The Lord of Song: “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song”

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

“When they poured across the border:” Reflections on Leonard Cohen & Ilya Kaminsky

I’ve just finished reading Sylvie Simmons’ excellent biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, and have been reflecting on the magnificent sweep of his career. In the last few years, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to his late work, especially the live albums, so it’s been good to revisit how his writing developed.

In the middle part of his career, Leonard Cohen’s work took a dystopian turn in the albums I’m Your Man (1988) and The Future (1992). He continued to perform some of the songs from these albums in his live shows – ‘Everybody Knows’, ‘The Future’, ‘Anthem’. But in fact, tucked in among his more personal lyric songs, there were hints of this political strain in his writing in his early rendition of the Resistance song, ‘The Partisan’ on his second studio album, Songs from a Room (1969).

‘The Partisan’, live in Helsinki (2008)

Cohen learned the song aged 15 at summer camp. In the sleeve notes of his 1975 album, Greatest Hits, he comments that “I developed the curious notion that the Nazis were overthrown by music.” In his late concert in London in 2008, he tells the audience, “Friends, we’re so privileged to be able to gather at moments like this when so much of the world is plunged in darkness and chaos. So, ring the bells that still can ring…” He segues into the song ‘Anthem’, with its refrain, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. Despite his change in outlook six decades later (that the world can’t be saved by music), there’s a certain continuity here – searching out light in the darkness. This is a song that has come into sharp focus for me in these last terrible weeks: “The wars, they will be fought again…”, he tells us. And:

“I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd,
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud.”

‘Anthem’, The Future (1992)
‘Anthem’, live in London

Another is ‘In My Secret Life’:

“Look through the paper, makes you want to cry,
Nobody cares if the people live or die.”

Lines that one can innocently hum along to while relaxing at home – making coffee at work, looking out of the window on a train – one moment, can suddenly come alive and seem prophetic the next. Or, as he says himself: “A riddle in the book of love,/ Obscure and obsolete,/ Till witnessed here in time and blood,/ A thousand kisses deep.” (Recitation / A Thousand Kisses Deep).

In a time when political statement is very fashionable in poetry, there’s something about serious art that resists being reduced to rhetoric, ideology, but is also deeply responsive to quiverings and shifts in the inner compass. What Seamus Heaney called the Republic of Conscience. Great writing, of course, is firmly on the side of humanity. Take the heavyweights Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky; the poet Anna Akhmatova, all with their concern for moral and physical suffering, the dignity of the lone human person – the “naked man and woman” (‘Everybody Knows’).  

In early 2020 I saw the Ukrainian-Jewish-American poet Ilya Kaminsky read at the T.S. Eliot Prize readings in London. (He didn’t win the prize, although it seemed to me that he should have done). Kaminsky read from his second collection, Deaf Republic (2019), a drama in free verse which tells the story of an imagined town, Vasenka, traumatised by occupation. When a deaf boy is shot in a protest against the occupiers, the town falls silent and communicates solely in Sign Language as a form of resistance. The poems are interspersed with signs for: Hide. Soldiers. Story. Be good. The town watches.

In the opening poem, which the poet read that evening, the speaker tells us: “we protested/ but not enough.” And, “I took a chair outside and watched the sun.” The poem ends: “…in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,/ in our great country of money, we (forgive us)/ lived happily during the war.”

In his first collection, Dancing in Odessa (2004), the parallel opening stand-alone poem ends with a kind of Cohen-esque prayer:

“For whatever I say/ is a kind of petition, and the darkest/ days I must praise.”

© Benedict Gilbert 2022


You can hear ‘We lived happily during the war’ read here by Padraig O’Tuama:

Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Vintage: 2012; 2017)
Leonard Cohen, Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1975)
Live in London: 17th July 2008 (Sony Music)
Leonard Cohen, Poems & Songs: Ed. Robert Faggen (Everyman)

Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic (Faber, 2019);
Dancing in Odessa (2004; Faber, 2021)

Featured image: Pexels free images

I previously wrote about Leonard Cohen below:

A Gift and a Theft: Thinking Rabbinically in Troubled Times

In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway forgets his thirtieth birthday, distracted by the climactic events to which he is witness. Unlike Fitzgerald’s fictional narrator, I did not forget when the time came. I celebrated with a small party in the modest flat I shared with my friend – just off Pottergate (a street which leads west out of the city and is as cobbled as it sounds). It was not to be the “menacing road of a new decade.” In fact, it was a good decade, one to be thankful for. As the evening climbed to its heights, and offered what music it could, I danced around the small living room to the Yiddish album, Cantors and Cantorials (Chazanim & Chazanut). My favourite song on this album (and the only one I can really remember now) was the darkly jaunty, ‘Rich Folk, Poor Folk’. According to the sleeve-notes, in this folk song a layman asks the rabbi to explain the Hebrew verse: “Let us all sing a ditty of bread, meat, fish, and all fine things.” The rabbi replies:

“Bread for the rich is a freshly baked roll, and a dry crust for the poor.

