Book traces odd journey of Cohen's song
FILE - In this April 17, 2009 file photo, Leonard Cohen performs during the first day of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. It's hard to think of any song that has taken a stranger journey through popular culture than Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Author Alan Light’s book, "The Holy or the Broken," releasing on Dec. 4, 2012, is about the trajectory of the song, “Hallelujah,” and about Cohen and its most celebrated singer, the late Jeff Buckley. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)
NEW YORK (AP) — It's hard to think of any song that has taken a stranger journey through popular culture than Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Recorded in 1984, it was on the only Cohen album rejected by his record company. Virtually no one noticed when the song did come out on an independent label. Since then, through dozens of cover versions, high-profile performances and appearances on TV or movie soundtracks, "Hallelujah" has become a modern standard.
Author Alan Light reflected upon that while at Yom Kippur services in Manhattan two years ago, as he saw congregants in tears when the choir sang "Hallelujah." His curiosity led him to write "The Holy or the Broken," about the song's trajectory, about Cohen and about its most celebrated singer, the late Jeff Buckley. The book is out Tuesday.
"At a time when everything has fragmented so dramatically, it's sort of heartening to see that this song can connect as universally as it did," Light said.
Cohen labored over "Hallelujah," filling a notebook with some 80 verses before recording. The song has Biblical references, but Cohen's stated goal was to give a nonreligious context to hallelujah, an expression of praise. Some of those hallelujah moments are clearly sexual, given a lyric like "she tied you to a kitchen chair ... and from your lips she drew the hallelujah." The author's droll humor is present throughout in lines like "you don't really care for music, do you?"
Musically (and Cohen's lyrics even describe the melody), the verses build slowly to a release in the chorus, which is simply the title word repeated four times.
Cohen saw his composition as joyous, yet its placement on "ER," ''The West Wing," ''House" and many other TV and movie soundtracks has become a nearly universal signal of a sad moment. It is played at weddings, funerals, school concerts and all manner of religious services, the chorus lifting it into the realm of the spiritual.
The song's malleability is one key to its success, Light said. Cohen recorded four verses but sent several more to John Cale when Cale recorded "Hallelujah" for a 1991 tribute album. Seven were published in Cohen's 1993 book of lyrics and poetry. Verses can be dropped or given greater emphasis depending on the interpreter. And most everyone knows "Hallelujah" from an interpreter, from Buckley to Bono, from k.d. lang to Susan Boyle, to seemingly half the contestants in TV music competitions.