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Back in September 2010, noted music journalist (and former editor in chief of SPIN and Vibe magazines) Alan Light was among 4,000 people sitting in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for Yom Kippur services when the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah choir took the stage to conclude the solemn proceedings with a stirring version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
"I just thought, 'Man, this song is really in a very different place now,'" Light says. "Obviously, it's attained a different status in the world if here at the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, at the climax of the service, that's the song they come out and sing. And this was the same year Justin Timberlake had sung it at the Hope for Haiti Now telethon, and K.D. Lang had sung it at the Winter Olympics, so I just started to think of what I knew of the story of the song and that it was not a quick or easy road to get to that kind of place."
Or, as Light writes in his new book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah": "How did this unconventional song attain such popularity, in such an incremental fashion, over such an extended period of time? Why did it go from being a forgotten album cut by a respected but generally unknown singer-songwriter to a track on Susan Boyle's 2010 Christmas record?"
An absorbing read, The Holy or the Broken traces the song's fascinating journey chronologically—starting with Cohen writing and recording the track in the early 1980s—and places Light's critical examination of the touchstone recordings of "Hallelujah" (by Cohen, John Cale, and Jeff Buckley, particularly) alongside interviews with scores of folks who were either involved with those recordings or who have recorded or performed their own covers of the tune since (Bono, Timberlake, Amanda Palmer, Jon Bon Jovi, Brandi Carlile, Rufus Wainwright, and American Idol contestants included).
"I certainly wanted to know what it meant to all these people who had done it," Light says. "And while it took some time to get people like Bono or Timberlake to talk about it, they all wanted to do it. And what was really striking, over and over again, you talk to American Idol contestants or Michael Bolton or whoever, and you might expect them to say, 'Oh, I sang it because my manager told me to,' but everybody had thought about it, everybody had ideas about it. Some more profound than others, but you just get the sense that nobody blithely does this song. They know they're doing something important, and they're aware of the legacy."
One person who didn't add his two cents to the book—though his public quotes about "Hallelujah" are sprinkled throughout—was Cohen himself. "I didn't expect that Leonard was going to talk to me," Light says of the notorious recluse. "I wanted his blessing and his support for it, which he gave me. He has kind of told the couple of stories he's gonna tell, and if he was gonna say, 'Oh, I thought of that line while brushing my teeth,' that's probably not gonna help the aura or myth of the song, so I totally understand that."
In the book, Light expertly unwinds the song's long, strange journey to ubiquity, beginning with Cohen's struggle to compose the sprawling verses. Cohen—who had wrested the lyrics from their biblical moorings and shoved them into a secular world of broken hearts and cruel fates—records the song, replete with synthesizers and a gospel choir, for his ill-fated 1984 album Various Positions, which was rejected by CBS Records and instead issued in the U.S. that year by a small indie label, PVC Records.
Bob Dylan heard the song, loved it, and began covering it occasionally on his 1988 tour. He not only kept it alive but also played around with the arrangement (as Dylan is wont to do). Cohen, too, tweaks the arrangement during his mid- to late-'80s live performances, giving it a "much darker and more sexual edge," Light writes.
Yet before we get to the beautiful and doomed Jeff Buckley, who nudged "Hallelujah" into the stratosphere when he covered it on his one and only studio album, 1994's Grace, Light lingers for a bit on one of the most pivotal (and often overlooked) moments in the song's journey—Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale's stripped-down, vocals-and-piano version of "Hallelujah" on the 1991 Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan.
Writes Light: "Cale created a more perfect union out of Cohen's unnerving marriage of the divine and the damaged, but it came at the cost of a spiritual payoff. Between the reassembled lyrics and the simple arrangement, he truly humanized the song, arguably flattening out the emotional ambiguity but allowing it to retain the mystery and majesty of its imagery. NME called Cale's recording 'a thing of wondrous, savage beauty.'"
According to the book, a couple of years later, while hanging out at a friend's apartment in Park Slope, Buckley pulled I'm Your Fan off a shelf and heard "Hallelujah."
"I think it's really interesting—the passing of the baton from Leonard as the writer to Cale as the editor to Buckley as the interpreter. There's this linear progression between those versions, each of which opens it up to a different and larger audience," Light says.
Certain circles celebrated Buckley's version, but it was by no means a mainstream hit. And then he drowned in a Mississippi River tributary in 1997. Light writes: "After Buckley's death, 'Hallelujah' took on an almost mythic stature. It was an insider's secret for those who already knew about him and an accessible pop song if it was functioning as an introduction. It now served as an elegy that went above and beyond actual words and music."
The popularity of the song quickly snowballed: It's spotlighted in Shrek; it becomes the go-to anthem after 9/11; every singer-songwriter on the planet—from household names to coffeehouse nobodies—begins covering it live. And here we are.
Light ponders the question of whether we've hit "Hallelujah" fatigue, whether the song has lost its potency through ubiquity: "It seemed like it slowed down for a minute, but then it was fascinating to see Adam Sandler spoof it on the 12/12/12 show [to benefit Hurricane Sandy victims]. As I wrote in the book, it's been taken seriously for so long, it's kind of begging for someone to pop the balloon. And then there's Adam Sandler doing it. So I was like, 'Well, maybe that will slow it down for a while,' and then two days later were the shootings in Connecticut, and that's the song everybody turned to again.
"It was a testament to the fact that the song has reached that place, and it's not vulnerable to something like [a spoof], that it's bigger than that, and it can take the hit of the joke and still work the way that it's continued to work. When Paul Simon talks about it, that song was 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' and he saw 'Hallelujah' come along and become the next song that does that. So now, until something else rises up and takes it away, it's still holding that spot."
Why? At the conclusion of The Holy or the Broken, Light offers his own eloquent explanation: "A venerated creator. An adored, tragic interpreter. An uncomplicated, memorable melody. Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure. A song based in Old Testament language that a teen idol can sing. An erotically charged lyric fit for a Yom Kippur choir or a Christmas collection. Cold. Broken. Holy."
The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" is out now.