The Biography of a Song–Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'”

Today, I’m writing about a song which is my favorite popular song of all time, and one about which there is not only a lot of concord (that it is a great song), but also a lot of disagreement (that it is spiritual, that it is full of primal sexuality, that one artist or another has done a better job of conveying its “basic” meaning, that one version or another is the best, etc.).  I don’t know which artist I first heard sing it, because I turned the television on in the middle of a performance just in time to catch the lyric lines “She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, she cut your hair,” and somehow, the incongruity of the notions of a throne and having one’s hair cut by a woman at home (or perhaps the collision inherent in the idea of a kitchen chair being like a throne) caught my attention in a very primary way.  I fell in love with the song immediately, but in spite of this book’s insistence about the ubiquity of the song, when I went to a local DVD and CD store to obtain a copy of the media form it was on, I only encountered absolute blankness from the clerks.  I did not know at the time that it was by Leonard Cohen, the famous Canadian composer and songster also responsible for such songs as “Bird on a Wire.”  I had seen the song performed by a much younger man, a very soulful character also, however, but not one whose name I remembered hearing.

My next encounter with it was on Bon Jovi’s 2008 DVD “Live at Madison Square Garden” (which, however, I did not get a copy of until about 2012 or so, or certainly a few years after its first production, anyway).  It has remained my favorite rendition of the song except for Leonard Cohen’s, and that’s because it has at least five of the now current seven stanzas (I would really love to see the original 80 stanzas just to read, but that remains for another time).  The only thing I did not like about Leonard Cohen’s own version was that he was in London at the time, and he stuck the name of his performance locale in the song when he performed, which he apparently did in other places as well.  I don’t like it particularly not because of any resentment towards London, but because I like the song the way it is, and don’t like it much when any artist or artiste kowtows to a local audience instead of during a “pure” version of the song.  But that’s just my own obsession with completeness and purity speaking; I understand that the local audiences of the various places went wild when he did it.

And now, to the ostensible subject of my post, the book itself.  The book is uneven, in that it offers a wealth of interesting detail about the song, its development, and history of production and reproduction, but also throws a bunch of famous and not-so-famous names at you, which gives a feeling of “I guess you had to have been there.”  It sometimes descends to the level of “he-said-she-said” or gossip, but for the most part, it is well worth an attentive read.  It contrasts the way the different artists performing the song have seen it, because each artist seems to have wanted to make it his or her own, even to the extreme (in my view) of leaving words and stanzas out.  The frontispiece quotes are from Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley, in that order, and thus offer the two most famous attitudes and artists’ views of the song.  Cohen said, “‘Hallelujah’ is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glory to the Lord.’  The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist.  I say all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have an equal value.  It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”  Perhaps the song’s most popularly famous performer (somewhat possibly because of his own later and untimely demise), Jeff Buckley, said “Whoever listens to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth.  The hallelujah is not an homage to a worshipped person, idol, or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm.  It’s an ode to life and love.”

One particular thing that this book did for me, however, was to encourage me to reach beyond my own limits:  because I tend to prefer songs by their original composers or first singers (or both), because I tend to prefer to get all the lyrics and not just half or the mere repetition of a few words and a chorus, and because I get distracted when there is more than one key interpretation to a song, I found this book a challenge.  It forced me to see that the song does indeed belong not only to Leonard Cohen, but to the world, and while that’s entirely a good thing, because it seems to communicate a sort of togetherness and community spirit, I do still feel the right of my own preferences:  I, too, am in the world!  And perhaps that realization, for each person who hears the song or reads the book, is the single most valuable thing about either.

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5 responses to “The Biography of a Song–Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'”

  1. Hallelujah is one of those songs that changes with each different rendition and person. I wonder how many people recognise the religious connotations these days…

    I prefer he Buckley version of the one’s I have heard but I can’t say I am a connoisseur of the track per se, although I agree with you about the purity of the song and not throwing in cheap gimmicks depending on the place, although you always get those people that cheer like it matters.

    I fins the interpretations of the artists interesting, it is one of those songs that has no trouble in appealing to all but for different reasons, perhaps that is what makes it more popular than a song that was more overtly religious would be.

    That the book in itself is a mixture of gossip, history and so on is perhaps the right mix to mirror the way the song seems to diverge for people. Your closing comments are spot on, listening and singing along to those same lyrics brings us all together despite the message that each individual gets from it.

    You are right this is a song for everyone no matter their beliefs and all are welcome to indulge in song, the book sounds interesting, its unevenness is perhaps because it is trying to be all things to all people. Despite not having read it, it seems like an encouragement to explore and understand all the different interpretations which can only be a good thing.

    • Hi, Ste J! Thanks very much for your thoughts on the subjects of the song and the book. I suspect my somewhat puritanical preference for the most complete and in-original-ofder set of stanzas is partially due to the way I’ve grown up with texts that are not song texts but novel and long poem texts. There are many disagreements, for example, about which version of Wordsworth’s long poems are the best, and though there is some agreement that his best work was done earlier in his life, there is also a consensus that it’s important to be familiar with his later work before making a judgement. I guess critical debates like that one are in the back of my assessment of Cohen’s song. Which just goes to acknowledge that I am perhaps not the best person to decide about a popular song. Still, I feel the song itself, as you acknowledge, is one that most people don’t mind sharing, and I think that’s both to their credit and Cohen’s. I just think it’s astounding how far this song has travelled, and some of the company it’s found itself in. And the book was very useful for acquainting me with that information, so I suppose I should give it some high marks, too.

  2. If I remember rightly, Hallelujah was in Shrek which shows the diverse range of things it can be used as a soundtrack too. I think you are indeed the right person to decide about popular songs, so many would just pick a favourite and be done with it but I enjoy the critical debate, the look at the reasons versions are different and what they mean and that is by far more important to me.

    • HI again, Ste J. Though “Hallelujah” is my favorite single song, my favorite album of all time (or cassette, CD, etc) is Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” which like “Hallelujah” incorporates some universal lines with the specific, general lines of the stories in each song. For example, “Graceland” itself as a song is ostensibly about a man visiting the Elvis Presley theme park with his 9-year-old son, but it has lines in it such as saying that the narrator of the song “believe[s] we all will be received in Graceland,” which makes it a religious statement, though it has by force of the whole song strayed very far from its native Christian notlon of a state of grace. It has, in fact, become an even more universal statement of what grace is about. Not that I consider myself a religious nut, or anything, but it’s nice to know that in the eyes of some songwriters, ordinary states of mind can also touch the universal at certain points. Ta-da! My ethical statement for the day. What do you think, Ste J? Your opinion (and that of others, too) is always worth canvassing.

  3. I’m not familiar with Graceland, well I have heard of the place of course but music is something I rarely get into these days. I salute your ethical statement my friend, it is interesting how religion always interlinks with society still despite the drawing back of religion in so many places. Its impact is always with us and sometimes in ways that take us time to notice too.

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