The Folklore Project
The Broken Hallelujah
By Michael Dunaway
As we approach Inauguration Day, I am — like most of us, I expect — still trying to make sense of the last year. I don’t remember the last time I saw the circles of friends around me so divided, so at odds, so on edge and distrustful and just plain surly. Even my extended family, normally a rock of stability and acceptance, devolved at times this holiday season into sniping, venting, and discord. I’m not sure if tomorrow’s inauguration is going to make thing better or worse. And I don’t have the solution on how to get out of this whole mess, but a few months ago, I think I caught a glimpse of at least part of the answer.
Two days after the most dramatic and unexpected election of our lifetimes, I landed in Wilmington, North Carolina, to show my film “6 Love Stories” at the Cucalorus Film Festival. The festival has become a mainstay on the circuit for indie films, and is widely known for its wild parties, irreverent attitude, and spirit of camaraderie among the filmmakers. This year’s edition of the festival, though, wasn’t quite as high-spirited as in years past.
A huge pack of predominantly blue-state artists had descended on a small, conservative town with a heavy military presence in red-state North Carolina, and the scene was really a microcosm of the country at large over the last few weeks. Clinton voters were in shock — not even yet in mourning — and feared for the well-being of their friends who were not straight, white, male, Christian, or native-born Americans. Trump voters were mostly keeping quiet, but were nursing wounds of their own, wondering how their political preferences had suddenly made them pariahs in polite society.
Those of us who didn’t vote for either major-party candidate had had a little more time to process our grief. We’d known for months we’d be depressed at the outcome of this election. But even we were dealing with the other great weight of 2016 — the number and magnitude of the musical heroes we lost during the year. David Bowie, Prince, and Merle Haggard, just to name three. And then, on that same Thursday, came the news that the 2016 Mount Rushmore was complete. Leonard Cohen had passed.
By the time Leonard Cohen settled down to record the album that would be called “Various Positions,” in June of 1984, one of the most improbable careers in rock and roll history looked like it might be over.
He had grown up the son of a prominent Jewish family in Montreal, and didn’t consider himself a musician at all until he discovered the Socialist folk scene while attending undergraduate college at McGill. He quickly formed a singing group with some fellow students. But even then, music was a diversion for him; his calling was poetry. He began winning competitions and prizes in writing, culminating in the prestigious Chester McNaughton Prize. His first volume of poems was published in 1956, only a year after he graduated.
Eventually he was introduced to Judy Collins in New York City, and asked her if she would listen to a few songs he’d written.
“So he sat down,” she remembered to a writer, “and he said ‘I can’t sing and I can’t play the guitar and I don’t know if this is a song.’” He proceeded to sing his now-classic song “Suzanne” for her.
“Well, Leonard,” she replied, “this is a song, and I’m recording it tomorrow.”
His own debut album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” came out later that year, and his career skyrocketed. Classics followed quickly, songs like “So Long Marianne,” “Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Lover Lover Lover,” and many others. He became a seminal figure in the emergence of modern folk music.
“Bob Dylan blew everybody’s mind,” Allen Ginsberg famously quipped, “except Leonard’s.”
But by 1984, he was in a bad spot. The rise of punk seemed to have rendered him hopelessly uncool and out of touch. It had been five years since he had recorded a record, and that record had been the least successful of his career. The new one, “Various Positions,” would go on to be the first that his record company flatly refused to release, partially because, in the famous phrase, they “didn’t hear a single.” Little did they know that one of the songs on that album would one day be regarded as one of the greatest songs ever written.
But they can be forgiven that oversight. Because the version of “Hallellujah” on “Various Positions” doesn’t actually sound like one of the greatest songs ever written.
“I wrote ‘Hallelujah’ over the space of at least four years,’” Cohen once said. “I wrote many, many verses. I don’t know if it was 80, maybe more or a little less.” In hindsight, it’s clear that when Cohen recorded the song for “Various Positions,” he still hadn’t completely grabbed hold of the true greatness of the number that Bono once said “might be the most perfect song in the world.” It would take years of reinterpretation, both by Cohen and by other artists, years of wrestling and grappling with its majestic mystery, before “Hallelujah” grew into a masterpiece.
