How did one obscure song become an international anthem for human triumph and tragedy, a song each successive generation seems to feel they have discovered and claimed as uniquely their own? Celebrated music journalist Alan Light follows the improbable journey of “Hallelujah” straight to the heart of popular culture.
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The Holy or the Broken
Allen Ginsberg once said, “Dylan blew everybody’s mind, except Leonard’s.”
Comparisons are often drawn between Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. There are books devoted to comparing and contrasting the two towering singer-songwriters; in early 2012, someone even released a “Cohen and Dylan” app, documenting their recordings and set lists for comparative purposes, complete with “quiz mode.” (One especially free-thinking soul—who revealed only that his last name is also Cohen—even devoted a website, WhoWroteHallelujah.com, to a detailed “musical conspiracy” theory alleging that Dylan was the primary author of Cohen’s best-known song; even in the Wild West of the Internet, the site didn’t stay up for long.)
The two artists have in fact crossed paths many times. They were both signed to Columbia Records by the legendary A&R executive John Hammond; both lived in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, and later wrote about it in song; both recorded in Nashville. Dylan sang backup on “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On,” from Cohen’s 1977 Death of a Ladies’ Man album. In December 1975, when Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour played in Montreal, he dedicated the night’s performance of “Isis” to hometown hero Cohen, who was in the audience—and then delivered the definitive rendition of the song, as documented in the 1978 film Renaldo and Clara.
So it isn’t too surprising that when Cohen and Dylan were both on tour in the mid-1980s and found themselves in Paris at the same time, they decided to meet at a café. At this impromptu summit, Dylan expressed his admiration for one of Cohen’s new songs, the largely unknown “Hallelujah.” The discussion that followed has passed into myth among fans of both singers, and the details frequently change in the retellings over the years, but here’s the way Cohen recounted it in an interview with Paul Zollo in 1992:
“Dylan and I were having coffee the day after his concert in Paris a few years ago . . . and he asked me how long it took to write [‘Hallelujah’]. And I told him a couple of years. I lied, actually. It was more than a couple of years.
“Then I praised a song of his, ‘I and I,’ and asked him how long it had taken and he said, ‘Fifteen minutes.’ ”
Although clearly a story told for laughs, playing on the contrast between Cohen’s meticulous, obsessive lyric writing and Dylan’s notorious impatience, there seems to be a good bit of truth to it: Over the years, Cohen has repeatedly described the agony that this one composition gave him. “I filled two notebooks,” he once said, “and 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.’ ”
When Old Ideas came out in 2012, Cohen chose not to do interviews to promote the album. Instead, he appeared at a few listening events in major cities before the release date, allowing journalists to hear the album in full and then taking questions for a brief session. In London, the playback was held in the basement of a Mayfair hotel, and Jarvis Cocker, debonair front man of the band Pulp, served as the moderator. These many years later, Cohen was still talking about the torment that “Hallelujah” caused him.
“I wrote ‘Hallelujah’ over the space of at least four years,” he said (elsewhere, he has also said that it was “at least five years”). “I wrote many, many verses. I don’t know if it was eighty, maybe more or a little less.
“The trouble—it’s not the world’s trouble, and it’s a tiny trouble, I don’t want you to think that this is a significant trouble—my tiny trouble is that before I can discard a verse, I have to write it. I have to work on it, and I have to polish it and bring it to as close to finished as I can. It’s only then that I can discard it.”
This doesn’t seem to be an uncommon situation for Cohen. In the one extensive interview he consented to prior to the release of Old Ideas, for the British music magazine Mojo, he told Sylvie Simmons, who was also in the process of writing her Cohen biography, I’m Your Man, of an unfinished song that he had been working on for years. “I’ve got the melody, and it’s a guitar tune, a really good tune, and I have tried year after year to find the right words,” he said. “The song bothers me so much that I’ve actually started a journal chronicling my failures to address this obsessive concern with this melody. I would really like to have it on the next record, but I felt that for the past two or three records, maybe four.”
Cohen played another melody for Simmons on the synthesizer, saying it was something he had been struggling with for “five or ten years.” He told her that the new song “The Treaty” has been around “easily for fifteen years,” while he had been working on another, “Born in Chains,” since 1988.
“It’s not the siege of Stalingrad,” he said, “but these are hard nuts to crack.”
