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Relix Revisted: The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”

Alan Light | November 14, 2016
In our Jan_Feb 2013 issue we ran this excerpt from Alan Light's book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” which explores the history and legacy of the Leonard Cohen song. As we reflect on Cohen's passing, we share this excerpt.

Whoever listens carefully to “Hallelujah” will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth. The hallelujah is not a homage to a worshipped person, idol, or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm. It’s an ode to life and love.—Jeff Buckley

“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/ So I can sigh eternally,” Kurt Cobain once sang in tribute to the only songwriter, many believe, who belongs in a class with Bob Dylan. But “Hallelujah,” which first appeared on Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions, has already had one of the most remarkable afterlives in pop music history. The song has become one of the most loved, most performed and most misunderstood compositions of its time. 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.

“Hallelujah,” however, has been performed and recorded by hundreds of artists—from U2 to Justin Timberlake, from Bon Jovi to Celine Dion, from Willie Nelson to numerous contestants on American Idol. It has been sung by opera stars and punk bands. Decades after its creation, it became a Top 10 hit throughout Europe and Scandinavia. In 2008, different versions simultaneously held the No. 1 and No. 2 positions on the U.K. singles chart.

“Hallelujah” served as a balm to a grieving nation when it was used for VH1’s official post-9/11 tribute video; as a statement of national pride at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver; and as the centerpiece of the benefit telethon that followed the earthquake in Haiti.

According to Bono, who has performed “Hallelujah” on his own and with U2, “it might be the most perfect song in the world.”

The earliest manifestation of “Hallelujah,” however, could not have been more humble: When Cohen submitted the Various Positions album to Columbia Records, they refused to put it out. When the record was eventually released, the song was generally ignored. To complicate things even further, Cohen immediately began changing and reworking the song in concert, confusing those few fans who were aware of it.

For a full ten years after its release, it gained extremely limited exposure through a few scattered cover versions. Ultimately, it would be Jeff Buckley’s interpretation on his 1994 album Grace that served as the pivot point for the song’s popularity, but even that recording took a number of years before it truly started to capture the public’s imagination.

Buckley, the son of singer/songwriter Tim Buckley (whom he met only once) first came to New York City from California in 1991, to perform as part of a tribute to his late father at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. But it was the following year, when he returned to New York to begin pursuing a musical career in earnest, that saw Buckley begin his relationship with a song that would forever change his own legacy—and, along with it, change pop music history.

Below are two excerpts (with contextual commentary) The Holy or The Broken that deal with Buckley’s relationship to the song.