Waiting for the Miracle: On Leonard Cohen
The year 2008 proved to be when Leonard Cohen finally became a mainstream figure. Cohen was discovered in 1967 by John Hammond, Columbia Records' legendary talent scout, who was willing to take a chance on a thirtysomething Canadian poet and novelist who had fallen in with Warhol's Factory crowd while pursuing a musical career in Greenwich Village. Four decades later, Cohen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Madonna, John Mellencamp and the Ventures, and refused to perform. Lou Reed's introduction, a rambling tribute to the marvel of Cohen's lyrics, included a statement of uncharacteristic beneficence: "We are so lucky to be alive at the same time Leonard Cohen is." Cohen made his entrance, told a self-deprecating zinger and, in the spirit of Reed's introduction, he recited "The Tower of Song" before exiting the stage. "I'll be speaking to you sweetly from my window in the tower of song," he promised in a rasp, perhaps keeping his own afterworld in check.
By the end of the year, Cohen had performed around a hundred concerts and discovered that two cover versions of his song "Hallelujah"--which he had originally recorded for Various Positions (1984), an album that Columbia had at first deemed unworthy of release in the United States--were competing for the top spot on the Christmas charts in Britain. The covers, by British reality-show contestant Alexandra Burke and American singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, ended the year at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively (Cohen's original hovered in the mid-30s), making it the first song in more than fifty years to occupy the top two spots on the British charts. In the United States, Buckley's version peaked at No. 1, a remarkable feat for a song recorded more than a decade earlier, three years before the singer's accidental death at age 30 in 1997. The tragedy of Buckley's short life, as opposed to the phenomenon of Cohen's long one, may have had something to do with the popularity of his cover version. Perhaps listeners preferred Buckley's opiate beauty to Cohen's gruff poetry. Maybe they got hooked on the mellifluous chord substitution Buckley added, which sounds like the "secret chord" David plays for the Lord in the song's first verse. Maybe the sepia-toned video of Buckley lip-synching the song, so fey and self-destructive, was just too swoon-worthy. Or maybe millions of people liked Buckley's version of "Hallelujah" simply because it sounds like many other covers of the song--especially Rufus Wainwright's, which appeared on the Shrek soundtrack. "Hallelujah" has become such a pop staple that it was even performed by American Idol finalist Jason Castro, a sensitive young white guy with dreadlocks. Randy, Paula and Simon loved the song, and especially--need it be added?--Buckley's version.
Mixing sacred and profane verses, "Hallelujah" is about the folly of trying to live a sanctified life in a fallen, imperfect world. The song offers biblical wisdom, sexual healing and haunted, inspired solitude. The singer looks for beauty in every syllable, every stroke of sex, every note that is offered up to the Lord--to G-d, as Cohen writes--but he also realizes, at least implicitly, that it is his lust, his flaws, that cause a stupendous, epic fall. The only version of "Hallelujah" as sublime as Cohen's is one performed by Bob Dylan in 1988 in Montreal. (It's available online.) Dylan's voice, like Cohen's, is gravelly, and when he sings "there's a blaze of light in every word," you can glimpse the illumination amid the haze. When Dylan first heard the song, along with the rest of Various Positions, he said that Cohen's songs were starting to sound more like prayers.
"Hallelujah" took Cohen years to write, and he would continue to sort out the verses after recording it. The germ of the song's memorable first verse--"You don't really care for music, do you?" rhyming, inimitably, with "hallelujah"--can be found in the opening lines of a short prose piece called "The News You Really Hate," from Death of a Lady's Man, a volume of poems released the year after Cohen's 1977 album Death of a Ladies' Man: "You fucking whore. I thought that you were really interested in music." The tone is quite different--it would never be mistaken as prayerful--but the sense of devotion is just as acute. For Cohen, music is holy, a prayer. If a lover doesn't share this with him, presumably, it is a betrayal. This is the same Cohen who, in "Suzanne" (1967), his original signature tune, sang, in the second person, "You've touched her perfect body/with your mind." Cohen's voice leads us to a mind always seeking perfection, not just in an erotic experience but a spiritual one. Like John Donne, Cohen constantly pairs the sacred and the profane--a coupling rooted in deep study. The original lyrics of "Hallelujah" (the word literally means "praise God") were all biblical in origin: the stories of David and the Lord, Samson and Delilah. Cohen was unsatisfied with a wholly biblical saga and added secular verses, but even in them his metaphorical arsenal found religion: "I remember when I moved in you,/and the holy dove was moving too,/and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!"