Chasing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

Cohen album-various-positionsA little under a year ago I treated myself to a book purchase (something I do only rarely because of my perpetual and monumental reading backlog): Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the unlikely ascent of “Hallelujah”.  But even having just read Light’s interesting book my attention piqued especially when my 12-year-old son was skimming my copy and asked of the foreword’s account of the 2012 inaugural PEN “Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence” awards, who was this ‘Berry’ guy who was being honoured along with Cohen?

I have sung, listened to, accompanied at various keyboards, considered, parodied (in the medieval sense implying more respect than humour or critique) this piece for only two of its four decades of life, whatever ‘life’ means to a song or for that matter, a poem. I even once re-wrote the lyrics for a wedding whose bride loved the song, but maintained a fierce disinterest in the song’s original content to the point that even my pragmatic theatre/church musicianship required of me lots of denial. But I must admit that I had until Light’s book no idea of the true ubiquity of the Canadian song and songwriter my 12-year-old knew while never having heard of Chuck Berry – just its musical perfection and the remarkable power of its intimate and vivid sentiments.

Two signposts in my own relationship with “Hallelujah” were accompanying a young Patricia O’Callaghan in a performance at St. James’ Cathedral, Toronto in the late 1990s, and then playing a minor role in the August 27 2011 state funeral of my distant acquaintance and political idol Jack Layton, when Steve Page’s version was deeply memorable to many, but confirmed that, in the words of Toronto critic Kevin Courrier, “[it] 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.” (to be fair to Page, in a conversation I had with him backstage he like the rest of us had not much notice before taking part in the Layton funeral, and agreed with many others that it was a challenging and bordering chlicheed request.)

Some versions, like the John Cale’s from 1991, famously used in the 2001 movie Shrek!, and the late Jeff Buckley’s backing video of the World Trade Centre attacks later that year became holy writ in the “Hallelujah” canon while others, like Bono’s and Sandra Boyle’s, fell more into a continuum ranging from missed opportunity to outright embarrassment. But in the end words and music make this obscure (and at the time rejected outright by Columbia Records in perhaps one of music industry’s most legendary missteps) 1984 masterpiece into something timeless, transfixing, and endlessly vital.  When in 2004 k.d. Lang contributed a beautiful symphonic-scale arrangement into the repertoire, its most poignant attribute IMHO was its album title, “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” – reclaiming the work not just for the country she, Cohen and I share, but also for Cohen’s deeply nuanced and often tortured faith journey.

Perhaps Salman Rushdie, an author of mythic power in his own right and presenter of Cohen’s award in 2012, said it best: “(it’s) joyous and despondent, a celebration and a lament, a juxtaposition of dark Old Testament imagery with an irresistibly uplifting chorus, ‘Hallelujah’ is an open-ended meditation on love and faith.”

“There is a religious hallelujah, but there are many other ones,” Cohen once said. “When one looks at the world, there’s only one thing to say, and it’s hallelujah. That’s the way it is.”

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