It’s hard for me to put into words what the death of Leonard Cohen meant to me; I’m still trying to understand it myself. From a purely logical standpoint, his death should have been a completely ordinary occurrence. He was 82 years old, after all, and not in the best of health. Perhaps it was that his death carried the weight of the others that came before it. Perhaps it was the loving, mournful, masterful portrait that David Remnick had painted of the man just a few weeks earlier in The New Yorker. Perhaps it was simply the cultural moment in which it came, amidst the terror, confusion, discord, and sense of disconnectedness most of us were experiencing with recent world events. Perhaps it was the expectant yearning of so many of Cohen’s best songs, as he struggled with the very notions of humanity, of spirituality, of eternity, wrestling with God in the best tradition of Jewish thinkers for thousands of years now.
Whatever the reasons, Cohen’s death devastated me in a way that, somehow, even the death of my favorite musician of all time, Johnny Cash, did not. Cohen was my Kurt Cobain. I walked the streets of Wilmington in a daze, listening to some of my favorite Cohen songs on a loop, each word seeming to anticipate this moment when all of us would have to go on without him:
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
* * *
If it be your will that I speak no more
And my voice be still as it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until I am spoken for
If it be your will
And draw us near and bind us tight
All your children here in their rags of light
In our rags of light all dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will
If it be your will
* * *
And I'll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I'll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross
And you'll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, Oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It's yours now. It's all that there is
* * *
Going home without my burden
Going home behind the curtain
Going home without the costume that I wore
* * *
Now I bid you farewell, I don't know when I'll be back
There moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you'll be hearing from me baby, long after I'm gone
I'll be speaking to you sweetly
From a window in the Tower of Song
And, perhaps most poignantly:
The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again, I heard them say
Do not dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
A world without Leonard Cohen seemed an impossibility, but it’s a world, as it turns out, that he had been preparing us for all along.
None other than Bob Dylan himself had been perhaps the first to recognize the potential in “Hallelujah,” covering the song regularly starting in 1988 as he began his “Never-Ending Tour.” And Cohen himself had played the song regularly on tour, experimenting with dropping and adding verses. In a famous Cohen appearance on “Austin City Limits” in 1988, he has added the “flag on your marble arch” verse, with its famous “it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah,” making the song much darker and more textured in the process. In the words of Alan Light in his excellent “Hallelujah” study entitled “The Holy or the Broken”: “If the ‘Various Positions’ lyrics were about faith as a response to life’s brutality, including the ravages and mysteries of love, this edit foregrounded the pains of sex and romance, offering hope as a more defensive protection against defeat, a backstop to prevent us from giving in to despair.”
This new, darker “Hallelujah” began to kindle the creative flames of other artists. Most important among them was former Velvet Underground member John Cale, who covered the song on a 1991 tribute record (itself inspired by a new wave of interest in Cohen spurred largely by the hit album “I’m Your Man”). Cale’s stripped-down arrangement, with its simple piano arpeggios, let the song speak for itself. And his verse selection and verse arrangement were inspired, juxtaposing the sensual and the spiritual imagery effortlessly. Even Cohen himself began using the verses Cale used, in Cale’s order.
“Cale has kept a backdrop of spirituality,” notes Light, “with the David and Samson stories and the ‘holy dove,’ but has turned it into a lover’s lament. If the song started its life by making a sacred concept into something tangible and physical, Cale now turned it on its head and made sex sacred.” That’s the version that an unknown but immensely gifted singer named Jeff Buckley heard on a friend’s turntable.
Buckley was the son, of course, of the noted folk singer Tim Buckley, but grew up relatively estranged from him, and wasn’t even invited to his funeral. Years later, though, he was asked to be a part of a tribute show to his father in New York City, and it was the first time he had performed his father’s songs in public (the events are dramatized in the fascinating 2012 film “Greetings From Tim Buckley”). He eventually returned to New York City as a roadie for Glen Hansard of the legendary Irish group The Frames (and of the Commitments, and Oscar winner for his songs in “Once”). This time he stayed in New York, and began playing regular shows at the Sin-é club in Greenwich Village, including “Halleljuah” in nearly every one of his sets. Over 300 of them, by one reckoning. He soon became a Village legend, and was quickly signed to a record deal.
His debut album, “Grace,” is one of the most thrilling and promising debuts in rock and roll history, and at its heart is a haunting, soaring, whispering, virtuoso performance of “Hallelujah” that wrings every bit of youthful passion and frustration possible out of the song. In Light’s words, “Where the older Cohen and Cale sang the song with a sense of experience and perseverance, of hard lessons won, this rising star delivered the lyrics with swooning emotion, both fragile and indomitable. By balancing this slightly melodramatic reading with the simple, stripped-down sound of a solo guitar, he also avoided having the whole thing become too overwrought and collapsing under its own weight.” Buckley himself called it “a hallelujah to the orgasm…an ode to life and love.”