• • •
By the time he was torturing himself with “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen already had a long, storied, and somewhat baffling career. Cohen was born in 1934 and raised in the prosperous Westmount section of Montreal, the son of a successful clothing retailer who died when Leonard was nine years old.
“I wasn’t terribly interested in music,” he told Simmons. “I liked the music in the synagogue. And my mother sang beautifully. . . . I first started to get interested in song when I came across the Socialist folk singers around Montreal.” In 1951, he began attending McGill University; during his college years, he formed a country-western trio called the Buckskin Boys, in addition to serving as president of the debating union and of the Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau.
My father was a classmate of Cohen’s at McGill. Though his own premed studies didn’t lead him to cross paths with Cohen in a poetry class, he makes it sound like everyone—certainly everyone among the small Jewish community, limited at the time by strict admissions quotas—knew the burgeoning campus celebrity. It was hard to miss one of their own who was straddling two worlds, receiving honors at school and performing at the local coffeehouses.
At McGill, Cohen won the Chester MacNaughton Prize for Creative Writing, for a series of four poems titled “Thoughts of a Landsman.” He graduated in 1955, and his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published the following year.
Over the next decade, he moved to New York (where he hung around the edges of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” scene), then back to Montreal. In 1960 he bought a house—with no electricity, plumbing, or telephone—on the Greek island of Hydra, living off of his inheritance while writing poetry and fiction. Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers was perhaps his best-known work, partly because of the book’s explicit sex scenes. “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen,” wrote the Boston Globe, while the Toronto Star’s Robert Fulford called Losers “the most revolting book ever written in Canada . . . an important failure. At the same time it is probably the most interesting Canadian book of the year.”
Still, the book only sold a few thousand copies. Frustrated by his lack of success as a writer, in 1967 Cohen decided to take his shot at a profession in music. He planned to move to Nashville, but stopped in New York City along the way to meet with a potential manager named Mary Martin, a fellow Canadian who had been working with Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. Martin introduced Cohen to a singer named Judy Collins, and he sang her a song he had written called “Suzanne.” She quickly recorded it, in what would turn out to be the first of many versions of this composition.
“He told Mary that he had written some songs, and now he wanted to come down to New York and ask me if I thought that they were songs,” Collins said in 2010, prior to singing “Suzanne” as part of the ceremony inducting Cohen into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “So he sat down and he said, ‘I can’t sing and I can’t play the guitar and I don’t know if this is a song.’ So he played it for me, and I said, ‘Well, Leonard, it is a song, and I’m recording it tomorrow.’ ”
Bolstered by this vote of confidence, Cohen recorded a demo tape in Martin’s bathroom, which she took to John Hammond at Columbia Records. Hammond had worked with everyone from Count Basie to Billie Holiday to, later, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan; when Dylan’s first album flopped, he was known around the Columbia offices as “Hammond’s Folly.” In 1967, Hammond signed Cohen, who was already on the far side of thirty years old, to the label and brought him into the studio.
Cohen clashed with producer John Simon about the arrangements, and it ultimately took multiple producers, three studios, and six months to get the first album completed. He recorded twenty-five songs, ten of which made the album, nine of which still remain unreleased. Songs of Leonard Cohen came out in the final week of 1967. It contained several of the songs with which Cohen’s reputation was made, including “Sisters of Mercy” and “So Long, Marianne,” and illustrated that from the beginning, the meeting points between the sacred and the physical were central to his songwriting. (Nor was the sexuality in Cohen’s songs purely literary: Over the years, he has been linked to numerous women, including such eminences as Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, and the actress Rebecca De Mornay.)
The album grazed the Top 100 in the U.S., and eventually became his only gold-certified non-compilation album, but it more solidly established Cohen in Europe, reaching the Top 20 in the UK. Many years later, music critic Tom Moon would include Songs of Leonard Cohen in the best-selling book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. “He transforms a common songwriter conceit—romance as a path to enlightenment, if not redemption—into an urgent, revelatory, all-consuming epic quest,” Moon wrote.
Though his vocal range is limited—a deep murmur suited to dirges and lamentations—Cohen’s songs were strikingly evocative and literary, with hints of cabaret, the dramatic French chansonnier style, and religious melodies. His brooding image and dark humor added to his allure, both personal and public. In addition to Collins, who would record numerous Cohen songs over the years, artists including Roberta Flack and Fairport Convention soon cut some of his material, which introduced Cohen’s work to a much wider audience.
