Alan Light Stands Before the Lord of Song With Nothing on His Lips But “Hallelujah”
by Jay S. Jacobs
There are certain songs that feel like they were born as classics: the world knew and loved them from their release date. Immediate standards like “Something,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “My Girl” and “Imagine” were fully formed in the pop culture firmament from the very start.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” took a much rockier road to become a musical masterpiece. The song was a pretty unnoticed album track on Leonard Cohen’s 1984 Various Positions record – the one album in Cohen’s forty-some year career that was rejected by his long-time record label Columbia. The song troubled Cohen so greatly that he wrote 80 verses trying to get it right and continued experimenting with it in concert for decades after it was recorded.
It took twenty years and an eventual hundreds of cover versions – most vitally the ethereal cover by the tragically short-lived singer Jeff Buckley – for “Hallelujah” to attain the popular ubiquity that it has achieved in the past decade or so. From the Olympics to Shrek to American Idol to concerts for the survivors of the World Trade Center disaster, Haiti and Hurricane Sandy: when a song is needed to convey a sense of tragedy, hope or faith, chances are good that “Hallelujah” will be performed.
Many of the biggest names in music – including Bono, Bob Dylan, Justin Timberlake, Neil Diamond and Jon Bon Jovi – have taken a stab at the song. The song is so malleable that acts from most styles and genres can feel equally comfortable within the gorgeous melody and poetic lyrics. The fact that there is a long-standing tradition that verses can be swapped out, moved or even ignored has created a pop masterpiece that literally can be all things to all people.
Longtime music journalist Alan Light (The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin) was fascinated by the unusual journey in which the song has ingratiated itself into so many hearts. In his fascinating new book The Holy or the Broken – Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” (Atria Books), Light takes a detailed look at the strange and troubled road that led to this iconic pop culture treasure.
Soon after the book’s release, Light gave us a call to discuss his book and the cult of “Hallelujah.”
So why “Hallelujah”? What is it about that song that you feel has captured people?
There’s not one easy answer to why the song resonates. It reaches some very basic and very universal emotions. First of all, when you’re dealing with something like a Leonard Cohen song, it’s very easy to get caught up in the poetry and the lyrics and the intricacy of the imagery – all of which are very significant to the impact and the longevity of the song. But I think people respond to songs first for melodies, moods and feelings. The elemental, irresistible and very singable melody at the heart of this song is something that we’ve seen everybody from opera singers to Willie Nelson can sing convincingly, whatever your range. Then also, the feeling and the universality of this word “Hallelujah” and this idea that goes with it. It’s the kind of spirituality that people are hungry for, are trying to find in the world. Especially as they go outside of more organized religion, when they find and experience it feels significant for them like this. That idea of “Hallelujah,” giving praise and thanks and finding that kind of spirit and survival at difficult times. A friend, the cantor at a synagogue in New Jersey, in the book she says early in her career somebody told her that if you are singing in interfaith settings or you are singing outside of your synagogue, any song with “Hallelujah” in it always works. That’s an idea that cuts across different faiths, different beliefs, whatever. Everybody kind of gets that. So, I think it’s first of all those things and then over time [it became] the litmus of the language and the multiple meanings that the song can be imbued with.
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