Leonard Cohen's failed 'Hallelujah' gains iconic status:
New book, 'The Holy and the Broken,' traces history of unlikely classic

The Holy and the Broken
Photo courtesy of Sharlene Celeskey
Alan Light's book, "The Holy or the Broken," highlights singer-songwriters Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley as he traces the ascent of 'Hallelujah.'

There is a blaze of light in every word:
it doesn’t matter which you hear,
the holy or the broken Hallelujah!

— Leonard Cohen “Hallelujah”

Is there anyone out there that hasn’t heard these lines sung at least once? The song versions multiplied so fast in the last decade, that one critic proposed a moratorium on new versions of “Hallelujah.” As popular as the song has become few know that Canadian singer songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote and sang it first and it flopped when released. How did a failed song by a 50-year-old artist who was losing his popularity become adored and loved by audiences of all ages?

Music writer and former editor Alan Light traces the history of “Hallelujah,” in his book, “The Holy or the Broken.” The title comes from the verses in the original song. Light chronicles the song’s debut in 1984 and its evolution, popularity and growth through 2012. He spends a large portion of the book discussing the two singer-songwriters responsible for creating the “Hallelujah” phenomenon: Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley.

Already a well-known artist, Cohen labored for years to bring his masterpiece to vinyl. Light details his dilemma of writing numerous versions and his difficulty in finding just the right ones to complete his song. Cohen’s song started off with two Biblical references, David and Samson and then he changed into a song about a past love affair with its ups and downs. He sang slowly in a reflective cynical style with a dirge like voice while a melodic chorus chanted Hallelujah between the verses. Although others said the song ended on a down note Cohen felt the last lines ended the song hopefully with the final word of Hallelujah:

 “I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”

After years of struggling with “Hallelujah,” Cohen felt confident enough to include it on his album, “Various Positions,” which he recorded in 1984. Columbia Records rejected the album with the company president Walter Yetnikoff telling him, "Look, Leonard; we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good", according to Light in his new book. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was still on the charts and high profile albums were released that year: Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” Van Halen’s “1984,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer,” and Prince’s “Purple Rain.” MTV changed the music scene and all of these artists had successful videos in high rotation on the station. It was a hard market for an album by a middle-aged singer whose popularity was dwindling and who had not released a solo album in five years. But “Various Positions,” was picked up and released by independent label Passport Records in Canada in 1984 and the U.S. in 1985. Afterwards Cohen performed “Hallelujah” live, but neither the song nor the album was a hit.

The song went nowhere until former Velvet Underground member John Cale heard Cohen perform the song in concert and agreed to sing it on the Cohen tribute album, “I’m Your Fan,” in 1991. This album was aimed at the Indie crowd, and Cale, a cult artist, wanted to rework the lyrics for this audience. He contacted Cohen and he sent Cale 80 or more versions of his song. After reading through 15 pages of lyrics, according to Light, Cale said, “I took the cheeky verses.” Then he rearranged the lines, sang it as one lamenting a failed romance, and turned it into a song about physical love.

Shortly after the tribute album came out, a little known young artist, Jeff Buckley was at a friend’s cat sitting and found the “I’m a Fan,” album, listened to it and liked Cale’s version. Unsigned and performing solo in small New York clubs, Buckley added the song to his set, and it quickly became the high point of his show. Bill Flanagan of “Musician Magazine” saw him perform the song at this time. Light relays in his book that Flanagan said, “It’s a song that begins with King David and Jeff kind of looked like Michelangelo’s David. And when he sang it, it was as if a Renaissance painting had come to life. “

It was important enough for the 27 year old to record over 20 takes to get it right for his debut and only studio album, “Grace.” As he covered Cale’s version he sang it with more emotion, and in an ethereal and dramatic way that emphasized his wide vocal range. Buckley explained in the Dutch magazine, “OOR,” August 1994, "Whoever listens carefully to "Hallelujah" will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth.”

When released in 1994 “Grace” was not a commercial success but “Hallelujah,” was a favorite among Buckley’s worldwide fans. It would become his only number one hit in the US as it charted on Billboard’s Hot Digital Songs in 2008. After he drown in Memphis in 1997, ‘Hallelujah,” became his best-known song and grew in popularity while most listeners believed he wrote it. Bon Jovi, who has performed the song live, was one of those listeners. Light tells the story of Bon Jovi, who upon hearing Buckley performing the song in a small club , subsequently told an audience that Buckley wrote the song. An audience member corrected Bon Jovi by saying, “Nice going, genius — that’s a Leonard Cohen song.”

”The Cale version would resurface in 2001 when it appeared in the wildly popular film, “Shrek.” Both Cohen’s and Buckley’s versions were considered but rejected in favor of Cale’s, which seemed to better fit the scene. But when the soundtrack was released, Shrek fans found a different artist, a much younger singer Rufus Wainwright covering it. Wainwright who had met Buckley admitted he was jealous of him then since they were singing in the same musical circles. Wainwright’s version is more upbeat than Buckley’s; more pop with a faster tempo than most other versions, and it has become one of the most popular.

The song was also a favorite of female and popular established artists. Some who have released the song are k. d. lang, Allison Crowe, Katie Vogel and Susan Boyle. Lang included it on her album; “Hymns of the 49th Parallel ” in 2004 and wanted to do the song because she felt close to Cohen. She was a fellow Canadian and Buddhist and chose to sing a more spiritual version. Popular vocalists Bono and Justin Timberlake are the only two who have tackled the song. Light also points out music talent show artists have scored big with both the judges and audiences when they sang an abbreviated version of the song.

The book is a fast and easy read that holds your interest. If you listen to the each song as you read, your reading experience is enhanced. Most of the songs can be found on YouTube and you can decide whether they work or make you cringe. The most popular versions on ITunes and Spotify are the Buckley and Wainwright songs but surprisingly on YouTube a Norwegian quartet (Lind, Nilsen, Fuentes and Holm) has by far the most views. This version is worth a listen as the four sit in a circle and showcase their individual vocal styles while harmonizing on the chorus.

“Hallelujah,” was released as a 45-vinyl record in November for Record Day 2012. It featured both the Cohen and Buckley versions with only 4,000 pressed. The record cover mirrored the book cover and was snapped up quickly by fans and record collectors.

2008 proved to be a big year for Cohen as he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That is also when he started touring again since he had lost all of his money due to his longtime manger’s mishandling and embezzlement. As of last year, the 78 year old was still on tour and singing his well-loved song that took years to complete, was rejected by the record company and is now more popular than ever.

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