Tragically, Jeff Buckley was unable to continue to explore his massive promise as a performer and songwriter; he drowned in the Mississippi River less than three years later. It was the Buckley version of “Hallelujah,” though, that brought the song to the larger world. To take one small measure of its popularity, the various postings of his version of the song on YouTube have well over 100 million views.
The closing night of the Cucalorus Film Festival is legendary for its karaoke party, hosted by critic, filmmaker, video store owner, and crowdfunding expert Aaron Hillis. The night is as wild as Hillis himself, with elaborate costumes, rock and roll, and, of course, lots and lots of alcohol. It’s an important moment of bacchanalian celebration after a festival that is at times very stressful and intense to pull off, primarily for the festival organizers and workers but even for the filmmakers, for whom a great deal is riding based on audience reaction to their films. It’s not an accident that karaoke has become a staple of the film festival world, and few festivals do it as well as Hillis and Cucalorus.
Now, I have very specific rules for myself about karaoke. I always choose a song that is either lighthearted and fun, or ripe for melodramatic overperforming. In the first category, some favorites include the Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” In the second category, I lean toward songs like Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild.” In both cases, I’m looking to start the party.
But this night felt different, and all of that felt frivolous, and not befitting the occasion. At least not for a moment. So I asked Jennifer Lafleur, one of my actors who’s become a very good friend, if she’d sing with me, and she agreed.
We got up on the makeshift stage, and I asked the DJ to let me say something before the song began.
“For the first time in, I think, my entire life,” I told the crowd, “I’m going to do a serious karaoke song. So much has happened this year. So much has happened just this week. And festivals like this are part of how we heal, and I appreciate every one of you. We want to pay tribute to a great artist who recently left us, and we hope you’ll all sing with us on the chorus.”
And then the opening chords of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” fell from the speakers.
Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” had made the song’s greatness clear, and other artists rushed in to grapple with the song themselves. And many of those songs ended up being used in films and television shows, tapping into the incredible emotional power of the song — notably, John Cale’s version was the closing credit song in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 Jean-Michel Basquiat biopic “Basquiat.”
In 2001, two huge developments boosted the song further into the public consciousness. First, the smash hit film “Shrek” used a Rufus Wainwright version over a particularly sad montage. And a montage the music network VH1 put together in response to the 9/11 attacks featured the song and was seen by untold millions. Again in the words of Light, “Heard against the horrifying, bewildering, inspiring footage of the rubble, of the rescue workers, and the vigils, of the tears and the rage, the yearning physicality of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ had precisely the necessary tone for the moment — the feelings of love and loss, of mystic confusion that didn’t surrender to despair.” Of 2001, he writes, “Whether serving as a consolation for a lovesick ogre or as a balm for a scarred and grieving nation, ‘Hallelujah’ had solidified its place as a modern-day hymn.”
The song’s march through popular culture continued apace. Zach Braff used Cale’s version in “Scrubs.” Aaron Sorkin used Buckley’s in “The West Wing.” The teen nighttime soap “The O.C.” used the Buckley version in the closing montage of its first season, then commissioned a new version by Imogen Heap for the closing montage of its third season. Seemingly every singer-songwriter recorded or performed the song — Bill Flanagan famously remarked that “every time you walked into a showcase at the South by Southwest Festival it was like, ‘Here’s two songs I wrote and “Hallelujah.”’” The Hotel Café in Los Angeles put up a sign for upcoming songwriters playing the venue: “PLEASE DO NOT SING ‘HALLELUJAH.’” Epic versions were recorded by Regina Spektor, KD Lang, Amanda Palmer and others. And of course, it was inevitably featured at least once in nearly every season of “American Idol.”
The song became a sort of religious ritual at shows once Cohen himself went back to touring (spurred, tragically enough, by the discovery that his manager had been embezzling millions from him during his years in a Zen Buddhist monastery). It was the one song everyone had come to hear, and Cohen delivered in spades, not only throwing his all into every performance of it, but drawing the crowd into a communal experience.
