Famous and infamous, music industry legend Yetnikoff had risen from the label's legal department to run the company, which he did from 1975 to 1990. His career (which is documented in Fredric Dannen's definitive study of the record business, Hit Men, and in his own freewheeling auto biography, Howling at the Moon) was marked by such earth shattering triumphs as Michael Jackson's Thriller and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., alongside a litany of accusations and allegations about his shady cohorts and abrasive style.
As Cohen recounted the story, when Yetnikoff told him that he was rejecting Various Positions, he said, "Leonard, we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good."
Lissauer suggests that perhaps the executives at Columbia (a division of CBS; soon to become part of the Sony Corporation) were expecting something more pop-oriented, based on the early reports from the sessions. "The '80s was an awful period for real, artistic singer-songwriters," he said. "The '70s had everything from Paul Simon's solo stuff, James Taylor, Joni, even Randy Newman. But the '80s was all bands and MTV, and Yetnikoff might actually have been looking for a way to weed out the Leonards of the world."
Ungar believes that the rejection of the album was less strategic than that. "I think it was the usual reason – they didn't hear a single."
Many years later, in a 2009 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company about the ongoing success of "Hallelujah," Cohen was sanguine about Columbia's decision. "There are certain ironic and amusing sidebars," he said, "because the record that it came from . . . Sony wouldn't put it out, they didn't think it was good enough. It had songs like 'Dance Me to the End of Love,' 'Hallelujah,' 'If It Be Your Will' – but it wasn't considered good enough for the American market. So there's a certain mild sense of revenge that arose in my heart."
But without the benefit of hindsight, consider Walter Yetnikoff's position. In September 1984, Leonard Cohen would turn fifty. Each of his last three albums – covering a time span that reached back a full decade – had sold less than its predecessor, even in the scattered countries around the world where he did have a following. He had never placed an album in the U.S. Top Ten.
Meanwhile, as Cohen was in the studio recording Various Positions, the summer of 1984 was perhaps the biggestseason in the history of the record business. Over the courseof a few months, Prince's Purple Rain, Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., and Madonna's Like a Virgin were all released,and each went on to sell over ten million copies. MichaelJackson's game-changing Thriller was still riding high onthe charts, more than a year after it first came out. Since itslaunch in 1981, MTV had become the dominant force inpop music marketing, with a reach and an impact unlikeanything the industry had seen before, and now the world'sbiggest superstars had figured out how to take advantage ofthe exposure and opportunities that it offered.
There could be no arguing that record sales had become very big business, and were getting bigger by the day. Stakes were high. And against that backdrop, it's not hard to imagine that a record company might have had a difficult time knowing what to do with a middle-aged artist, of an elite but very limited stature, at this precise moment in music history. It's perhaps even more difficult to see a label executive being able to hear clearly enough to believe that the simple song with the Bible stories and the one-word chorus might go on to some success of its own. And, to be honest, while the synthesizer sounds were considered state-of-the-art in 1984, they weren't edgy enough to win over younger listeners, and they soon sounded somewhat dated.
Various Positions was released overseas, and two months after CBS passed on it, the independent label PVC Records put it out in the U.S., at the end of 1984. (Columbia would later buy back the rights to the album when it rereleased Cohen's catalogue on compact disc.) But still, once the album reached the public, hardly anyone seemed to notice "Hallelujah," the first song on the LP's second side. Don Shewey's album review in Rolling Stone didn't mention the song, though it noted the album's "surprising country & western flavor" and singled out "John Lissauer's lucid and beautiful production."
Lissauer had never even seen that review until I sent it to him after our interview. In fact, he had no idea that Various Positions had actually been released in the U.S. until four or five years after it happened. When Cohen's manager at the time, Marty Machat, broke the news to the producer that the record had been turned down, he said that it wasn't worth bothering to execute their contract – and so, to this day, Lissauer has never seen a single cent in royalties for his work on "Hallelujah," about which he seems curiously at peace. "I still survive, everything is fine," he said, "but it would be nice to actually get royalties for an album with the most-recorded song in fifty years on it."
The experience essentially ended Lissauer's producing career. Baffled by the label's response to a project that he felt so positive about, he switched gears and turned to making music for films, which he feels has all turned out for the best. But he does express regret that the outcome of the Various Positions saga effectively meant the end of his relationship with Cohen.
"Once they went out on tour and then we got word that the record was a non-record, I didn't see him for fifteen years," he said. "I think we were both so embarrassed. I felt horrible. I felt like I'd ruined his career."
Excerpted from the book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah' by Alan Light with permission from Atria/Simon & Schuster, out December 4th.
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