journey in 1984 when Cohen — a legend among the musical literati for such songs as "Suzanne," "Bird On A Wire" and "Famous Blue Raincoat," but still a relatively obscure poet turned folk musician — was about to turn 50. He pored over the words to the song for many years, filling two notebooks, writing more than 80 verses and recording two versions with almost completely different lyrics. When "Hallelujah" was finished, his record company, Columbia, turned down the album it was to be featured on, Various Positions. The album was subsequently released in 1985 on the indie label PVC Records.
In the nearly three decades since, the song has become a modern-day hymn, played everywhere from ground zero, the Vatican and the Super Bowl to earthquake and hurricane relief benefits and memorial montages at awards shows. The song, which is also broadcast at 2 a.m. every Saturday night by the Israeli Defense Force's radio channel, has even inspired the book The Holy Or The Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley And The Unlikely Ascent Of Hallelujah, authored by Alan Light, former editor in chief of Vibe and Spin.
"I couldn't think of any other song that had this long and extended path to becoming a standard, as opposed to coming out and being a big hit and everyone knowing that it's a very special song," says Light. "'Bridge Over Troubled Water' was a huge hit when it came out and everybody got that. This one took 15 to 20 years to get to that place. It's not like there was one big moment, not at the creation, or one cover that did it."
Like other Cohen compositions, the thematic dichotomies of hope and doubt and sacred and profane — or the holy and the broken as alluded to in Light's book title — run through "Hallelujah."
"The fact is," Light says, "that despite all the misunderstandings over the lyrics, or maybe because of them, 'Hallelujah,' like Springsteen's 'Born In The U.S.A.' before it, has been co-opted by the larger public, which bears evidence of an even greater subtlety in the seeming dichotomy of the song. We continue to faithfully sing the words, even though we don't know what they mean."
In 1991 John Cale of the Velvet Underground recorded his interpretation for a Cohen tribute album, which was subsequently used on the soundtrack for Basquiat. Cale's version attracted an aspiring young artist named Jeff Buckley, who heard it and recorded a transformative version for his 1994 album, Grace. Bob Dylan was also one of the few people to recognize the song's qualities early on, and sang it live in concert frequently. In 2001 Rufus Wainwright's cover of the song was featured on the soundtrack for the animated film Shrek.
"Hallelujah" has since appeared in TV shows such as "The O.C.," "The West Wing," "ER," and "Scrubs," and graced the repertoire of more than 80 artists as diverse as Bon Jovi, Imogen Heap, Bono, Justin Timberlake, and Willie Nelson. In December 2008, a rendering by "The X Factor" winner Alexandra Burke and Buckley's version were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on the British singles charts, marking the first time in more than 50 years that the same song held the top two spots. Cohen's original recording broke into the Top 40 the same week. Canadian GRAMMY winner k.d. lang sang it at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Vancouver in 2010, giving the song a global stage.
"Everybody wanted to talk about it," said Light regarding his book research. "Whether it was Bono or Bon Jovi, they didn't need to be persuaded or convinced that there was something important going on here. Clearly every single person had thought about it [and] were aware of the legacy and being part of the chain of the performance."
Now, more than 360 recordings and thousands of performances later, "Hallelujah" is so ubiquitous that even Cohen himself politely requested a moratorium in 2009. However, as further testament to the song's ambiguous power, we have perhaps only to witness Adam Sandler's off-color parody at the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy benefit concert.
"Then with the Newtown [High School] shootings one week later," Light reflects, "the song was right back where people needed it to be. It was at the memorial; it was at the SNL opening. This is still the song that can perform that task."
Cohen, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Recording Academy in 2010, has said of the song's meaning: "It explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value."
Light adds, "I think that at the heart of it there is this sense, as Leonard says, that it really is getting over the obstacle and challenges that life presents to you, even when you're at your weakest and you've been torn to pieces, that you look to the skies and wonder at being alive and appreciate what that is and be thankful. I think in a lot of these uses, that's what is really there."
(John Sutton-Smith is a music journalist and TV producer who helped establish the GRAMMY Foundation's GRAMMY Living Histories oral history program, currently comprising almost 200 interviews.)
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