“It’s an amazing word to say,” says Bono. “it’s its own kind of mouth music, just singing it.”
In the general theme of religion (see the review of The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen) I recently heard Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah for the first time. This is pretty remarkable because I listen to a lot of music, and I like Leonard Cohen; so I should have heard this 20 year old song before now. But this sort of thing happens to me. For instance, I never listened to or appreciated Led Zeppelin. All I knew of their music was Stairway to Heaven from the countless times it was played as the slow dance at Lesher Junior High School parties in Ft. Collins, Colorado in the late 70s. I’ve since recovered this lost period of my life, now own the entire canon of Led Zeppelin, and count Kashmir as one of my favourite songs of all time. I also love dancing to my daughter’s music with her—Carly Rae Jepsen is awesome. I’m pro Taylor Swift too. So music has always been a big part of enjoying life for me.
So I heard the song and was absolutely taken by it. It’s a long song, with 5 verses and complex lyrics. It has a compelling melody that is also easy to sing. And it’s a religious song, especially for those of us who are agnostic or atheists. (there aren’t many atheist spiritual songs out there—but there must be a market for them….) And then I was walking past an airport book store and saw Alan Light’s book about the song. I had just read the autobiographies of Neil Young and Richards, which made me like them both less and put me off of their music for a couple of months, so I wasn’t really in the market, but I picked it up and could’t put it down.
The book is a great story about a great song. Cohen’s decade long struggle to write it. The lack of reaction to it’s release. The tragic story of the promising artist Jeff Buckley recording the song (with haunting video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKnxmkOAj88 ) then walking into the Mississippi River 5 months later and drowning before his version made the song popular. Leonard Cohen then retreating to a Zen monastery, to reappear 8 years later, bankrupt, having been robbed by his manager, and then beginning a series of world tours, playing stadiums, at the age of 70.
It’s a religious epic in itself, about a man whose purpose in writing the song was to “push the Hallelujah into the secular world, into the ordinary world.” The song provides a bridge of faith into the everyday. As Light says, “There is simply no getting around the power of that chorus: one word, charged with centuries of meaning, delivered ironically or solemnly or both.”
The magic of music and it’s ability to transport the soul and make connections makes me remember something from my childhood in the American south. I was 6 or 7, and my babysitter had taken me to a Southern Baptist church in Nashville. My parents weren’t churchgoers so I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but there was a lot of singing. I remember asking her afterwards about the singing. She said, “when you sing, you pray twice.” Hallelujah.