Meat, for the wealthy is a roast duckling, but for the impoverished, liver and lights.”

‘Rich Folk, Poor Folk’

Something like, The poor are always with you; a kind of philosophy of acceptance, endurance or perhaps even gratitude in the face of suffering. It also exists within the long rabbinical tradition of scriptural exegesis, interpreting the Torah and other sacred texts. One lesson from this way of thinking is that there are always at least two ways of understanding our experiences. Last month I wrote on Leonard Cohen, and recently the parallels between this folk song and his ballad ‘Bird on a Wire’ have grown more apparent to me. At the key-change, he sings:

“I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch
He cried to me, ‘you must not ask for so much,’
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
She cried to me, ‘hey, why not ask for more.’”    

‘Bird on a Wire’, Songs from a Room (1967)

The lines may be somewhat of their time, but the voice of the poet remains one caught between poverty and plenty; between suffering and desire. This is pure rabbinical thinking. Even the origins of the song are disputed, with two different versions (Cohen said that his then-lover, Marianne Ihlen, gave him the idea; Joni Mitchell claimed that her painting of three birds inspired the song). It’s interesting that both songs concern a response to wealth, or its lack. In the Gospels both poverty and riches are potentially seen as a prison of sorts (the man at the pool at Bethesda; the rich young man – both of whom move in their shackles. Or, cast differently, have tried in their way to be free).

Leonard Cohen simply presents us with two alternatives and asks us to consider the question of what we may ask of life, or take from it. When Cohen himself was defrauded by his ex-manager, he seemed to receive his near-bankruptcy philosophically. A kind of worldliness—other-worldliness seldom seen in most people. “I don’t recommend this as a spiritual exercise,” he half-joked in interview, “but if it does happen to you, a lot of very important information is delivered to your heart.” Something like Miguel de Cervantes who was said to become more generous the more impoverished he grew. Leonard Cohen was forced out on tour again which, in part, led to his extraordinary late flowering. A gift transfigured out of a theft.

In a time when we seem to swing wildly between division and cohesion, and division again, it might sometimes be worth thinking more rabbinically about things. To consider the possibility that not every question can be answered immediately or definitively. That it is okay (sometimes even wise), to suspend our judgement and learn from our experiences in the fullness of time. To let opinion or reaction cool into something more considered. As the young Irish writer Sally Rooney says in her debut novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), “You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.”

I previously wrote on Leonard Cohen (June 2020), here:

Poet of suffering and desire
‘Rich folk, poor folk’ (“Die Negidim un die Kabzonim“), a song of poverty and plenty

References in this post:

Chazanim & Chazanut, (Pearl; Pavillion Records), 1988; (the song and was recorded by the tenor Mordechai Hershman in 1920, the year he emigrated to the United States)

Allan Showalter reports the story about Joni Mitchell’s influence on ‘Bird on a Wire’:

Interview with Leonard Cohen in 2007 (SVT/NRK/Skavlan, 2016):

William Eggington, The Man who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes ushered in the Modern World (2016), an excellent blending of biography and literary criticism, Copyright © 2009-2020 Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises – in search of Leonard Cohen

Joni & Leonard:

I have just discovered that Joni Mitchell wrote two songs for Leonard Cohen: ‘Rainy Night House’ (1970), and ‘A Case of You’ (1971). This is not news, but is thrilling nonetheless. I’ve carried both these ballads with me for a good twenty years, and suddenly the lyrics come back in sharper focus. Better known, I think, is that Cohen wrote ‘Chelsea Hotel’ (1974) for Janis Joplin, and more obviously, ‘So long, Marianne’ (1967) for Marianne Ihlen, when the couple lived together on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s.

The temptation is to enter the cool shuttered room behind the sun-lit threshold; to raise the latch of biographical intent. Last summer I met my sister in Athens. She was leaving early the next morning, I was heading on to Hydra (Idhra). Although slightly sceptical about literary tourism, there is something about the act of pilgrimage that I sometimes find hard to resist. I would hike into the hills, take a donkey ride (there are no vehicles on the island), and read a book about what really happened to Van Gogh’s ear. And visit Leonard Cohen’s house. That was the plan. But it wouldn’t be a pilgrimage exactly…

Marianne & Leonard:

Shortly after I returned, Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne and Leonard was released. I stepped off the sunny pavement into the Picturehouse theatre. Would the latch be lifted behind the dark shutters? The film is well-worth watching for its interviews and archive footage of Cohen and Ihlen, and for the music, of course. It is beautifully shot, although (I thought) somewhat self-indulgent on Broomfield’s part. The opening voice-over comes close to self-parody. It seems to reinforce the myth of the poet-muse dynamic that Polly Samson is said to unspool in her more recent novel set on the island, A Theatre for Dreamers (2020), in which the couple appear as minor characters. Clarisse Loughrey has it perfectly when she writes of Marianne and Leonard, “It’s as if the film wants you to think of Ihlen as Penelope, waiting faithfully for Odysseus to sail home.”

