The “Hallelujah” Phenomenon – What’s It To You?
The Holy Or The Broken
Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”
By Alan Light
Publication Date: December 4, 2012
Well, unless you have an interest in music, cultural movements in modern society, love, tragedy, human dignity, or matters of that ilk, the improbable, unique, near-miraculous phenomenon of “Hallelujah” won’t mean much to you. On the other hand, if the prospect of uncovering some clues about the secret chord intrigues you, Alan Light’s The Holy Or The Broken offers a wealth of insightful, engrossing information pertinent to that investigation.
Three intertwined themes run through the book:
1. The evolution of “Hallelujah:” The Holy Or The Broken tracks “Hallelujah” from its six year gestation and initial, inauspicious presentation to the public as a track on the Various Positions album in 1984 through John Cale’s reconstruction of the song on the I’m Your Fan tribute album through Jeff Buckley’s dramatic transformation of “Hallelujah” into a song most often identified with Buckley alone (i.e., “Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah” rather than “Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah”) through its popularization in the general public via Shrek and musical responses to 9/11 to its seeming ubiquity in movies, TV shows, and ceremonies, small and large, public and private (e.g., opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, memorial services, weddings, …).
2. The significance of “Hallelujah” within pop music: “Hallelujah” is one of the few songs – and perhaps the only pop song written in Cohen’s own generation – that has attained an importance within the public sphere distinct from and greater than any of its performers – or its creator. Covering “Hallelujah” is perceived a privilege, not a casual choice. Musicians do not approach “Hallelujah” as an interesting, entertaining song. They approach it as a hymn – or, as Bob Dylan described Cohen’s songs, a prayer.
3. The protean significance of “Hallelujah” to individuals: For multitudes around the world, “Hallelujah” has become the anthem of joyfulness, tragedy, hope, dignity, consolation, affirmation, … How this came to be is a recurring motif within the volume.
In addition to these primary themes, Alan Light, who has been a senior editor at Rolling Stone, founding music editor and editor-in-chief of Vibe, and editor-in-chief of Spin Magazine, also gently disabuses readers of certain cherished illusions about the music business. After reporting Cohen’s own account of Walter Yetnikoff’s rejection of Various Positions with the declaration,”Look Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good,” for example, Light goes on to note that any hindsight-abetted gloating over the subsequent comeuppance of the record company executive who failed to see Leonard Cohen’s album for the treasure it obviously was is unjustified. Given Cohen’s then history (in 1984) of decreasing record sales and the incongruence between “Hallelujah” and the songs then topping the chart, in fact, it was hardly surprising that Yetnikoff chose not to release it and the rest of the Various Positions album on the Columbia label.
Finally, should any viewers share my initial concern that generating a 250+ page book about a single pop music song would necessarily require special tricks such as the inclusion of substantial filler,1 the use of a spectacularly large typeface, or gratifying friends and family with 86 pages of acknowledgements, I assure you that none of these fears proves true. Indeed, rather than suffering from a paucity of material, the author is actually forced into sometimes arbitrary choices among too much potential content. Which of the hundreds of artists covering “Halleluiah,” for instance, are to be interviewed, which are to be described with a sentence or two, which are destined to only be named in a list, and which are to be ingloriously included only as “and others?”
The Alan Light Q&A
AL: I first became aware of Leonard Cohen, as I indicate in the book, because of my father – the two of them (both born in Montreal the same year, two months apart) were classmates at McGill, their yearbook sits on our bookshelves at home, and so when I started to discover music in my youth, my dad took pleasure in pointing out his own proximity to one of the great singer-songwriters. But I didn’t really start to pay close attention until the release of “I’m Your Man,” which more or less lined up with my graduating from college and moving to NYC; his Beacon Theatre show in 1988 (or ’89?) was the first time I saw him perform.
Let’s start with the obligatory author interview questions:
1. How did you come to write a book about a single song? Did it help that “Hallelujah” has 80 verses? Did you ever have nightmares that you might end up with something analogous to “Coneheads” or “It’s Pat,” those funny five minute Saturday Night Live skits that were stretched into embarrassingly vapid 90 minute movies?
AL: Extra credit for that analogy – and yes, I was certainly concerned that I might be stretching an idea past its best length. The premise for the book really did come to me when I heard the choir sing it at my Yom Kippur services two years ago, and it dawned on me just what kind of altitude this song had reached. As I peeled back its history – as much as I knew before digging in deeper – it seemed that this might sustain a longer examination. But really, the whole process involved me continually trying to convince myself that it would really work; first, with a lengthy proposal, which gave me confidence that this was a story worth telling, and then, with the ways in which “Hallelujah” continued to surprise me by offering richer and richer material as I turned each corner in its history.
