Back in September of 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 Javitz 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 “Hallelujah.”
“I just thought, ‘Man, this song is really in a very different place now,'” says Light. “Obviously it’s attained a very 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 that Justin Timberlake had sung it at the ‘Hope for Haiti’ 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 Leonard Cohen, John Cale, and Jeff Buckley, particularly) alongside interviews with scores of folks who were either involved with those recordings or who’ve recorded or performed their own covers of the tune since (Bono, Justin 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,” says Light, “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, was that while some of these people, like Bono, you’d expect him to have something intellectual to say about it, 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 that didn’t add his two cents to the book–though his public quotes over the years about “Hallelujah” are sprinkled throughout–was Cohen himself. “I didn’t expect that Leonard was going to talk to me,” says Light. “I wanted his blessing and his support for it, which he gave me. He’s kind of told the couple of stories that he’s gonna tell, and if he was gonna say, ‘Oh, I thought of that line while I was brushing my teeth,’ that’s probably not gonna help the aura and the myth around the song, so I totally understood that.”
In the book, Light expertly unpacks the song’s long, strange journey to ubiquity beginning with Cohen’s long struggle to compose the sprawling verses: “I remember being in the Royalton Hotel [in New York] on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song,'” he’s quoted as saying. Cohen–who’s 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 (sometimes it’s a little jarring to remember that the original “Hallelujah” is an ’80s song), which was rejected by CBS Records and instead issued in the U.S. that year by a small indie label, PVC Records. Bob Dylan hears the song, loves it, begins covering it occasionally on his 1988 tour–not only keeping it alive but playing 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 alumni John Cale’s stripped-down, vocals-and-piano version of “Hallelujah” on the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan (which also featured covers by the Pixies, R.E.M., and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds).
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 pulls I’m Your Fan off a shelf and hears “Hallelujah” for the very first time.
“Cale’s version shifted the scale of the song and made it something that then Buckley pushed even further,” says Light, “making it even more intimate, even more personal and drawn in close and sensual. The cues he was taking from Cale and building on was obviously really important.”
“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 continues. “If you think about Leonard’s and Buckley’s versions, one is a 50-year-old man at one place in his life and what that means, and one is a 24-year-old who’s just learning about these things that the song’s talking about and living through them in the moment instead of looking back on them, and I think that was really a crucial part of the transformation. I think it made it something a younger audience could understand, relate to, and react to.”
So Buckley’s version is celebrated in certain circles, though by no means a mainstream hit. And then he drowns in a tributary of the Mississippi River in 1997 and, Light writes:
“After Buckley’s death, ‘Hallelujah’ took on an almost mythic stature. It was an insiders’ 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 snowballs. It’s spotlighted in Shrek, it becomes the go-to anthem during 9/11, every singer-songwriter on the planet–from household names to coffeehouse nobodies–begins covering it live. Even Jon Bon Jovi gets in on the act. “I got the meaning of ‘Hallelujah’ right away,” Bon Jovi says in the book. “I got the irony, got the sexuality.” (Light also notes that much to the chagrin of many Cohen and Buckley fans, Cohen himself once told Rolling Stone that Bon Jovi’s cover of the song was one of his favorites ever.) Eventually, the song becomes a staple on American Idol and X Factor. Susan Boyle covers it, Justin Timberlake performs it. 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. Is it gonna be Weird Al? Is it gonna be in a Judd Apatow movie? And then there’s Adam Sandler doing it. So I was like, ‘Well, maybe that’ll slow it down for a while,’ and then two days later was the shootings in Connecticut and that’s the song everybody turned to again. The Sandler thing lasted 48 hours and then it was right back to, ‘Right, that’s the song we need in these situations.’
“It was a testament to the fact that the song’s 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.