Amanda Palmer remembers watching from backstage as Cohen began the song: “Everyone that I could see shut up. It was a cultural agreement to have a moment of silence. Then everyone sang along with the choruses. It felt like church. It was fantastic.”
It’s a funny thing with songs that become ubiquitous; no matter how great their genius, we stop really hearing them after the first few hundred, or thousand, times. Once you’ve heard the song in “Shrek,” it’s a little hard not to feel silly getting emotional over it. It just doesn’t have the same majesty once you’ve heard it on “The O.C.” and “Ugly Betty” and every single godforsaken season of “American Idol.” Even Cohen himself once voiced concern over the song being too ever-present for its own good, although he later recanted and said he was honored so many people wanted to sing it or use it.
I never quite reached that point with “Hallelujah,” because I carefully curated my consumption of it. After a few years, I listened only to Leonard’s many versions of the song, and then only rarely. I think Jeff Buckley’s version is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded, but I don’t need to hear it again for quite awhile. No, I actually need specifically not to hear it again for awhile. I need it to have the space it needs to regain a bit of that wild strangeness.
So, before we got onstage, I worried that “Hallelujah” might not have been the right choice. Maybe we should have gone with “Anthem,” with its rousing message of ragged optimism? Or “First We Take Manhattan,” perhaps Cohen’s best known song (in his own voice, at least) to anyone under 40? Maybe we should have sung “So Long Marianne,” and sent him off to heaven the way he said goodbye to his lover on earth, a lover who, heartbreakingly, died just months before him?
But as soon as those first chords rang out, I knew we had made the right choice. I didn’t have chills, exactly — it was more of a feeling of higher consciousness, almost like becoming part of the song itself, crazy as that might seem. The entire crowd was silent, watching and listening. For those of you who have been to a karaoke bar, you know how rare that is. And when the chorus came, a chorus that Cohen always sang more boisterously and triumphantly than most of those who sang it afterwards, the crowd did in fact join in. Loudly, enthusiastically, paying tribute to the man so many of us had loved from afar. I glanced over at my actor, singing partner, soul friend, and she nodded at me, wide-eyed. She felt it, too.
I heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord,
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
And it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall and the major lift,
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.
Part of the powerful allure of Hallelujah is its juxtaposition of baffling, mysterious, grasping verses — let it not be forgotten that Cohen was a poet of significant renown before he ever wrote a song — with a simple, one-word chorus of “Hallelujah” repeated four times, sung to a tune as simple as a children’s refrain. It’s powerful to hear Cohen sing it. It’s powerful to hear Buckley sing it. It’s powerful no matter who’s singing it. But to hear an entire grief-stricken room sing it at the top of their lungs, swaying and holding each other? That’s something special.
I was on the verge of tears that entire song. Here we were standing on that stage, a Christian and an atheist, with an audience of likely everything in between, singing a masterpiece written by a Jewish Buddhist skeptic who spent his whole life grasping for what always lay just outside his reach. I’m sure that song meant something different to every single one of us that night, but it also united us, if only for a moment. We were all there, together, touching eternity. As Cohen himself loved to muse, “I say all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value.” For some of us that night, it was the holy, for some it was the broken, but for all of us it was the hallelujah.
Hymns are not unique to America, of course, nor even to Judaism and Christianity. Millenia-old examples have survived from India, Egypt, Greece, and other ancient cultures. But somehow hymns have found especially fertile soil in American culture, and not just religious hymns. In much the same way that “Amazing Grace” and “It Is Well With My Soul” and “Oh, for a Thousand Tongues” unite, even for a moment, a divided and often bickering church by reminding them of what they all hold dear, organizations from colleges to clubs to the very nation itself have their anthems that strive to accomplish the same purpose. When those songs somehow rise to the level of universality, they are christened as secular hymns. And they’re even more precious, in a way, than the religious hymns, because you don’t have to be in the “in” group to participate. They’re there for everyone. And if you can find them, and join hands with someone, and sing them together, you might just find that there’s something more powerful than this election’s results, or the current political climate. You might just find that there’s something that joins the two of you after all. Even if it’s just your confusion and helplessness.
Rest in peace, dear Leonard Cohen. See you on the other side.
“The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all — hallelujah!’ That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”
— Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016
Michael Dunaway is a New York Times Critics Pick-winning filmmaker, the Film Editor of Paste Magazine, the Creative Producer of the Sarasota Film Festival, and a film professor at The University of the South.