2. How did you convince a publisher that a 240 page book about one song – a book without a single vampire, ripped bodice, or sure-fire tip for making millions in the market – was a commercially viable project?
AL: More a question for my editor, Peter Borland at Atria/Simon and Schuster, than for me. The first wave of proposals I sent out was met with the response I expected – “Great idea, but too small/too weird to actually sign.” Just as my agent and I were retrenching and deciding whether to keep trying, Peter (who neither of us knew) sent a note saying, “I get it, I love it, don’t change this idea, just go deliver this book.” Gives you faith in something…
3. Whom do you view as the book’s target audience?
AL: The universality of this song continues to utterly amaze me. Just today, my son and I ran into a classmate of his and his mother – a philosophy professor who I’ve never known to express any interest in pop music or culture. And she said how much she loves the song and has to read the book. So though I certainly hope that it reaches fans of Cohen and Buckley, if we can actually get it in front of the broad swath of people who know and respond to the song without attaching it to any particular performer, maybe there really is a decent-sized audience out there. But, as with every step of this process, I am genuinely trying to have no expectations.
4. What should a reader expect to gain from reading “The Holy or the Broken?”
AL: Hopefully, they will learn the story of a song that has a trajectory unlike any other I know of, a genuine modern standard that took several decades and numerous unexpected paths to attain an international audience and become a true anthem. Beyond that, I think the song offers a chance to think about contemporary spirituality and the ways and places that people connect to “religious” themes outside of traditional religion. Also, I found something very moving in the way that this song really means so much to so many people – that at a time when it’s easy to feel really cynical about music, to believe that music has become so disposable and fast-moving that it can’t impact listeners the way it used to, here’s a song that rose up out of nowhere to serve people of all faiths and personal histories at weddings, funerals, services, and demonstrate that even in a post-napster, post-ipod world, a great song can still make a massive difference.
Now, for the interesting stuff:
5. While you write about a batch of important covers of “Hallelujah,” the major distinction made is between Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” It would be easy to imagine hard core Cohen fans wondering why Jeff Buckley is given equal billing with the Canadian singer-songwriter (as it turns out, I don’t have to imagine it; I’ve received emails devoted to that rhetorical question). In your view, what would have happened to “Hallelujah” if Jeff Buckley had not been so taken with that song but had instead been obsessed with, say, “Into The Mystic.” Would you now be on tour promoting a book subtitled “Van Morrison, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent Of ‘Into The Mystic?’” Is it true that if Jeff Buckley had not existed, it would have been necessary for Simon Cowell to invent him?
AL: I think that there are probably more people in the world who think that “Hallelujah” is a Jeff Buckley song than there are those who know that it’s a Leonard Cohen song. (Also, I have met plenty of people who just assume that it really is an old hymn of some kind, and can”t quite believe that it didn’t exist before 1984.) (And also, remember that when Buckley first heard it and learned it, he was listening to John Cale’s cover, and wasn’t familiar with the original recording until later.) The song obviously wouldn’t be any less great if Buckley hadn’t found it and recorded it, but I don’t think there’s any question it would not have become popular to the world at large. Not only was a whole generation of young musicians influenced by Jeff Buckley, but it’s no accident that of the dozens and dozens of movie and TV placements of the song over the years, only once or twice was Leonard’s recording used in those slots. As even us fans know, Leonard Cohen – his voice, his production – can be an acquired taste, and covers have been the way people have discovered his songs dating back to Judy Collins. So even if you think that Buckley’s version doesn’t hold up next to Leonard’s, I don’t think it makes sense to deny that in terms of global impact, and making it a song that younger listeners could relate to, Buckley’s was the transformative recording.
6. One more exercise in alternative history: you make the point that “Hallelujah” appeals to artists as a cover song in large part because its words “were never truly considered fixed or set in stone. With Cohen’s tacit approval, and Buckley not around to object, lyrics could be changed, with no real sense of betraying the song’s meaning.” If Leonard Cohen has aggressively resisted any changes from a standard version of “Hallelujah” (as Yoko Ono has done in the case of “Imagine”), would it have ever risen above the status of one more seldom heard song treasured by knowledgeable Cohen fans but unknown to anyone else? Judging from some of the anecdotes in your book, Jeff Buckley could be downright cantankerous; if he had lived, might he have discouraged others from covering his version of “Hallelujah?”