The next few years were the most prolific time in Cohen’s career. In addition to touring for the first time—among these early shows was a hard-fought set in the middle of the night at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, during which he struggled to calm and focus a crowd on the verge of rioting (documented on a remarkable DVD released in 2009)—he released two albums that secured his standing as one of the leading songwriters of his generation. Both 1969’s Songs from a Room and 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate were produced by Bob Johnston, who had worked with Dylan and Johnny Cash, and he stripped Cohen’s sound down to a spare and riveting intimacy.
Such classic songs as “Bird on the Wire” and “Famous Blue Raincoat,” melodically simple but direct, with finely etched lyrics capturing precise yet profound emotions, defined him as a true songwriter’s songwriter; the themes could be bleak—somewhere in here his songs were given the tag “music to slit your wrists by,” which he has never been fully able to shake. Writing in the New Yorker in 1993, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic and a National Book Award finalist, memorably labeled Cohen “the Prince of Bummers.” But the accessible eloquence of the language, with a detail that’s resonant but never showy, was stunning, timeless, and without peer.
Not surprisingly, Cohen has always dismissed the perception of his work as being dour. “I never thought of myself as a particularly solemn person, and I don’t think my friends think of me that way,” he said. “I understand over the years I acquired this reputation for being a somber chap, and of course we all go through periods where, you know, it’s not that funny. But I think there’s always been a perspective of letting a little light in somewhere.”
As for the low, near-monotone rumble of Cohen’s singing, it was certainly an acquired taste—in her best-selling chronicle of female singer-songwriters, Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller called it a “brazenly unmusical drone of a voice”—but he found his following. In one of his final columns for Vanity Fair, controversial essayist Christopher Hitchens wrote about the power of the human voice, even as he was losing his own to the cancer that would soon take his life: “Leonard Cohen is unimaginable without, and indissoluble from, his voice.” British columnist/novelist Howard Jacobson wrote, specifically of “Hallelujah,” that only Cohen “has a voice bruised enough to express its bittersweet lacerations.”
It is a poet’s voice, a sound of experience and reflection. What Cohen lacks in range is more than compensated for by his inflections and nuances. He gives little ground to pop arrangements, but his lyrics can bear the weight. Listening to his own performances is certainly more demanding than listening to others sing his words, but it is generally more rewarding as well. Producer Hal Willner, who organized an acclaimed series of Cohen tribute concerts around the world between 2003 and 2005, said, “I compare hearing Leonard to the first time you drink whiskey or beer. It’s a little weird at first.”
Cohen himself has been known to poke fun at his own vocal limitations. In the letter-perfect “Tower of Song,” from 1988’s I’m Your Man, he sings, “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” A few years later, he accepted a Canadian music award with the quip, “Only in Canada could someone with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year.”
So while Cohen’s early albums were hardly easy listening, the second and third became Top Five hits in the UK, and Songs of Love and Hate charted throughout Europe. (“I think my rise in the marketplace will be considered an interesting curiosity, that’s all,” he said at the time.) His star seemed to keep rising when director Robert Altman scored the 1971 film McCabe and Mrs. Miller entirely with Cohen songs. But as the 1970s progressed, Cohen’s direction became less clear.
In the aftermath of the lunacy that closed out the ’60s, singer-songwriters had become purveyors of a more personal, intimate, and reassuring expression in pop music. James Taylor and Carole King were selling records by the truckload; even such challenging writers as Paul Simon and Neil Young had become arena-filling acts. Cohen’s fellow Canadian and former girlfriend Joni Mitchell created one of the masterworks of the genre in 1971 with Blue; several of the songs made oblique reference to Cohen, and his influence on her writing was evident.
Though his work may not be as accessible as that of any of these other singer-songwriters, this might have been Cohen’s best moment to strike. But his next album wouldn’t come until 1974, and it took a different musical direction. He met John Lissauer when the producer was working with a Cohen protégé named Lewis Furey in Montreal; Lissauer described the album he made with Furey as “the first punk record ever recorded, like tango-punk.” Furey was playing at the Nelson Hotel. Cohen attended one night, introduced himself to Lissauer, and invited him to come to New York. After an audition for John Hammond, they set to work on a new record.
