Saturday, September 3, 2011

Covered Up: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Steven Page at Jack Layton's state funeral
While listening to Steven Page sing Leonard Cohen's now iconic "Hallelujah," during the largely moving televised funeral last weekend for NDP leader Jack Layton, I began to recognize just how much this song has lost its meaning and much of its sting. Sung now with a solemn reverence, as Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" often is, "Hallelujah" is about as misunderstood as Randy Newman's "Sail Away." Written in 1984, Cohen conceived the song as one that combined invective with elegiac and religious meditation. "You're not on the stand when you're praying," he told me in an interview months before the song was released. "You can't come with any excuses. You don't have a deep belief in your opinion any longer, or your own construction of how things are. That's why you pray because you haven't got a prayer." You don't hear in these famous cover versions by Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, kd lang, or in Steven Page's recent rendition, any of that sense of doubt, the struggle between the profane and sacred, or even the naked fear of the singer being aware that despite being armed with prayer the world still remains the same.

In its original version, heard on Cohen's Various Positions album, "Hallelujah" contained some of the same ambiguous spiritual longing religious monks once possessed while seeking God in the world and finding instead plagues, the Crusades, and accused witches being burned at the stake. A year earlier, Bob Dylan had written a song just like it called "Blind Willie McTell" (ultimately discarded from his album Infidels) which also took a sojourn into the secular world with the singer's faith his only shield and the voice of a long dead blues singer giving him solace. But Cohen in "Hallelujah" also took the intimacies of those sacred sentiments and brought them into the world of romantic love. He sought absolution in a place where absolution is rarely found:

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah 

Cohen's masterpiece began life as a cover standard when ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale recorded it for a 1991 tribute album called I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, a single CD produced by the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles. Considering the fawning dullness of most tribute albums, I'm Your Fan contained some pretty lively and inventive performances (including Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds triumphant "Tower of Song," The Pixies' "I Can't Forget," That Petrol Emotion's "Stories of the Street," and Lloyd Cole's "Chelsea Hotel"). Cale had once seen Cohen perform the song and asked him to send along the lyrics. When Cale received a sheath of fifteen pages, he went through them and picked out what he called "the cheeky verses." In his version, heard on solo piano, Cale's beautifully dark-toned voice certainly contained that cheekiness, but it also caught the song's weariness. In the opening verse, Cale speaks with a casual anticipation of rejection in the face of something divine:

I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?

But when Jeff Buckley covered "Hallelujah" on his 1994 debut Grace, the song seemed airbrushed of its ambiguities, its belief that all the Hallelujahs uttered might not alter a thing. Instead of the "broken" Hallelujahs, all you heard were the "holy" ones. Buckley sang in that forlorn tone (a tone once possessed by his late father Tim Buckley), but now done with the self-conscious air of the divine. Buckley turned the song into a quiet prayer giving it a respite it hadn't earned. Of course, that approach also turned it into an alternative music hit. (By contrast, when Cohen first released Various Positions, his label, CBS Records, didn't even issue it in the United States. Passport Records eventually did.)

When Canadian Rufus Wainwright would later write a song called "Memphis Skyline," heard on his 2004 album Want Two, he did it as a tribute to Buckley who he had just met. "Memphis Skyline" would also reference "Hallelujah" and lead Wainwright to record his own live version of it which he recorded at the Fillmore (and heard on the DVD of Want Two). Wainwright's version, built on the same earnest interpretation of Buckley's, soon took over the airwaves. (Buckley had tragically drowned back in 1997.) A parade of stars have since created one version after another, and many strip the song of any of its conflict. But why?

None of this is particularly new in popular song. It has much to do with our relationship to popular music in our need to identify with the singer in the song. We often feel that they are expressing the sentiments that we share, or wish to share. The idea of an untrustworthy narrator in popular song, a familiar device in literature, goes against the grain of what makes a song sell. To touch the depths of both longing and terror that Cohen reaches in "Hallelujah" is not a place most people want to visit. The solace a song can offer becomes more appealing instead.

As for the choice an artist makes to change the meaning of a song? Well, that's a little trickier. In 1971, when Joan Baez recorded The Band's stirring "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," a powerfully moving story told from the point of view of Virgil Cane, a defeated Southerner at the end of the American Civil War, she changed the words. Baez, a Northern liberal, could hardly place herself comfortably in the character of a white Southerner, so she amended the story. The line featuring Virgil's exultant vision of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, now featured Lee as a ship, "The Robert E. Lee," apparently arriving at some non-existent port. Furthermore, when the defeated Virgil asserts that, like his father before him, he will "work the land," Baez modifies the line to read, "I'm a working man." In doing so, she changes the song into a rallying cry more suited to Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" than a Southerner vainly attempting to till the land that is his defeated heritage. It became a top ten hit.

Greil Marcus once wrote about The Band's original version in his 1975 book Mystery Train. "It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane's, could listen to this song without finding himself changed," he wrote. "You can't get out from under the singer's truth - not the whole truth, simply his truth - and the little autobiography closes the gap between us." That's what's missing in Baez's version: The idea that there are lives lived which aren't our own; that there are stories told which we can't tell. And this is also what's wrong with some versions of "Hallelujah." They turn our listening to it into a hushed reverie, a pious acceptance of transcendence, plus a false sense of safety from life's pains and sorrows. I'd like to think that Leonard Cohen is out there somewhere cringing when he hears them.

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins September 12th (6:30pm until 9pm) until November 21st. Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)  


  1. Thankfully, not all of the more than 200 covers of "Hallelujah" sound like the mainstream and often corporate-publicity-driven versions. Leonard Cohen is performing the song on tour and has released his live version in very recent years. Especially online, now, one can find the "Hallelujah" of their choice.

  2. I have to say I agree with every ounce of this, except for the Buckley analysis. I think Buckley got as close to the piece as anyone other than Cohen could. There is a vulnerability in his approach that is like true prayer, and like he understands the scars that linger beneath the text. There is something in this piece (mostly Cohen's, but also Buckley's) that feels like the mystic experience of having the self burned away, and that willingly.