Back before anybody knew what dyslexia was — I was bluffing my way through high school, unable to read more than a few word clustered together before losing the sense of it. What I did well was listen — to the point that I practically memorized everything teachers said so I could pass tests. When I was 16, I heard a student read a poem by Leonard Cohen.
I found a bookstore and bought the first book I ever owned — his collected poems. And I read the first poem I’d ever read (of my own free will) — Suzanne. As it turns out, poetry is easier to read (short lines and lots of breaks) so his poetry practically taught me to read, and gave me access to someone else’s thoughts and ideas for the first time.
At the time, I didn’t realize he was also a singer, so the first 15 years of my relationship to Cohen was strictly as a poet, rather than as a singer-songwriter. In fact, the only poetry I ever quoted to people was his. One New Years, as is our tradition, we had question for the New Years book and the main one was to quote the words/lines/lyrics that matter most to you/define your life — and mine were the words from the second verse of Suzanne.
When I woke up — sometime in the mid ’80s — I was working 16 and 18 hour days, sometimes alone in a huge laboratory facility, and I would keep the radio on very loud to drown out the silence. In the early hours of the morning, our local Public Radio station played Cohen singing “Take this Waltz” — Leonard Cohen’s translation of Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s poem, set to a beautiful waltz. And again, he transformed my world.
For nearly a decade, I though I must be the only person alive who knew this secret — that Leonard Cohen sang all these beautiful poetic songs in his deep, raspy, barely melodic voice, but with the emotion and transcendence of a holy man.
While watching the West Wing one night — a remarkable script unfolding — I suddenly began (along with the whole world) to hear an amazing voice singing “Hallelujah” which has since become the song 3 generations most associate with Cohen. Within a few months, I’d heard it in 3 more voices as part of the soundtrack to a variety of television shows and movies, including the childrens’ (and their parents’) animated hit, Shrek. On Youtube, you can find over a thousand voices more (from great recording artists, to IDOL winners around the globe, to every Jack and Jill with a mic on the computer), each with their own interpretation, their own style, and their own backstory reason for wanting to sing it. The results range from absolutely breathtaking (k.d. lang) to absolutely heartbreaking (Bob Dylan) to forlorn andnn melancholy (Rufus Wainwright and John Cale) to sacramental (Espen Lind and his 3 Norwegian buddies) to outrageous and mysterious (Bono). There are hack commercial versions, like Britan’s IDOL, Alexangra Burke, and wretched covers by teens and self-agrandizing ameteurs singing in churches and basements everywhere. And it’s approaching such a depth of interpretation that it could displace Lennon/McCartney’s “Yesterday”, and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as the most recorded/covered song in history.
So many singers have covered “Hallelujah” successfully (or not) that I started trying to figure out why. First, it’s deceptively simple. Second, it can be played on practically any string or keyboard instrument (probably not so well on the winds.) Third — the lyric (the poem) is so full of emotion that it practically demands access to the humanity in all of us.
When Cohen was young, he sang it as a love song/broken relationship; when he searched for God, it became a religious anthem (though most religeous singers have to rewrite some of the lyric or risk offending their conservative audience;) when he grew older — and the world with him — it became a global anthem of loss, and faith, and mourning, and hope. From 2, to 4, to 6 — he wrote something beautiful that every singer wants to sing, and every heart wants to hear… Amazing
A note about Youtube and the virulent internet: Because John Cale and Rufus Wainwright were the most well known versions of the song for many years, many people (not professionals) assumed one or both of them had written Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In the last couple of years, when so many of the covers were posted on Youtube, it was erroniously attributed to one or two others — and those mis-attributions spread like wildfire. Now, well over 1/3 of all the recordings of the song on Youtube either list Cohen as a peripheral name associated with it, or with no credit to Cohen at all. I don’t know how this gets corrected — ignorance is a difficult crime to prosecute. Just remember the poet and the heart that created all Cohen’s songs and lyrics.
It is almost impossible to distinguish between the words and the poet — and it should be.