Tracing "Hallelujah" From Obscurity To Ubiquity
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."