Tracing "Hallelujah" From Obscurity To Ubiquity
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."