The resulting eleven songs on New Skin for the Old Ceremony were more orchestrated than Cohen’s earlier music, with strings, horns, and a banjo, and more prominent use of (mostly female) backup vocalists. Despite such remarkable songs as “Chelsea Hotel #2” and “Who by Fire,” with lyrics based on a prayer from the Yom Kippur service, New Skin seemed to confuse some of Cohen’s limited but devoted fan base. Reviews were a bit less glowing than he was used to. It was his first album that failed to reach the U.S. charts at all, and sales slipped in other countries.
He toured throughout 1974 and 1975, first in Europe and then in the U.S. and Canada, with a band led by Lissauer. “We did this big tour, which was really successful,” said Lissauer. “Then Leonard said, ‘Let’s write a record together,’ so we wrote a bunch of songs, went on the road again doing those songs plus the other stuff, and went in the studio and got half an album done. And then Leonard disappeared.”
Without so much as a word to Lissauer, Cohen put out a Best of collection in 1975, and returned to the road with a new band. He continued trying out new material, then went back into the studio in the unlikeliest of settings. Heading to Los Angeles, he began work on a new project with brilliant, demented producer Phil Spector; Lissauer maintains that the pairing was part of a larger deal with Columbia made by Cohen’s manager at the time, Marty Machat.
Things got off to a rousing start when Cohen and Spector wrote a dozen songs together over the course of three alcohol-fueled weeks. But once the recording sessions started, it all fell apart—culminating with Spector allegedly threatening his collaborator with a firearm. (He reportedly brandished guns in the studio with John Lennon and the Ramones, as well, and was sentenced to prison in 2009 following his conviction in the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson at his home.)
“I was flipped out at the time,” Cohen said later, “and he certainly was flipped out. For me, the expression was withdrawal and melancholy, and for him, megalomania and insanity and a devotion to armaments that was really intolerable. In the state that he found himself, which was post-Wagnerian, I would say Hitlerian, the atmosphere was one of guns—the music was a subsidiary enterprise. . . .
“At a certain point Phil approached me with a bottle of kosher red wine in one hand and a .45 in the other, put his arm around my shoulder and shoved the revolver into my neck and said, ‘Leonard, I love you.’ I said, ‘I hope you do, Phil.’ ”
They argued about songs and arrangements, and Spector eventually barred Cohen from the studio and mixed the album by himself. He buried Cohen’s voice under his signature “Wall of Sound” production, resulting in an incongruous, if sometimes fascinating, mess. When Death of a Ladies’ Man was released in 1977, Cohen called the album “grotesque” and a “catastrophe.” Rolling Stone’s review was titled “Leonard Cohen’s Doo-Wop Nightmare”; critic Paul Nelson, long a missionary when it came to Cohen’s work, struggled to defend the album, describing it as “the world’s most flamboyant extrovert producing and arranging the world’s most fatalistic introvert.”
Cohen retrenched coming off this debacle. With 1979’s Recent Songs, he received coproduction credit for the first time. This set of songs added more international sounds, such as an oud, a Gypsy violin, and a mariachi band. Cohen’s current touring band, the jazz-fusion group Passenger, played on four of the tracks. The album included one song, “Came So Far for Beauty,” that was a finished recording from the abandoned second album with John Lissauer, and two others (“The Traitor” and “The Smokey Life”) that had been started during those sessions.
It was an interesting midpoint for Cohen to attempt, poised between the overblown Spector arrangements and the starkness of his earlier work. The lyrics were more ironic and bemused than those of the past few albums, which had been so full of bitterness. But while the Gypsy-style instrumentation added some interest, the melodies on Recent Songs were not his strongest, and the album seemed to lack the confidence and momentum of his best work.
The album won back some of the sympathetic press, but Cohen still felt out of step with the times. “People forget that it was against the law to listen to Leonard in the days of punk,” said Bono, who recalled wanting to attend a Cohen concert as a teenager but being unable to afford a ticket. “Some of the most brutal, eye-gouging music criticism was directed at him in those years.”
He soldiered on with more touring, and then a few side projects—Night Magic, a musical cowritten with Lewis Furey, and an album of poetry recitation that was never finished. Five years passed after Recent Songs; time was stretching longer and longer between new Leonard Cohen releases, a pattern that would continue for the remainder of his career. And then in 1984, after he hadn’t heard from Cohen in eight years or so, John Lissauer’s phone rang. “Hey, man,” purred the voice on the other end of the line. “Wanna work?”