AL: Very good, if unknowable, questions. I think that the malleability of the song, the ability to turn up or turn down different elements of the lyric to give it different meanings and different feelings, has been crucial in its ability to fit into so many different uses. “Hallelujah” is sung at weddings and at funerals, at Jewish and Christian services, at rock shows and in TV contests and state functions…clearly not all of those require the same emotion, yet this same song fits each context. The melody and the refrain are the most basic components that people respond to, and those don’t change, but the different shadings and nuances give it a unique flexibility. I think that would be true in some ways regardless, since unlike “Imagine” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” it wasn’t a hit in its first incarnation, so there’s already a different relationship to it, but a more aggressive insistence on keeping the lyric exactly as is would have meant a very different history.
7. You interviewed a number of performers who have covered “Hallelujah,” most of whom sounded almost eager to talk about their perspectives on the song. I was impressed, for example, with the insights expressed by Jon Bon Jovi and Bono, especially given that their covers are high on my own “Worst Of Hallelujah” list. Were all these artists indeed quick to provide such thoughtful responses or am I mistaking expert editing for personal passion? Can you offer a generalization about the connections musicians covering “Hallelujah” have with the song?
AL: Whatever you make of the various versions/covers/
8. What was the most surprising thing you discovered in writing this book?
AL: Really, the most surprising thing was just how frequently and intensely this song figures into peoples’ lives. Turning up stories about its use at the funeral of a newborn baby, or the couple who named their daughter “Hallelujah,” were unbelievable enough – but all the more so because I found them so easily. I’d love to take credit for great, old-school shoe leather reporting to find these real life examples of the song’s power, but honestly, those were all stories from friends, or friends of friends. It seemed like every single time I told someone that I was working on this book, they had some relationship or experience with the song. That part of the book was obviously something that couldn’t be predicted going in, and it was amazing just how universal and beloved the song actually is.
9. You describe how movies and TV shows using “Hallelujah” helped make the song both ubiquitous and culturally meaningful. Your comments on the internet, however, seem to focus on the dramatic decrease in the sales of recorded music caused by peer-to-peer file-sharing. Did the internet play any significant role in spreading awareness of “Hallelujah” and shaping its impact?
AL: I guess at this point, the internet plays a big part in pretty much anything. I supposed that in the case of “Hallelujah,” mostly it helped people connect the dots…like when Jason Castro sang it on American Idol and then the next day, Jeff Buckley’s recording topped the iTunes charts. Especially with a history as convoluted as this song has, and with so many listeners finding it through unconventional mechanisms, the internet gave them a way to chase down a real recording or a full version or some element of the story they weren’t familiar with.
10. Like most of us who have written more than six paragraphs about Leonard Cohen, you describe the man known as the Poet Laureate Of Pessimism, the Godfather Of Gloom, … as being more droll than dour. What’s your favorite example of Leonard Cohen humor.
AL: I will always love the line, spoken at a Columbia Records ceremony on his behalf, regarding his relationship to the label – “I have always been touched by the modesty of their interest in my work.” Also a great story that Suzanne Vega told the other night, on a panel that we did together, about Leonard reading her the lyrics to a new song at a hotel in Los Angeles; while he read, behind him at the pool, a gaggle of women in bikinis had gathered at the swimming pool. When he finished, Suzanne pointed out the arrival of all these women, and, without even turning around to look, Leonard just said, “it works every time.”
11. Now that the book has gone to press and is shortly due for release, is there anything you wish you had done differently (e.g., additional interviews you wish you had done, interviews you wish you had left out of the manuscript, conclusions you would reword if you had the chance, a typeface you belatedly realized would have been more attractive than the one chosen for the book)?
AL: Once it’s done, I think you kind of have to let it go…especially with a story that keeps unfolding like this one. Within the last few weeks, “Hallelujah” has turned up yet again on X Factor, the Voice, and Dancing with the Stars, but at a certain point, it’s just trying to keep a constantly updating list. Of interviews I didn’t get, the one I truly wish I had landed was Simon Cowell. For better or for worse, he has done as much as anyone to popularize this song, and I would have loved to hear him actually talk about music and songwriting. It was really hard to settle on a cover for a book with a topic as odd as this one – had to make sure it didn’t look like a standard biography, so that was a struggle. We’ll find out what the world makes of it all, but as for me, je ne regrette rien.
- I would not, for example, have been surprised to find the book included all 80 of Leonard Cohen’s verses of “Hallelujah.” (It doesn’t) [↩]