I’ve been playing the song Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen for about eleven days straight now. I’ve listened to as many versions as I could find. The song has become a candle in my personal darkness at the moment.
As you know, Mr. Cohen left this earthly realm November 7 of this year. There is an ominous weight to his passing and the time of it. Mix that with his life’s work as a singer, songwriter, poet, novelist and painter. What he’s given to the world becomes a treasured gift. A hopeful raft to lash ourselves to in a stormy sea.
The song has seeped into my skin and stirs something in the depths of my soul when I sing along to the chorus: Hallelujah. But it got me to thinking what the hell does this song mean and why are there always different verses all over the place?
I thought this song was from the late sixties early seventies, it seemed to hold the weight of the songs of that day. However, it seems Mr. Cohen worked on this song for five years before he recorded it for his album Various Positions that was released in 1984. By the time he recorded the song, Mr. Cohen had written 80 verses for the song.
Ah, that explains why some versions of the song are so varied. Apparently Mr. Cohen would use different verses in concert as well.
It wasn’t until Jeff Buckley began to perform Mr. Cohen’s song in his concerts and then recorded it on his 1994 album Grace that it gained popularity however. The song has been recorded by many artists, and if you don’t think you’ve ever heard it before, you have. A plethora of TV shows and movies have used the song at some point.
But what does the song really mean?
According to an interview in the “Guitare et Claviers” magazine in 1985, Mr. Cohen explained “Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glorly 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.”
And the song does explore the Religious:
“Well I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord”
According to a 2012 interview in Rolling Stone “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).”
“Well, there was a time when you’d let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me, do you?
But remember when I moved in you
And the Holy Dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was hallelujah”
“Well, maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody how outdrew you
It’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah”
Look, there are as many articles and interviews written about this song as there are people who’ve covered it. What is significant at this point seems to be the undeniable message that is needed. Mr. Cohen himself said “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah!’ That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”
There is a gratefulness I have for this song these past few days. And as I read about the wry wit of Mr. Cohen, I was given the same fanciful thoughts I’m sure many had. To wonder if he was welcomed into his heaven with his own words; Hallelujah.
“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah”
Either way, Mr. Cohen has “rescued the word hallelujah from being just a religious word,” said the Right Reverend Nick Baines, Bishop of Croydon, in the BBC radio documentary. “We’re broken human beings, all of us, so stop pretending, and we can all use the word hallelujah because what it comes from is being open and transparent before God and the world and saying, ‘This is how it is, mate.’ ” Rolling Stone article.
I continue to sing his song, and add my voice into the ether to join with all the others, in all forms.