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?
– Hallelujah, words and music by Leonard Cohen
On Tuesday evening, Leonard Cohen, with uncommon economy, levelled Air Canada Centre to a Massey Hall-sized gathering place. One song in particular (more famous than a raincoat, blue or otherwise) was offered peacefully. Its exclamation was inherent – no need for Cohen to amplify a thing, though he did sing from his knees.
The song in question is the subject of a new book, The Holy or the Broken – Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” by Alan Light. No song’s trajectory is inevitable, but the improbability of Hallelujah’s ascent has more to do with the song’s humble beginnings than its potential.
In his deconstruction of Cohen’s melodic celebration, Light notes that in 1984 when Columbia Records received Cohen’s Various Positions album, on which Hallelujah appears, the label’s own position was decidedly downbeat. There was no back-patting or “I smell a hit, Lenny” involved. Indeed, unmoved by minor falls and major lifts, Columbia initially refused to release the album. And even when it was released, Hallelujah wasn’t a noticeable track. Moreover, in concert, an unsatisfied Cohen began altering what Bono would later call “the most perfect song in the world.”
It wasn’t until 1994, when Buckley released the song on his debut album Grace, that the song began getting traction. Even so, it took until 1998 (one year after Buckley’s death by misadventure) that the cover version of Hallelujah made it to the top of the charts.
So, the song had its own momentum. It’s a standard now, perhaps one of the last of those, what with the rapidly diminishing monoculture.
Much was made of Justin Bieber receiving a booing at the Grey Cup halftime show last month. Why was he treated shabbily? Because he was being foisted upon a crowd. We live in a pull world now, not a push one any more. Nobody shoved Adele or Frank Ocean down anyone’s throat. Take them or leave them – it’s your choice.
But Bieber? Once he was a likable, precocious kid who sang catchy things like “baby, baby, baby, ohhh.” Now he sings … actually, what does he sing? There are no self-evident hits on his latest album, and yet he is thrust at us relentlessly. The Grey Cup audience didn’t want him around, and told him, in as rude a manner possible, as much.
Hallelujah, though, that we want. When the golden-throated Albertan k.d. lang sang the anthem at the Vancouver Olympics, of course there wasn’t a boo to be heard. Cohen has expressed the notion that the song might be overexposed at this point. But it’s beyond him now – Hallelujah is in another realm.
Much the same can be said of the man himself. His latest album, Old Ideas, has charted better than any of his previous releases. On Tuesday, the British music magazine Uncut declared it 2012’s finest LP. “I didn’t sing for 15 years,” said the 78-year-old early on in the show, referring to his comeback and consistent touring since 2008, “and now you can’t get rid of me.”
So, all hail to the baffled king who composed Hallelujah. Unlikely ascent? Slow burn? Get a load of Leonard Cohen, the world’s most improbable (and perhaps final) rock star.
Leonard Cohen plays Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place, Dec. 7; London’s Budweiser Gardens; and Kingston’s K-Rock Centre, Dec. 13.