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
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
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!
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!
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!
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!
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!