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On Leonard Cohen: the afterlife of a ladies' man

Inspired by a new documentary on Leonard Cohen’s music, a fan examines the enduring appeal of ‘Hallelujah’

More than a boudoir poet
More than a boudoir poet (iStockphoto)

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The first time I heard Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah was on a date. I got into his car, it played through the stereo, and I fell hard for it (and him). I went on to listen to several versions of Hallelujah on a loop that night itself—Jeff Buckley’s, John Cale’s, Rufus Wainwright’s, Susan Boyle’s, Jeff Gutt’s, Bob Dylan’s—before venturing into Dance Me To The End Of Love, Anthem, Famous Blue Raincoat, So Long, Marianne, Suzanne and Winter Lady. I fell deeper and deeper in love with Cohen’s music with every song I heard. But nothing, nothing came close to Hallelujah. There is something about its expansiveness, the ruminations on joy, sex, mortality, mourning, god, lament, brokenness, guilt and peace, whispered like a prayer in Cohen’s smoky bedroom voice that makes my heart skip a beat.

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It has been 10-odd years but I still have to listen to Cohen’s Hallelujah on Spotify at least once a week, if not more. I played Hallelujah when I was learning how to drive, turning the music up loud to muffle the curses of passers-by when I forgot to indicate, changed lanes without checking the rear-view mirror or trundled by at 25 kmph. I have listened to it in the gym while running on the treadmill, during long walks at the beach, in a park after a stressful meeting, and on days when I was terribly homesick and craved the familiar. A former partner, who is Jewish, once complained that with me around, his apartment sounded like a synagogue; I played the song that often.

I am far from alone, of course. The appeal of Hallelujah—as yet another documentary on Cohen, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, which was screened at the Tribeca film festival in June, indicates—is timeless and universal. The documentary, directed and produced by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, which was released in select theatres in the US on 1 July, closely examines the allure of Cohen and his music, lingering on this song.

Cohen took nearly five years to write Hallelujah, sharing it with the world in 1984 as part of his album Various Positions. It went largely unnoticed for almost a decade — until Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright performed covers of it. Bob Dylan, though, seems to have recognised its genius even earlier, playing it on 8 July 1988 at a concert in Montreal, Cohen’s hometown. “It’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which when it comes in has a power all of its own,” Dylan once said. “The ‘secret chord’ and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.”

Over time, as David Remnick pointed out in a 10 October 2016 profile of Cohen in The New Yorker, nearly 300 other performers made Hallelujah famous with their cover versions; it was included on the soundtrack for Shrek and as a staple on American Idol. Indeed, he made a considerable fortune from album sales, concerts and publishing rights to his songs, writes Remnick in the piece that came out a month before Cohen’s death in November at the age of 82. “Hallelujah was recorded so often and so widely that Cohen jokingly called a moratorium on it,” he adds in that same piece.

Music journalist Alan Light, author of the 2012 book The Holy Or The Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, And The Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’, must agree. He described the song as “one of the most loved, most performed and most misunderstood compositions of all time”.

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I am not entirely sure I agree with Light’s assessment of it being “misunderstood”; for something to be misunderstood almost always implies there is a concrete literal meaning, one that is fixed and devoid of fluidity. But like any form of art, so much of Hallelujah’s meaning stems from your own experiences and state of being, making it inevitably polysemous. Cohen’s own interpretation of the song, though slightly cryptic, certainly implies as much. “Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glory to the Lord,” he once said. “The song explains that many kinds of Hallelujahs do exist. I say: All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value. It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”

I love Hallelujah because it is as much a song about the human condition as it is about the body's muddled relationship with spirituality, the tussle between faith and the flesh, apparent in both the Old Testament love affairs that make an appearance in the song—King David’s longing for Bathsheba and Samson’s relationship with Delilah, both forbidden and, therefore, irresistible. I am inclined to think this was something Cohen grappled with too. He was, after all, an Orthodox Jewish man from a family of rabbis and scholars believed to have descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother, a lineage that must have been hard to shake off even while he sang about booze, barbiturates and blowjobs (Joni Mitchell, a friend and former lover, called him a boudoir poet).

It is also desperately funny, like all Cohen songs, once you get past the darkness he lacquers them with. There’s a certain self-effacing, deadpan humour, laced with irony that is classic Cohen. It is a song of passion and lust, of the inexplicable sadness and sudden joys of existence, the mythical and the mundane jostling for space in every stanza, a song that, as Walt Whitman once put it, “contain (s) multitudes”, just like any of us.

I like to think that this is what makes it so relatable, so popular, so universal. And I am inclined to think that this is what Cohen was gunning for, too, when he wrote it. To borrow his words, “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can…reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah’.”

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