Broomfield seems to dwell on the excesses of the 1960s and 70s, although he ends the film with Cohen’s letter to Ihlen on her deathbed, which shows his (Leonard Cohen’s) real care for Marianne: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” The final frames of the film, the sea lapping a sailing boat, are overlain with Cohen’s voice, reading from his poem, Days of Kindness:

“I pray that loving memory
exists for them too
the precious ones I overthrew
for an education in the world.”

Leonard Cohen, Days of Kindness (1983)

If this demonstrates his regret, there was worse to come. By far the most tragic event for me was Ihlen’s son, ‘Little’ Axel’s fate – abandoned by his father (the novelist Axel Jensen), given hallucinogenics at 16, and confined to a psychiatric institution – the real tragedy of the film.


Back on Hydra, I take a day-trip on a boat to a small cove called Bisti. Onboard, I befriend a Greek woman, Josie. Or, she befriends me. (She shows great hospitality by buying me a delicious dinner of grilled squid despite being between jobs, and next day helps me find Leonard Cohen’s house). We climb above the port-town, paved alleys full of half-stray cats stretching themselves out in the heat behind the large ochre-coloured house (a museum). Behind that, the Greek painter, Tetsis’ old studio. Finally, behind the studio, an empty white-washed alley, the scarlet-bright bougainvillea. Leonard Cohen Street, the blue plaque says at the end of the alleyway. The house shuttered-up and giving away no secrets in the strong light where morning gives way to afternoon.

The sun-lit threshold: Leonard Cohen’s Hydriot home

Leonard & Joni:

There are stylistic differences between Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell that are worth noting. Joni Mitchell has long been known for her confessional style; observed, open. Jenny Stevens describes her song, ‘A Case of You’ as “a dialogue with her former lover.” It opens:

“Just before our love got lost you said,
‘I am as constant as the  northern star.’
And I said, ‘Constantly in the darkness. Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar.’”

Joni Mitchell, ‘A Case of You’ (Blue)

(And biographically speaking, there was no doubt wisdom in her turning away). Cohen could also write directly from experience himself: ‘The Famous Blue Raincoat’, ‘Suzanne’, ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’, but he more often wrote in an abstract, symbolic style. In poetic terms, he was more the descendant of Yeats or Lorca (after whom he named his daughter), than, say, Robert Lowell. His song, ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ shows a typical kind of veiled autobiography:

“I know it must have hurt you,
it must have hurt your pride
to stand beneath my window
with your bugle and your drum,
while I was up there waiting
for the miracle to come.”

Leonard Cohen, ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ (The Future)

(Not to say, his knowing Jewish humour, a certain resigned melancholy). It’s a kind of confession, although what is being confessed remains opaque. It could serve as a description of his relationship with a number of women – perhaps especially, Marianne Ihlen foremost among them.  Crucially, in his late work, he distils the kind of excesses Broomfield exposes, into something beautifully honed, transfigured, and at times near-Psalmic (‘If It Be Your Will’).  

I did not reach the island’s heights, or ride the donkeys (they looked worn out and forlorn – I felt for them); or see behind the shutters. Nor did I wish to, really – though I’m glad I made the trip to the island. As I looked around one corner, he seemed to disappear around the next. It’s as well in these moments to turn back towards his golden voice. As he said himself:

“You’ll be hearing from me, long after I’m gone.
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from my window in the Tower of Song.”

‘Tower of Song’ (I’m Your Man)

References & links in this post:

Jenny Stevens, Joni Mitchell: Where to start in her back catalogue, The Guardian, 20 May 2020
Clarisse Loughrey, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love review: Too wrapped up in the old obsessions with male genius, The Independent, 25 July 2019
Nick Broomfield, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (Key Media distribution; Lafayette Film production, 26 July 2019). 
Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Leonard Cohen, Poems & Songs (Everyman, 2011) Copyright © 2009-2020 Sony Music Entertainment Canada Inc. All Rights Reserved. © Siquomb Publishing Company

The point about poetic style is based on Andrew Motion’s observations about Philip Larkin’s poetry