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Book Excerpt: Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' in 'The Holy or the Broken'

The story behind the folk legend's most famous song

Leonard Cohen
JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images
December 3, 2012 4:40 PM ET

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.

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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' by Alan Light, copyright 2012 by Alan Light, Published by Atria, an imprint of Simon and Schuste. Here is an excerpt.

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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.' "

"Hallelujah" as it exists on Various Positions is both opaque and direct. Each verse ends with the word that gives the song its title, which is then repeated four times, giving the song its signature prayer-like incantation. The word hallelujah has slightly different implications in the Old and New Testaments. In the Hebrew Bible, it is a compound word, from hallelu, meaning "to praise joyously," and yah, a shortened form of the unspoken name of God. So this "hallelujah" is an active imperative, an instruction to the listener or congregation to sing tribute to the Lord.

In the Christian tradition, "hallelujah" is a word of praise rather than a direction to offer praise – which became the more common colloquial use of the word as an expression of joy or relief, a synonym for "Praise the Lord," rather than a prompting to action. The most dramatic use of "hallelujah" in the New Testament is as the keynote of the song sung by the great multitude in heaven in Revelation, celebrating God's triumph over the Whore of Babylon.

Cohen's song begins with an image of the Bible's musically identified King David, recounting the heroic harpist's "secret chord," with its special spiritual power ("And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him" – 1 Samuel 16:23). It was his musicianship that first earned David a spot in the royal court, the first step toward his rise to power and uniting the Jewish people.

"As a student of the sound, I understood the resonances of his incantation and invocation of David," said Bono, who added that he immediately responded to the "vaingloriousness and hubris" of the lyric. "I've thought a lot about David in my life. He was a harp player, and the first God heckler – as well as shouting praises to God, he was also shouting admonishment. 'Why hast thou forsaken me?' That's the beginning of the blues."

But this first verse almost instantly undercuts its own solemnity; after offering such an inspiring image in the opening lines, Cohen remembers whom he's speaking to, and reminds his listener that "you don't really care for music, do you?"

"One of the funny things about 'Hallelujah,' " said Bill Flanagan, "is that it's got this profound opening couplet about King David, and then immediately it has this Woody Allen–type line of, 'You don't really care for music, do you?' I remember it striking me the first time I heard the song as being really funny in a Philip Roth, exasperated kind of way – 'I built this beautiful thing, but the girl only cares about the guy with a nice car.' "

Cohen then describes, quite literally, the harmonic progression of the verse: "It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift." This is an explanation of the song's structure (the basic chord progression of most pop and blues songs goes from the "one" chord, the root, up three steps to the "four," then up another to the "five," and then resolves back to the "one"), followed by a reference to the conventional contrast between a major (happy) key and a minor (sad) key. He ends the first verse with "the baffled king composing Hallelujah!" – a comment on the unknowable nature of artistic creation, or of romantic love, or both. In the song's earliest moments, he has placed us in a time of ancient legend, and peeled back the spiritual power of music and art to reveal the concrete components, reducing even literal musical royalty to the role of simple craftsman.

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