(I apologize in advance for the length of this post; it’s my fail for the month.)
“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?
Well it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth,
the minor fall, the major lift,
the baffled king composing hallelujah.”
One way or another, we all know the song. Leonard Cohen, the Canadian folk singer, composed it in 1984 and since then it has been recorded by over 200 artists and groups. And we all have our favorite interpretation of it. My children and grandchildren love the beautiful Rufus Wainwright version included in the first Shrek movie.
“Your faith was strong, but you needed proof.
You saw her bathing on the roof.
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you.
She tied you to a kitchen chair.
She broke your throne and she cut your hair,
and from your lips she drew the hallelujah.”
One doesn’t have to have a profound familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures to know that there are multiple—and mixed—references to the Bible in the song. Of course the second verse is a reference to the restless King David, restricted from the battlefield on account of his importance to the Israelites, entranced by the exquisite, naked form of Bathsheba, the wife of his devoted servant Uriah. Cohen combines this narrative with that of another Hebrew warrior, Samson, who like David was beguiled by a beautiful woman: Delilah, who cuts the hair of the Israelite leader as he sleeps in her bed, robbing him of his great power. There are those vocalists who seem to focus on the biblical element of the song, taking great delight in the “hallelujah” chorus—if you’ll forgive the pun. Among these singers are Three Talented Girls, John Thomas and numerous church groups.
“Baby I’ve been here before.
I’ve know this room. I’ve walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag from the marble arch.
Love is not a victory march.
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
It’s in his third verse, however, that Cohen affirms the real theme and message of his song. “Hallelujah” is a treatise on romantic love, specifically the sort of brutality that exists between people who share the most intimate of relationships. He focuses on the authority, prowess and might of men, and states that all male power melts away from the man who is enchanted by a woman. Their relationship becomes a struggle, a competition in which there are consequences and casualties, but no real winner. This is expressed so poignantly in the first verse, as Cohen says to the woman he loves: “I make this beautiful music, and it means nothing to you.” The singer who seems best to have captured the essence of this message was the late Jeff Buckley—the person whose rendition of the song is often considered the best of all.
“There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below,
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
and the Holy Dove was moving too
and every breath we drew was hallelujah.”
The fourth verse once again reveals Cohen’s use of religious texts. “Holy Dove” is a reference to the Spirit of God in a distinctly Christian way—at least for a guy who is Jewish. This is actually not unusual for him (he reflects at length on loneliness of Jesus in his marvelous song “Suzanne”). In “Hallelujah,” Cohen uses the spiritual metaphor of the delicate, fleeting divine Spirit to describe the sudden absence of intimacy between himself and his lover: “Losing your love is like losing the sacred presence of the Holy.” That haunting theme of lost affection, some have said, is captured particularly well by KD Lang in her recordings of the song (maybe it’s because she’s a Canadian too)—though often she leaves out this fourth verse.
“Maybe there’s a God above,
but all I’ve ever learned from love
was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
It’s not a cry you can hear at night.
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light.
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
Verse five is, to me, the ultimate expression of despair—the depths of loss compounded by the recognition that the Holy One is not going to intervene to set right the relationship that is so profound and precious. This is a make-or-break verse that has the power to reveal whether or not the singer has suffered the sort of emotional grief being described. Jon Bon Jovi’s understated version of the song—and particularly this verse—expresses the feeling of human and divine abandonment with particular poignancy.
“You say I took the name in vain,
but I don’t really know the name;
and if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word.
It doesn’t matter what you heard—
the holy or the broken hallelujah.
The sixth is “Leonard’s verse.” In it he deals with the great subtheme that has developed as a result of his ascribing divine importance to something as human as the affection between lovers. I can almost hear his departing love criticizing him for comparing the loss of romantic love to divine abandonment, and his response: “whether you recognize it or not, the love between us drew the angels to us and elevated us to the holy places. It is in the embraces and clashes of lovers that sacred and profane are entwined.” Leonard has a point. Those scriptural stories to which we most closely relate are not the great tales of victory—Samson slaying lions or David killing Philistines. Instead we find ourselves yoked to the brokenness of these great figures—the shame of David when the whole of the Hebrew nation learned how he plotted the death of Uriah; the humiliation of Samson, blinded and mocked in the temple of a foreign god. And this is Leonard’s verse especially because Leonard Cohen, who sings of the divinity found in the failures of life, is often considered among the poorest singers of his own song. How odd to realize one of the great lessons of this song is that we are closest to the sacred in our most conflicted, defeated moments.
“I did my best. It wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.
I’ve told the truth; I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong,
I stand before the Lord of song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
“Hallelujah is a long song. The briefest versions are all over four minutes. Many renditions, even if they don’t have a musical bridge, are over six minutes. As a result, often singers omit verses and in particular this last one—which is too bad. Here Cohen goes back to his original statement, that music is his divine gift, saying, “Well maybe I failed (in love and in song), but ‘hallelujah’ was what I was aiming for and I’m not ashamed of that.” The song—melody and lyrics—are a bittersweet treatise on love, failure and the ever-presence of the holy. A friend of mine told me once that the angels stay so close to us because it’s their only chance to experience the depth of human love and grief. Somehow, Leonard Cohen captured all that; else 200 artists would not have recorded multiple versions of the song and millions would not have listened.
That brings me to the reason I’ve written this ponderous, lengthy examination of “Hallelujah” and its versions: I just heard a most beautiful, ironic version of it. The IDF—that’s right, the armed forces of Israel—recorded a knocked out version of Hallelujah . . . in Hebrew. Watching the video of them (see link below) encapsulates the profundity, irony and magic of this incredible piece of music. Listening to the angelic voices of these very young Israelis and watching them, dressed in drab, baggy military fatigues and bathed in smoky, blue light, is an astonishing thing. Here are the descendants of Samson, David, Bathsheba and all the generations who followed—in the process of living out—as we all do—the magnificent, excruciating truths of this tender song. –Lazarus Barnhill
If you can’t see the video via the above link, you can see it on UTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtAMrRtuF_4
Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).