photo & text by nacrowe
the first time i became cognizant of the LEONARD COHEN song "HALLELUJAH" was a few years back when i learned that singer CHESTER BENNINGTON (of LINKIN PARK fame) sang as a eulogy at the private funeral service of his friend and mentor singer CHRIS CORNELL (of SOUNDGARDEN fame) in 2017. CORNELL had committed suicide a week before and BENNINGTON himself would perish similarly two months later. so given the circumstances there was a certain weight that i attached to this song as it seemed to be used to verbalize and channel this deep well of intense PAIN and SORROW from one close friend to another.
i had owned and was familiar with the first few COHEN releases from the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the popular resurgence surrounding this obscure track from this 1980s track in the 2000s was something i was unaware of. partly due to the fact that i was overseas. so i read ALAN LIGHT's book THE HOLY OR THE BROKEN: LEONARD COHEN, JEFF BUCKLEY, AND THE UNLIKELY ASCENT OF "HALLELUJAH" (ATRIA, 2013), which examines the unlikely trajectory of the song to a modern standard, largely unbiased by personal sentiment toward the song.
what drew me to the narrative surrounding "HALLELUJAH" is the unique FLUIDITY to which the song as a construct has lent itself. it really is incredible that such a well-known song has, in fact, no definitive version. there are lyrical variations with regards to the verses, as COHEN shortly after its release on the VARIOUS POSITIONS (COLUMBIA, 1984) record was still very much tinkering with it in live settings. famously JEFF BUCKLEY recorded a version on his celebrated GRACE (COLUMBIA, 1994) record, which itself was a cover of a previous JOHN CALE cover. to make things even more interesting, the CALE version utilized an expanded "alternate" set of lyrics. most modern covers from the likes of RUFUS WAINRIGHT, K.D. LANG, BON JOVI, IMOGEN HEAP, DAMIEN RICE and BONO are based on this BUCKLEY cover of a cover, so you can see how this game of telephone gets extended indefinitely. the song has been covered over the years by everyone from REGINA SPEKTOR, NEIL DIAMOND, JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE and THE OSMONDS to BOB DYLAN, JOHNNY MATHIS, BRANDI CARLILE, MICHAEL MCDONALD and even ADAM SANDLER. its an incredibly unique phenomena that has allowed the song to be utilized by a whole trove of artists and institutions, in both SECULAR and RELIGIOUS settings.
as a former secondary english teacher, this responsive MULTI-INTERPRETATIVE relationship audiences have developed with this song is incredible and utterly unique. it raises questions about the nature of AUTHORIAL INTENTION, as COHEN's original version is just that: a version. it is unlike other modern standards like "IMAGINE" by JOHN LENNON, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE" by BOB DYLAN or "BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER" by SIMON & GARFUNKEL in that new renditions of those songs inevitably become compared and measured to the original. with "HALLELUJAH" the original recorded version is perhaps one of the more obscure versions as it was on a commercially unsuccessful record that relieved little airplay. later iterations are the one's that captured the popular imagination. i cant think of that ever happening elsewhere outside of the GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK songwriters like IRVING BERLIN, JEROME KERN, COLE PORTER or GEORGE GERSHWIN (among many others) who wrote with the intention of public performance. its a very interesting phenomena.
and then there is the song itself. "HALLELUJAH" utilizes references from several the TORAH narratives to draw out the spiritually redemptive power of SEX, INTIMACY, and ultimately, LOVE. he very much is interested in the idea that SPIRTUAL, some would say RELIGIOUS, power embedded in LOVE is when we suffer and are DEBILITATED and DEBASED by it. when one throws up their hands in the air with confoundment and deep FRUSTRATION at the PAIN and SUFFERING it brings and in defiance look up and say screw it, hallelujah. that "broken" hallelujah is the point of the original iteration of the song. what makes the song so FLUID and PLIABLE is the degree to which interpreters play up the various aspects of the lyrics (its SENSUALITY, CELEBRATION, FRUSTRATION, AMBIVALENCE, etc.) and minimize other aspects. coupled with the variated lyrics and multiple established versions of the song and you have a song that is able to be played at both WEDDINGS and FUNERALS, CHURCHES and SYNAGOGUES, COFFEE HOUSES and ARENAS.
attached below are but a few noteworthy iterations of the song. again, its a compelling trajectory of a lost song, on an album initially rejected by his label, that found a second life as one of the most popularly appreciated, and commercially viable, songs in modern history.
its really mind-blowing. id recommend THE HOLY OR THE BROKEN for anyone interested in the delicate interplay between AUTHOR versus AUDIENCE and AUTHORIAL INTENTION versus INTERPRETATION. it is worth reading for those interested in the CREATIVE PROCESS as well as LITERATURE in general, since COHEN very much was a TRANSCENDENT literary talent.