In the early 1980s, Leonard Cohen sat on the floor of a New York hotel room, wearing only his underwear and remembered “banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song.'”
He had been working on it for years.
Cohen, who died Thursday at 82, was many things: poet, writer and monk, among them. But the Canadian-born artist spent most of his career as a musician, one of the most influential songwriters of the past six decades.
During that career, he wrote many gorgeous songs, which he sang in his smooth, smoky basso. But, as every obituary written about the man (including The Washington Post’s) has led with, he attained fame with the song he was attempting to write in that hotel room, the song for which he wrote more than 80 verses before trimming down to five, the song whose third line reads, ironically, “You don’t really care for music, do you?”
The song is “Hallelujah,” which appeared on his 1985 record “Various Positions.”
According to his biography “I’m Your Man,” the song eventually took Cohen five years to write, a fact that embarrassed him so much he later obscured the duration in a conversation with Bob Dylan.
Finally, all that was left to do was decide between two endings. In typical Cohen tradition, one was light, the other bleak.
“Even though it all went wrong
“I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
“With nothing on my tongue but
“Maybe there’s a God above
“But all I’ve ever learned from love
“Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
“And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
“It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
“It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah”
Cohen went with the version bursting with joyful bravado for the album, relegating the dark ending to an earlier verse. (Cohen often juxtaposed light and dark. Consider the lyrics he sang in “Anthem,” “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”)
When they finished recording the song, Cohen’s producer, John Lissauer, said everyone in the room was stunned.
“We were like: ‘Whoa, this is a standard. This is an important song,'” Lissauer said.
Furthermore, when he and Cohen listened to the final mix of “Various Positions,” they were thrilled.
“This is special. This is it,” Lissauer recalled thinking. “This will be the record that’s going to do it for Leonard in the States.”
That excitement took a nose-dive when Walter Yetnikoff, the head of the music division Columbia Records, Cohen’s label, heard the album and questioned Cohen’s talent.
“Leonard, we know you’re great. We just don’t know if you’re any good,” he said, according to Cohen.
What he didn’t tell the singer was that he wasn’t releasing the album in the United States. Cohen learned that when he picked up a copy of Columbia’s catalogue of recent releases.
In 1985, “Various Positions” was released worldwide – save for in America, where it would finally be released in 1986 by an extremely minor label called Passport.
At the time, it almost seemed as if Yetnikoff may have been correct. The album – which as noted in his biography “was largely ignored by the UK music press” – bombed. It charted at 52 in Britain, low for Cohen, and it never made the charts in the United States.
In particular, “Hallelujah,” which Lissauer said he “thought it the best single I’ve ever made for a serious artist,” was not even released as a single, after “Dance Me to the End of Love” flopped.
Then, something astounding happened.
About 30 years later, the song has been covered by more than 300 artists, including living legends such as Willie Nelson and the Nobel Prize-winning Bob Dylan. In 2010, K.D. Lang performed it at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics, in Vancouver.
Bono, Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris, Neil Diamond, and Jake Shimabukuro – they all have versions.
The Canadian magazine Maclean’s has called it “pop music’s closest thing to a sacred text.”
For all its treatments, though, the cover that returned the sleeping song to the American pop culture consciousness after 10 years, was the electric guitar-plucking, voice-wavering version recorded by the late Jeff Buckley on his 1994 debut “Grace.”
(For the sake of fairness, some, such as Guardian music critic Jude Rogers, argue that Buckley’s version was actually a cover of John Cale’s interpretation of Cohen’s classic.)
Many television shows and films – such as “The West Wing,” “ER” and “House” – have used that very version for emotional moments.
In 2001, a version of the song sung by Rufus Wainwright was featured in DreamWork’s smash-hit “Shrek.”
But the bizarre thing that made Cohen’s rendition finally chart in Britain in 2008, some 22 years after its release, was an amateur singer named Alexandra Burke singing it on “The X Factor.”
After she sang the song in the finale, Cohen’s version charted at 36.
About this late success, Cohen admitted to the Guardian some sense of pride, of righteous retribution.
“The record that it came from which was called ‘Various Positions,’ [a] record Sony wouldn’t put out,” Cohen said. “They didn’t think it was good enough. . . . So there was a mild sense of revenge that arose in my heart.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what makes the song so popular and why it took so long for that popularity to take hold.
Without a doubt, like much of Cohen’s work, it’s a song of juxtapositions.
“The music is timeless and modern at the same time,” Daniel J. Levitin, professor of psychology at McGill University and the author of “The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature,” told Maclean’s. “It has elements of 17th-century harmony – big, classical themes – but also an almost ’50s retro ballad arpeggio, combined with modern harmonic moves.”
In “The Holy or the Broken,” his book about the song, Alan Light wrote, “Joyous and despondent, a celebration and a lament, a juxtaposition of dark Old Testament imagery with an irresistibly uplifting chorus, ‘Hallelujah’ is an open-ended meditation on love and faith – and certainly not a song that would easily be pegged as an international anthem.”
Even the tone of those lyrics shift.
As author and MTV editorial director Bill Flanagan told Light, “One of the funny things about ‘Hallelujah’ is that it’s got this profound opening couplet about King David, and then immediately it has this Woody Allen-type line of, ‘You don’t really care for music, do you?’ I remember it striking me the first time I heard the song as being really funny in a Philip Roth, exasperated kind of way – ‘I built this beautiful thing, but the girl only cares about the guy with a nice car.’ “
Cohen simply said, “I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”
By 2009, his feelings on the song, as he related to the Guardian in 2009, were simple and straightforward, lacking the poetry he was so known for.
“I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.”