Given that Leonard Cohen was being honoured in Toronto last night accepting the Glenn Gould Prize, it seemed appropriate to post Kevin Courrier's examination of how iconic songs, including Leonard Cohen's most famous one, can be misinterpreted and misunderstood.
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In its original version, heard on Cohen's Various Positions album, "Hallelujah" contained some of the same ambiguous spiritual longing religious monks once possessed while seeking God in the world and finding instead plagues, the Crusades, and accused witches being burned at the stake. A year earlier, Bob Dylan had written a song just like it called "Blind Willie McTell" (ultimately discarded from his album Infidels) which also took a sojourn into the secular world with the singer's faith his only shield and the voice of a long dead blues singer giving him solace. But Cohen in "Hallelujah" also took the intimacies of those sacred sentiments and brought them into the world of romantic love. He sought absolution in a place where absolution is rarely found:
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
When Canadian Rufus Wainwright would later write a song called "Memphis Skyline," heard on his 2004 album Want Two, he did it as a tribute to Buckley who he had just met. "Memphis Skyline" would also reference "Hallelujah" and lead Wainwright to record his own live version of it which he recorded at the Fillmore (and heard on the DVD of Want Two). Wainwright's version, built on the same earnest interpretation of Buckley's, soon took over the airwaves. (Buckley had tragically drowned back in 1997.) A parade of stars have since created one version after another, and many strip the song of any of its conflict. But why?
None of this is particularly new in popular song. It has much to do with our relationship to popular music in our need to identify with the singer in the song. We often feel that they are expressing the sentiments that we share, or wish to share. The idea of an untrustworthy narrator in popular song, a familiar device in literature, goes against the grain of what makes a song sell. To touch the depths of both longing and terror that Cohen reaches in "Hallelujah" is not a place most people want to visit. The solace a song can offer becomes more appealing instead.
Greil Marcus once wrote about The Band's original version in his 1975 book Mystery Train. "It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane's, could listen to this song without finding himself changed," he wrote. "You can't get out from under the singer's truth - not the whole truth, simply his truth - and the little autobiography closes the gap between us." That's what's missing in Baez's version: The idea that there are lives lived which aren't our own; that there are stories told which we can't tell. And this is also what's wrong with some versions of "Hallelujah." They turn our listening to it into a hushed reverie, a pious acceptance of transcendence, plus a false sense of safety from life's pains and sorrows. I'd like to think that Leonard Cohen is out there somewhere cringing when he hears them.
- originally published on September 3, 2011 in Critics at Large.
– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.