Exclusive Book Excerpt: Leonard Cohen Writes 'Hallelujah' in 'The Holy or the Broken'
Leonard Cohen's career had reached a low point when he wrote "Hallelujah." It was 1984, and he had been out of the spotlight for quite a long time. His 1977 LP, Death of a Ladies' Man, a collaboration with Phil Spector, was a commercial and critical disappointment, and his next album Recent Songs fared no better. When Cohen submitted the songs for his subsequent LP, Various Positions, to Columbia, label execs didn't hear "Hallelujah," the opening song of Side Two, as anything special. They didn't even want to release the album, though it eventually came out in Europe in 1984 and America the following year.
It took a few years for "Hallelujah" to emerge as a classic. Bob Dylan was one of the first to recognize its brilliance, playing it at a couple of shows in 1988. The Velvet Underground's John Cale tackled it on the piano for a 1991 Cohen tribute disc, and three years later, Jeff Buckley took inspiration from that rendition and covered it on his 1994 album, Grace. It was that version that eventually created a huge cult around the song, and it's since been covered by everybody from Bono to Bon Jovi. It's far and away Leonard Cohen's most famous composition, even though many people don't even realize that he wrote it.
Alan Light dove deep into the history of the song for his new book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.' Here is an excerpt.
In June 1984, Cohen and Lissauer recorded the album that would become Various Positions in New York's Quadrasonic Sound studios. In the album's arrangements, for the first time on Cohen's recordings, synthesizers were prominent; they would come to define his sound more and more in the years to come. A group of musicians from Tulsa provided the backbone of the arrangements. Sid McGinnis – who joined the band at Late Night with David Letterman that same year and has remained with the show ever since, in addition to recording with the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and Dire Straits – provided additional guitar parts.
Jennifer Warnes, who had sung backup with Cohen on previous albums and tours, was brought further into the spotlight as a featured vocalist, a counterpoint to the limited parameters of Cohen's voice. Hawaiian-born Anjani Thomas was one of the backup singers on these sessions; she would go on to become Cohen's longtime companion, and he produced an album of her singing his songs, Blue Alert, in 2006.
Lissauer, a Yale graduate who has gone on to a successful career scoring films, beamed when he spoke of these sessions that took place almost thirty years earlier. Seated in the larger of the two studio rooms he operates from his thirty-five-acre farm about an hour north of Manhattan, he described working on Various Positions as pure pleasure. "I've never had a more rewarding experience," he said. "It was so much fun; we had a great time. Leonard and I got along so well it's almost scary. There were no roadblocks, no disasters; it was great start to finish – it was high art, it was just thrilling."
The songs included several of Cohen's most lasting compositions. The selections that ultimately opened and closed the album, "Dance Me to the End of Love" and "If It Be Your Will," stand among his best-loved work.
Midway through the sessions – Lissauer can't remember the precise sequence, but it wasn't near the beginning or the end – Cohen brought in "Hallelujah" to record. Whatever torment he'd been going through with the song's lyrics over the previous months and years, he showed no sign of confusion or indecision in the studio. "I think it was as it was," said the producer. "There was no 'Should we do this verse?' – I don't think there was even a question of the order of verses, any 'Which should come first?' And had he had a question about it, I think he would've resolved it himself.
"He's not one to share his struggles," Lissauer continued. "If he wasn't up to recording, if he was still working on something, then we just wouldn't go in. But he'd never go in and act out the tormented, struggling artist."
Leanne Ungar, who engineered Various Positions and has remained part of Cohen's production team ever since, said that there was a pragmatic reason he would not have been experimenting with lyrics during the recording. "He wouldn't bring extra verses to the studio because of time pressure," she said. "The meter is running there." It seems that the breakthrough in Cohen's editing – the vision that allowed him to bring the eighty written verses down to the four that he ultimately recorded – was reaching a decision about how much to foreground the religious element of the song. "It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end," he once said. "Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the 'secular' 'Hallelujah.' "