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Hallelujah: The song that took a decade to connect

In the lead up to our special on Jeff Buckley's Grace, we look at one of the most celebrated tracks from that classic album.

Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' is one of the acclaimed artist's most revered songs as it stands today. But this was far from the case upon its release back in 1984. It took over ten years for the song to reach its peak popularity and despite covers from Bob Dylan and John Cale in the interim, it was Jeff Buckley's rendition of the song that exposed it to its widest audience.

Music journalist Alan Light was so fascinated by the song and its longevity that he wrote a book about it, The Holy or the Broken – Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah'. He spoke to Double J about the strange history of the song.

 

"[Leonard Cohen] says it was a song he struggled with for years," Light explains. "He wrote, depending on which version of the story he tells, 60 or 70 or 80 verses for and grew very frustrated trying to actually edit it down into a song. He finally did record it in 1984 on an album called Various Positions, which came out that year. Not only was this song not noticed, but Columbia Records turned down the album and wouldn't put it out."

Light says Bob Dylan was about the only person who paid any attention to the song, covering it in concert a few times in the late 1980s, before John Cale saw Cohen perform it live in the early '90s.

"A rock magazine in France put together a tribute record to Leonard [1991's I'm Your Fan]. John Cale decided that he wanted to record 'Hallelujah'. He wrote to Leonard's office and said 'could you guys send me the lyrics' and they faxed him 15 pages of all the lyrics to the song.  Leonard said 'Listen, let's see if you can figure it out. Obviously I didn't do a very good job at finding the song in all of this.'

"So John Cale re-edited it a bit and recorded it for this tribute record and actually that was the version that Jeff Buckley first heard. He didn't initially learn it from Leonard Cohen's recording, he learnt it from this re-edit that John Cale did."

Cohen and Buckley's age difference gave the song very different perspectives, Light says.

 

"Leonard was 50 years old when he wrote the song and I think it reads very much as a song about overcoming the obstacles and difficulties that life throws at you," he says. "Learning that you'll survive heartbreak. In the end it's confusing and it's frustrating but you have to accept it, this is the way the world is.

"That wouldn't have sounded particularly believable coming from 24-year-old Jeff Buckley. It's obviously much more intimate, much more melancholy, much more romantic. It's really about the first time you confront those struggles and those disappointments. It's much more about discovering the way that life will hurt you and let you down. It's a much more fragile and a much more sexy version of the song. It makes sense that that kind of interpretation resonated with younger listeners and pop listeners in a way that Leonard's version did not. It's not just who he was, it's a different reading and a different emphasis."

After the success of Buckley's version the song has been covered over 300 times. Light has heard them all, and discusses a few of his favourites.

John Cale – I'm Your Fan (1991)

"That really is the transitional moment that brings the song from the way Leonard initially recorded it to the way Jeff ended up singing it. John Cale does the song solo with piano, where Leonard's version was big and grand and has a choir singing the chorus with him. This stripped it down to something much more personal, made it much more human and gave it much more of an edge. The verses that he chose to keep and the verses that he chose to drop put some more pain into the song and really brought the song down to earth. I think that was certainly a thing Jeff Buckley picked up on when he did with the song what he did."

k.d. lang – Winter Olympics: Vancouver (2010)

"Leonard Cohen has always said that k.d. lang is one of his favourite performers of the song, that he has always been particularly taken with, the way that she sings it. Almost more so than recorded version, I think the version that will live through history is when she sang the song at the Opening Ceremony for the 2010 [Winter] Olympics in Canada.

"This is a song that fits her voice beautifully and fits her range beautifully. I think after Jeff Buckley's version and after all the people that recorded it based on his version and it had this more sorrowful side associated with it, I think it was k.d. lang's version that put back in some of this sense of transcendence and of survival and triumph and turned the song a little bit back toward Leonard Cohen's initial meaning and really set the song up for where it's gone in the years since then."

Brandi Carlile – Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony (2011)

"Brandi Carlile spoke so powerfully about growing up in a small town as a woman who was gay and was Christian and that it was really Hallelujah that allowed her to think about resolving those two parts of herself. That she could have faith but also have doubt. That it was ok to struggle with her belief and her sexuality and all of these things are part of living and one does not preclude the other. It was ‘Hallelujah’ that gave her the language to think about that, which I think was just an extraordinary thing to hear her say."

Jake Shimabukuro – Peace Love Ukulele (2011)

"The reason to listen to this version of the song is that it's an instrumental. Jake Shimabukuro said that it was never the lyrics of the song that meant that much to him, it was the melody and the way the chords fit together. When you're talking about a song by a writer like Leonard Cohen, a poet, it's very easy to just talk about the words to this song, talk about the meaning of this song and talk about who does which verses in which version, to get very caught up in the literary side of it. But people respond to a song first for the melody. It can be an amazing set of lyrics, but if they don't respond to the sound of the song nobody's gonna listen to it."

Bono – Tower Of Song (1995)

"To make a really bad version of 'Hallelujah' you have to try something that falls flat. There aren't that many of them. Bono recorded a version of the song in the '90s for a different Leonard Cohen tribute album and his version is just god-awful. He attempts to do something that's kind of a trip hop version, he mumbles the verses in a cryptic way, he goes into falsetto in the chorus and really it's just a disaster. It was notable that Bono did this but it the end it was such a failed experiment. You really can butcher 'Hallelujah' if you really set your mind to it."

Jeff Buckley is the subject of The J Files on Double J this Thursday night from 8pm. 

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