I am not a person for whom music figures importantly in life.    In almost every circumstance, I would prefer silence.    But occasionally, some whim takes over and today I decided to listen to versions of Hallelujah on Youtube.

I am fascinated by the collaborations that take place between writer and singer over a song, as when, for example, Jeff Buckley sings the iconic version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (in my opinion.)   Does the writer mind that someone else can render his song better?    I suppose it depends whether he sees himself principally as song writer or singer.  It is odd that Cohen has the emotions to WRITE the song (which is surely the hardest part) but when he sings it, he just sings  it as if it were any old song: whereas it is a hymn, a prayer, and a meditation.

I noticed a cover by Willie Nelson (John owns every record ever produced by him.)    Now I actually like Willie Nelson – (just as  well!) but his version of this  song was absolutely useless: Willie Nelson manages to make everything sound like On the Road Again (which is a great song in its own right, as I’ve thought many a day as we’ve set off to explore the wonders of Australia or South Africa to its sound.)

I first heard this song – Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen – when Rory played it to me as one of his favourites in New Zealand.    This was years ago, long before Alexandra Burke  had ever heard of it.        (He says he had played it for me before then, but I do not remember this.)    The song was full of pain and loneliness and this is perhaps why the singer  seems to need to have a capacity to convey an intensity of pain, and out of the different versions I listened to, the second best version I thought was kd lang at some prestigious Canadian occasion with a vast audience.   I knew very little about her –  a plain woman, very masculine of persuasion, presented without vanity – but I had never heard her sing.     She has a superb voice and she can deliver.    She can convey the pain and  sorrow too.    She’s one of those singers who can command the stage and almost like a high priestess present the song as an act of worship and lead the audience into a sacrifice or emotional release.    These kind of performers are rare and set apart;  they are not there for the fame and the applause.   (She received, notwithstanding, from this vast audience, a 2 minute standing ovation.)    But the very presence of the audience and the accomplished orchestral accompaniment is a distraction.    (kd lang sings Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at Winter Olympics, youtube.com.)

Jeff Buckley’s version is in a class of its own.    Buckley sings the song as if he were going to die of the singing of it.    He might be a phoenix singing as the flames ascend.    You hear it almost as though it were not intended for you, but just drifting to you on the wind.    As he begins  he seems to be just idly trying out chords on his guitar.   Only very slowly does the song emerge and you’re quite unprepared for it.    You almost feel, so private and understated yet exquisite is the listening, that you ought not to be hearing him.   It is said that he saw the song  as a poem on orgasm, and in its intensity of sweetness and sorrow it is almost too much to bear.   This is not a love song in any traditional sense:  this is a  disquisition on the cost of love.   Every verse is about loss.   It is intensely melancholic, yet I do not think it could quite be described as bitter.    (Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah – youtube.com.)

But, if Buckley stands like a colossus among the singers, Cohen wrote the song.    Clearly one possible interpretation of the song is that it is about a failed love affair, and there are many references which can be interpreted sexually.    But also, underlying the poem are the artist’s senses of loss and failure: as a lover;  as a believer;   and as a song writer.    I do not think he is writing of a physical woman – what mortal woman could raise such sorrow – but about the Muse, the Goddess he has followed and, he feels, has failed to capture.    But he is not completely bereft of faith because though he feels he has been betrayed by the goddess, he knows he can stand before the Lord of Song, and make an offering of his work, and most importantly, his good faith and integrity.     The song is elegiac, but it is not despairing.    In spite of his sorrows, the song writer knows that even though the singer may not win the woman, or having won her she may prove to be less valuable than he thought, yet still, love never fails.    There is a higher altar he can stand before.

From my point of view, the song can stand beside Gray’s Elegy in the sense that it is enough.    If the poet’s whole life had produced this one song, that one poem, that would be enough.    There is no measuring the success of such a work in material terms, nor should it matter  if the creator became famous because of it.    Indeed I almost feel there should be no reward sought at all other than the privilege of having written it.    Cohen wrote the song.  Buckley sang it.   It is enough.


PS    I have burdened you with double dosage this week, but now I am headed North to the land of our mothers, and so silence from me for a time.


About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

5 Responses to HALLELUJAH

  1. Eugene Windsor says:

    Amazing…I think you’ve said more about music here than I’ve heard you say in your whole life so far! Good to hear it. Music is really important to me. I enjoyed your thoughts on Hallelujah, one of the greatest songs of the modern era, surely. I’m not sure I agree about Cohen’s version not being that great…unfortunately, due to Susan not being a great fan I seldom hear him, so I’m sad to say the first time I heard Hallelujah was in the movie Shrek. But I like his version – I think I generally think the writer of a song does the best version even if he or she does not neceesarily have the best voice (though there are, of course, exceptions). Many do, however, agree that the Buckley version is the definitive one.

    On the song itself, it is most certainly open to many interpretations and I would endorse all the connotations and themes that you mention. I remember reading or hearing that he said when writing it he was like a man possessed and wrote more than 80 different verses, many of which have never been heard. That kind of creativity, I think, is probably only possible in an artist’s youth – in all types of music I think it’s probably true that the real works of genius were written before the artist was 30. I remember reading in Bob Dylan’s autobiography “Chronicles – volume one” (incidentally, a brilliant piece of writing and well worth a read) of when he was trying to revive his carreer in the 80s after years in the doldrums, working with legenary producer Rick Rubin. Dylan recounts that after days in the studio he decides he cannot do any more and off he roars on his motorbike, disappearing for two days while the rest of the musicians wait to see what is going to happen. Eventually he returns and they complete the work. Dylan leaves at the end, satisfied with what he has done. He writes something like, “I think Rubin is quite pleased. He really wanted another Like a Rolling Stone, but I can’t write songs like that any more. To write songs like that you need to have the devil in you, and I don’t have that any more.”

    Cohen, I think, had the devil in him when he wrote Hallelujah. He may still have it a bit…watch the 2008 DVD…

    Thanks for the thoughts.


    • Sheena Murphy says:

      I, like Eugene, like the Rufus Wainright version, as recorded (talk about from the sublime to the riciculous) for Shrek. The pacing is perfect; some of the other versions are too slow, I find. Jeff Buckley is a very close second. There’s a vulnerability to him reminiscent (for me) of Billie Holiday.

  2. adhocannie says:

    Thank you. This blog raised a great deal of discussion, much of it privately addressed to me, and I thank everyone. It would be interesting to know how old Cohen was when he first wrote this song; it lacks the optimism of youth. I heard that he did not write any definitive version but endlessly fiddled with it and delivered a different version each night according to what he thought the audience deserved. (How awful to be part of an audience deemed undeserving!) AA

  3. adhocannie says:

    As I say above, much private correspondence. My cousin, Ken Mackay of Canada has sent a link to another version he enjoyed, which took place at the state funeral of the Canadian politician, Jack Layton. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzLp6WXt8xg.

    (PS The whole fraught subject of music for funerals might be a suitable suject for a future blog!)

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