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Sing Hallelujah!

It’s one of the world’s most famous songs. I tried to track down the story of its rise, its resurrection and of course Leonard Cohen’s original version, writes Vir Sanghvi.

music Updated: Apr 17, 2010 16:41 IST
Vir Sanghvi

John CaleIt’s one of the world’s most famous songs. I tried to track down the story of its rise, its resurrection and of course Leonard Cohen’s original version.

It is a classic case of the inversion of the generations. A few years ago, I came into the room as my son was watching a TV show. I forget what the show was called but because he thought there was nobody else in the room, he was singing along to a song that was playing over the end-credits. (Thinking back, perhaps it was The O.C.) Now, I no longer recognise much of the music my son listens to so I did not seriously expect to feel any familiarity with this song either. But to my surprise, I found I did know the song. It was Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. Of course it wasn’t Cohen’s version that was playing but it was recognisably the same song.

I asked my son about it. Growing up in a home where old songs had frequently been on the music system, it has been hard for him not to have some familiarity with boring old farts his parents listened to and so, of course, he knew who Leonard Cohen was (“that old guy who sang Suzanne…..”) But here’s the thing: though he knew Hallelujah well – he could even strum the chords on his guitar – he had no idea that it was a Leonard Cohen song!

There is a background to all this. When I was at school and at university, Leonard Cohen was the sort of singer that the slightly more bookish students listened to. His music was hardly obviously commercial. The lyrics were more important than the tunes. (Cohen was a well-known poet way before he first cut a record.) The man did not know how to sing: most songs came out as mournful dirges rescued only by ethereal female voices in the background. And most of the songs were so depressing that jokes about Cohen’s albums being potential soundtracks to suicides were common during the Seventies.

We thought then that as time moved on, as Cohen’s fans grew older, he would become a historical curiosity, remembered with affection for such songs as Suzanne, Bird On A Wire and Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye but also regarded as a man whose music died in the mid-Seventies.

And to be fair, that is pretty much how it went. The last Leonard Cohen album I recall buying in that era was the dire Live Songs in 1973. After that, I pretty much stopped taking him seriously as a contemporary musician. Then, in 1987, I read that a singer called Jennifer Warnes had done an album of Cohen covers called Famous Blue Raincoat (after one of his best songs) which had revived interest in the singer’s catalogue. I was intrigued but not enough to buy the album. But in 1991, nostalgia got the better of me and I bought another album of covers (by various artistes) called I’m Your Fan.

Though the familiar Cohen tracks were covered in a not terribly inspiring fashion (Suzanne, Bird On A Wire, Hey That’s No Way etc.), I was especially taken by the songs I did not know well: REM did a killer version of First We Take Manhattan, there were two separate versions of Tower of Song, Don't Go Home With Your Hard-On was a hoot, and there was John Cale’s version of a song I had never heard called Hallelujah.

So, when I heard my son sing along to Hallelujah, I was a little taken aback. How did he know a Leonard Cohen song that even I only know from a cover version?

It turned out that even he only knew a cover version, except that his was by Jeff Buckley. I tracked the song down. It was recorded in 1994 (Buckley died in 1997) and had a strange beauty. Then, as so often happens, I began to hear Hallelujah everywhere. It turned up as background music in all kinds of places: on The West Wing, on House, and in many movies. (The other song that does this is Who Are You by The Who).Soon, I realised with horror, it was the best-known Leonard Cohen song in the world, far better-known than the songs that we thought would define Cohen forever (Suzanne, Bird On A Wire, etc.).

But there was more Hallelujah to come. In 2008, somebody called Jason Castro sang Hallelujah on American Idol and his version reached a new audience (remember Jeff Buckley had been dead for 11 years), and briefly became number one on the iTunes singles chart. Bizarrely it turned out that Hallelujah was an Idol special. A version from Norwegian Idol topped Norway’s charts. So did a version from Dutch Idol top the charts in Holland.

Then, the song found more global fame when two rivals in the final of the British talent show The X-Factor both sang Hallelujah. One X-Factor version (rubbish) topped the British chart in 2008. Purists went out and bought the ‘original’ which, interestingly, was not Cohen’s version but Jeff Buckley’s cover and this became Number Two behind the X-Factor abomination. Even Cohen’s version squeaked into the charts in the lower rungs of the Top 40. In 2008, the sheet music for Hallelujah was the best-selling sheet music of the year. (Useful royalties to Cohen who had, by then, been cheated of his money by his manager!)

Now that Hallelujah is one of the world’s most famous songs, I tried to track down the story of its rise. There’s an admirable account of its resurrection in a Cohen biography by Tim Footman. And of course I also tracked down Cohen’s original. This appears on a 1985 album called Various Positions which nobody I know ever bought even though one track from the album, the upbeat Dance Me To the End of Love, is quite well-known. Cohen’s own version is, frankly, not very good. When Columbia put together More Best of Leonard Cohen in 1997, it left out the original of Hallelujah and inserted a superior live version instead. (If you want to hear the original it is on the 2002 compilation The Essential Leonard Cohen though you are best off downloading it.)

According to the Footman biography, even Cohen was not satisfied with the original recording. He promptly started rewriting it and by 1988 was performing it with new lyrics. Even so others saw the song’s strength. In 1988, Bob Dylan also began covering it in concert. By 1991 when John Cale was ready to record it for I’m Your Fan (the version I know best), he called Cohen and asked him what the definitive lyrics were. Cohen said he did not know either and faxed dozens of verses to Cale asking him to use the ones he liked.

I’m not sure which version, Cale’s or Cohen’s, Buckley heard but his own cover gave the song a new dimension and power and is, I reckon, the single-best version of the song. People who liked Buckley began regarding Hallelujah as his song and so it would have remained but for an unexpected development.

In 2001, Cale’s version of Hallelujah was used on the soundtrack of the cartoon movie Shrek. This brought the song to public attention and caused Cale’s recording to eclipse Buckley’s version. But, it got more complicated. Because of legal reasons, Cale’s version could not appear on the album of the Shrek soundtrack. So Rufus Wainwright recorded the song for that album using an arrangement similar to Cale’s.

By now it had all got so confusing that nobody knew whose song Hallelujah was. Which was the original recording and which was the cover? In that sense, it had become the first great 21st Century Standard – ironic because the song first came out in 1984.

Some songs are closely identified with their original singers or their authors. Sing My Way and you will be compared to Frank Sinatra. Sing Satisfaction and you will be hard-pressed to top the Rolling Stones.

Some songs, however, become standards because nobody remembers the original: is there a definitive La Bamba? (Ritchie Valens or Los Lobos?) A definitive Twist and Shout? A definitive Both Sides Now? (Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins?. This makes them easy to cover, because new interpretations will not be compared to the original.

Something like that has happened to Hallelujah. It is a great song (among Cohen’s best – not, I think, his very best) but the attraction to prospective singers is that everyone is free to do what he or she wants to do with it. Even a crap version (Bono on the execrable Tower of Song tribute album) is rarely held against the singer and all interpretations are welcome.

For a long time I thought that Suzanne would be remembered as the great standard that Leonard Cohen wrote. After all, you can do it as folk (his original and Judy Collins’s hit recording) as jazz (Roberta Flack) or as trash (Neil Diamond). But Suzanne has not stood the test of time. Against the odds, that honour has gone to Hallelujah.