This new documentary is based on the book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the unlikely ascent of ‘Hallelujah’, published a decade ago by the music journalist, Alan Light (Atria Books, 2012). In it he charts how Cohen worked with producer John Lissauer on his 1984 album, Various Positions, after his disastrous experience with Phil Spector on Death of a Ladies Man (in which Spector is said to have held a revolver to Cohen’s head saying, “I f___ing love you, Leonard!” / “I hope you do, Phil”), and before his resurgence with I’m Your Man in 1988. Various Positions was ultimately rejected by the record label, Columbia, effectively ending Lissauer’s career in music production. “We know you’re great, Leonard,” Cohen himself was told; “we just don’t know if you’re any good!” The documentary (Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine, 2022) tells the story of a single song and its unusual life (and afterlife), the way that, for example, Matthew Hollis has just written a single study, or ‘biography’ of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
Before Cohen and Lissauer went into the studio to record, the song had already had an early life of its own – a kind of painful adolescence. Light recounts the story of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen meeting in Paris. “Dylan asked me how long it took me to write,” Cohen reported. “I told him a couple of years. I lied, actually. It was more than a couple of years. Then I praised a song of his […] and asked him how long it had taken and he said ‘fifteen minutes'” (The Holy or the Broken, p. 2). ‘Hallelujah’ was said by Cohen to have as many as eighty verses, and by one (probably apocryphal) estimate to have one hundred and eighty. This struggle for the song to come into being lyrically is significant, I think.
Both the documentary and the book it is based on chart the life of Cohen’s song and the album itself, from rejection, to John Cale’s cover; to Jeff Buckley’s rendition based on Cale’s version. In fact, Buckley didn’t hear Cohen’s original until after he had created his own haunting interpretation of the song. Each added something to the life – or lives – of the song. Alan Light goes into some detail about Buckley’s rise to fame, or perhaps cult status is closer to it, and his tragic early death, drowning in a tributary of the Mississippi in late May 1997. Like another 1990’s adventurer and outsider, Chris McCandless – who disappeared into the Alaskan wilderness in John Krauker’s factual account, Into the Wild (1996) – mystery surrounds the death of both men.
In any case, Jeff Buckely’s demise contributed to the cult status of his only studio album, Grace (1994). Light points out that Leonard Cohen had retreated to the Calfornian Buddhist monestery on Mount Baldy by the time Jeff Buckley’s fame was breaking. By the late 1990s, when he came down from the mountain, Cohen had been defrauded by his manager and some-time friend, Kelley Lynch, a personal calamity that sent him back on the road – although he seemed to take it as one who in suffering all, suffers nothing. In the meantime, Jeff Buckely had died tragically and the song, Hallelujah continued to gradually seep into the culture, although not yet the mainstream. Buckley’s version of the song is certainly beautiful. I think it is telling, though, that in an interview, asked if he thought Leonard Cohen had heard the song, he replied, “I hope he never hears it.” Explaining that he feared his rendition was a boy’s version.
But you don’t know what you’re singing, do ya?
In the late 1990s, Hallelujah was picked up by the production team on the animated film Shrek (1997). Following the popularity of the film, Alan Light points out that a new generation was introduced to the song, and crucially that different versions of the lyrics were in circulation at the same time. Post-Shrek, the song featured in the US music channel VH1’s 9/11 tribute and from there it could be co-opted by the music talent shows in the UK, Europe and the US – Britain’s Got Talent, The X-Factor, American Idol, etc, with a notable ‘Witney-fied’ version by Alexandra Burke. Light suggests that the proliferation of the song tends to privilege “sentiment over meaning”, draining the song of its more complex textures. This raises the question of what the song does in fact mean.
Even though it all went wrong:
Despite the process of writing Hallalujah clearly being a protracted struggle, Leonard Cohen himself describes the creative process as gift, a grace. Talking about what songs and poems mean “frightens the muses,” Cohen has said. According to Harry Freedman, “[he] has described Hallelujah as a song about a conflicted world in which there are things that cannot be reconciled” (p. 58). Certainly the song has been adopted for different purposes: romantic, tragic, religious, sentimental. For Jeff Buckley, the song was fundamentally an erotic-romantic one – “a youthful vision of romantic agony and sexual triumph” (Light, p. 66). However, Alan Light observes that Buckley’s version loses the humour and irony of the original. So, for example, the third line of the first verse, “…But you don’t really care for music, do you?” loses its bathos – where irony deflates the seriousness of the opening lines (“I heard there was a secret chord,/ That David played and it pleased the Lord…”). Something like Philip Larkin’s line in his poem ‘Wild Oats’, “…and her friend in specs I could talk to” – both poets puncture the sense of their own gravity.
This is something most cover versions lose – whether intimate or operatic. In his original, however, Cohen can ride both horses, and the song quickly recovers its strong romantic strain, “Your faith was strong but you needed proof,/ You saw her bathing on the roof;/ Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you…” It seems to me that his song is essentially about the contradictory drives of physical and spiritual desire – hence his identification with the two Old Testament Jewish patriarchs, King David and Samson, both undone by their worldly desire for beautiful women. This tensile relationship can be felt in the shift from the triumphant chorus to the tormented verses, perhaps reaching their zenith with the lines, “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 you.” Here, years of the singer’s messy personal life are distilled brilliantly into a few lines – part confession, part artist’s credo. “In your work,” he says, “you can refine your character, that’s where you can order your world. You’re stuck with the consequences of your actions, but in your work you can go back” (in Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man, p. 337).
Key cover versions of the song tend to omit certain verses (“You say I took the name in vain;/ I don’t even know the name…”) and also follow the structure of Jeff Buckley’s seminal interpretation. That is to say, ending on the verse, “Maybe there’s a God above,/ but all I ever learned from love,/ is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.” This suggests a more agnostic ending to the song. While it’s certainly a song about doubt, Cohen’s Hallelujah – and certainly his late live performances – all end on the lines: “and even though it all went wrong,/ I’ll stand before the Lord of Song,/ with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah” – aligning the final verse with the chorus – and as close as one can get to the Psalms in contemporary culture.
Alan Light’s book, and the documentary based on it are certainly welcome additions to the material that has grown up around Leonard Cohen’s music. A slight weakness of the book might be that it spends as long following the cover versions and those who made them, quoting them extensively. This can be slightly awkward where the song knows more than the singers. Cohen himself recorded Hallelujah in his early 50s. He struggled to write it, it was then rejected, covered, and re-discovered, before taking off into the stratosphere of popular culture where most of its subtleties inevitably vaporised. After all, what T.S. Eliot would call a “raid on the inarticulate” had to be made understandable to a very wide audience. It also arguably took until Cohen’s 70s to really learn to master the song, even tweaking some of the lyrics from the cover versions. Hallelujah appeared on the same album as ‘If it be your will’, which Leonard Cohen described on stage as “…a song; well, it’s more of a prayer…”
Alan Light, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the unlikely ascent of ‘Hallelujah’ (Atria Books, 2012)
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song, directed by Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine (Sony Pictures, 2022)
Harry Freedman, Leonard Cohen: the Mystical roots of Genius (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021)
Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: the Life of Leonard Cohen (2012; 2017)
I’ve previously written about Leonard Cohen in the links below:
For my money, the best version of the song, after LC’s is Daniel Kahn’s Yiddish-language version, available on YouTube