Leonard Cohen Must Not Die!

I‘ll skip over the obvious reasons why Leonard Cohen must not die any time soon and cut to the matter at hand: Leonard Cohen must not die because people are ignoring his request for a moratorium on the song Hallelujah. Worse, most of the people who “interpret” the song seem hung up on a single variation: the mournful and funereal Jeff Buckley version.

Yes, the Buckley version is an interpretation. And it’s not a bad one. But it’s not the only one, and its tear-jerking style has thrown a weepy cloak of misunderstanding across the whole thing.

Take four minutes and watch the video below. It’s from some wacky Berlin TV show in the 1980s. Whether you like it or not is irrelevant. Pay attention to how Cohen sings the song. Look for the mournful parts. Hint: there aren’t any. It’s quirky and kind of funny, actually. It’s hard to sing with your tongue in your cheek, but Lennie does it because that’s how he wrote it.

Back in 2010, when Cohen called for a moratorium on new versions of the song, his concern was about “overkill” in general. My concern is the heavy shift towards weepiness.

The clincher for me was when Stephen Page, who I generally quite like, rolled out a rather thin and reedy rendition of “Hallelujah” at Jack Layton’s funeral last summer. Let me say it again: Hallelujah is not a funeral song!  It’s not even a sad song! It’s a crazy, sexy, sometimes silly song about sex and orgasms. Or something like that. (Ironically, it was Jeff Buckley, not Cohen, who told Rolling Stone magazine that his version was an hommage to the “hallelujah of the orgasm.”) It’s completely out of place at a funeral. That is, unless it’s a funeral attended by people who don’t listen to lyrics; people whose emotional pushbuttons are large, fully exposed, and easily pushed by melodies.

Therefore Leonard Cohen must not die anytime soon; not until some other song comes along and replaces Hallelujah as the general public’s knee-jerk tear-jerker for sad moments. When the day finally comes that Cohen achieves equilibrium with room temperature, no one should sing Hallelujah at his funeral. Doing so will be a direct slap in the face to Cohen’s intentions with the song, and it will probably cause my head to explode.

So do Leonard Cohen and me a favour and give it up. While you’re at it, do the memory of Jeff Buckley a favour and let his mournful version live on as his version, not to be repeated and continually rehashed. But if you absolutely must sing Hallelujah then give it a whole new spin. Make it a polka, or a hip hop song. Do a Black Keys-like version, or give it the Iggy Pop treatment.

There are, by some accounts, 15 verses in the full version of the song, whittled down from – according to other accounts – the original 80. Below is a sampling of the lyrics from two different recordings by Cohen. The first version is how he recorded it in 1984, for the album Various Positions. That is followed by the lyrics as he sang them on Austin City Limits in 1988, which was released in 1994 on the Cohen Live album.

Read it and don’t weep:

Hallelujah (from Various Positions)

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?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the Name in vain;
I don’t even know the name.
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word;
It doesn’t matter which you heard;
the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, 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

Hallelujah (from Cohen Live)

Baby, I’ve been here before.
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,
but listen, love is not some kind of victory march,
it’s cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah!

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
what’s really going on below
but now you never show it to me, do you?
I remember when I moved in you,
and the holy dove she was moving too,
and every single breath we drew was Hallelujah!

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Now maybe there’s a God above
but as for me all I ever seem to learn from love
is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
And it’s not a complaint you’ll hear tonight,
it’s not the laughter of someone
who claims to have seen the light —
it’s a cold and it’s a lonely Hallelujah!

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best; it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come all this way to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!

Conundrum

I have not been paying much attention to the Republican Presidential primaries happening south of the border because it’s none of my business and because I can’t bear to witness such wholesale human stupidity. On the other hand, as Pierre Trudeau told the National Press Club in Washington DC in 1969, living next to the U.S. is like sleeping with an elephant; you feel every twitch and grunt.

So it’s hard to ignore. I’m not what you’d call well informed, but I’m not completely uninformed either. What I do know has me facing a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it seems that of the entire roster, Mitt Romney is the least insane and delusional, although he’s barely less pandering. That implies that if he gets the nomination he’ll actually have a pretty good shot at the throne, as he could turn some disillusioned Obama supporters. And if he does become President, the U.S. will only be somewhat worse off, and its descent over the apocalyptic precipice will only be accelerated marginally.

My inclination is to hope that a nominee farther out on the fringes will get the ticket. Michele Bachmann would have been great, as there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell she’d get elected (although with climate change messing everything up, such expressions are becoming meaningless), but it looks like she’s bailed out of the race.

So here’s my conundrum:

Do I hope that the marginally whacky person wins, knowing that such a person has a better shot at the White House, but at least if they win they’ll do less damage than one of the other whack jobs?

Or do I hope that an entirely whacky person wins, knowing that such a person has only the slimmest shot at the White House, but if they win it will basically be the end of western civilization as we know it?

It’s all too painful to think about and downright tortuous to watch. It sickens me to hear any U.S. politician speak during campaign season (which is essentially 3.9 years out of every four) because not a word of truth escapes their lips, ever. Every breath is either pandering for votes or parroting for lobbyists.

I can’t really blame U.S.ers for their electoral apathy and low voter turnouts. Just look at what they’re stuck with! (Not just the politicians; the whole system is corrupt and absurd.) I’m not sure who is to blame for that, as it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Or a snake eating it’s tail. Or maybe a snake eating a chicken egg. Whatever metaphor you choose to spoil, the end result is a so-called “democratic” political system in which the elected have nothing to do with the people who elect them, and a population that gets the government it deserves. It is unfixable.

At times like this I hope the Mayans were right.

Books I Read in 2011 (…and a few notes about my iPad)

A as per new-year tradition, here is the list of books I read in the year just ended, with commentary to follow:

  • Stet, by Diana Athill*
  • A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
  • Homo Evolutis, by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans*
  • Headlong, by Michael Frayne
  • On Being a Photographer, by Bill Jay and David Hurn*
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré
  • The Happiness Manifesto, by Nic Marks*
  • Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, by Peter Maas

Yes, that’s a whopping nine books, two of which (Homo Evolutus and The Happiness Manifesto) are “Kindle Shorts,” meaning they are very quick reads. Clearly the trend is downward, as 2010’s list contained 23 items and 2009’s contained 32. My high point since starting this tradition in 2004 was 38 books read in 2007.

The list is so short I’ll dispense with the usual breakdown of author by gender, fiction vs. non-fiction, etc., as you can see all that at a glance. One thing that is worth mentioning is the ratio of electronic books (“ebooks”) to paper ones; in this case 4:5. (The titles in the list marked with an asterisk were e-books that I read on my iPad.)

There are two factors that I can blame for this decline in book ingestion:

  • A significant change in my daily routine. Since early June of 2011 I have stopped commuting, so I no longer spend 150+ minutes a day crammed into a stinking and overcrowded subterranean tube with only my books to save me;
  • My iPad.

I won’t go into details on that first point, as the new paradigm (working from home) is still a work in progress. I’ll need at least another six months before I can say anything definitive about that.

As to the iPad, it’s both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is easy; just watch the iPad commercials on TV. The curse is that the iPad is so full of instantaneous endorphin-jacking delights that I fear my brain is being trained away from the kind of pleasures one typically hopes for from a long and solitary reading experience, such as:

  • Deep immersion into a another world. It could be a world with a bunch of different characters, locations, and situations, but if it’s all in the same book then those things are unified by the author’s voice and intentions. Falling into that for extended periods (read: more than 140 characters at a time) is a pleasure and maybe even an acquired skill. In either case I fear our ability to go there, or to even know there is a there to go to, is rapidly disappearing.
  • Deep focus on the characters, locations, and situations within the world of the book. This isn’t quite the same as simply being immersed. When you achieve focus it puts that immersion on a whole other level.
  • Relaxation and mindfulness that come from the above mentioned immersion and focus. It can be meditative and good for the mind. From what I’ve read, studies have shown (and my personal experience bears this out) that spending time on Twitter of Facebook before going to bed can cause problems falling asleep. The oversimplified explanation is that those rapidly-firing tweets and posts and links cause your brain to fire rapidly too, putting it into an uneasy and unrestful state and making it harder to relax and go to sleep. You don’t get that with a book.

On The Other Hand…

Lest you think I’ve only been reading in multiple doses of 140 characters, let me put that idea to rest. One of the joys of the iPad is the easy access it gives me to long-form magazine writing. In 2011 I read far more long articles in The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Economist, Slate, Salon, Al-jazeera, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and various other newspapers and magazines, than I have in any other year in recent memory. Most of it comes via Twitter, where I follow a lot of those rags as well as people who link to them. For me, that’s the best thing about Twitter: endless linkage to great articles.

I use Twitter together with Instapaper to make it a more comfortable experience. Twitter provides the link, and if the article seems worth reading I’ll shoot it over to Instapaper where it is trimmed of all extraneous clutter and ads. It then sits there patiently, waiting for me to read it at my convenience (I don’t even have to be connected to the internets). I’ll describe this in detail in a later post. To many of you it’s probably second nature, but for people who don’t have iPads and who don’t use Twitter, you gotta see this stuff to believe it.

So I’m still not sure if the iPad is more blessing or more curse. I love the on-board dictionary that you can call up any time by just touching a word. I love that I can highlight and write margin notes on any ebook and many online articles. But I am short attention-spanned by nature, so it is hard to spend time simply reading a long piece without slipping out for a Twitter or email break every few minutes, which inevitably breaks the flow of the immersive experience.

I hope to read more books in 2012. I already have half a dozen on “standby” on the iPad, and my frequent trips to The Word on Milton, S.W. Welch, and Drawn & Quarterly mean my ever-expanding pile of unread paper books remains ever-expanding. Here are a few that I pulled out yesterday and put on a dedicated shelf in an attempt to force a commitment to read them this year:

Books I will read in 2012

Wish me luck!