Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah

there’s no such thing as an elixir. All that stuff about alchemy—turning the ordinary into the rare and the beautiful, copper into gold, eternal life—it’s all lies. But no other element of Renaissance imagery (and at the time, science) has fascinated writers, artists and musicians so much, at its point of creation and ever since. It was Shakespeare who first made the connection, in his sonnets, but we’re not here for an English Literature lecture.

You would, however, be forgiven for thinking so—for we are here to discuss the “Bard of the bedsit”, Leonard Cohen, and his seminal exploration into Judaeo-Christian theology, desperation and sex—“Hallelujah”. These are common themes of Cohen’s lyrics, but at no other time has he married them together so beautifully, creating something more special, more ornate—something higher. It’s possible that Cohen could have taken the ordinary ingredients of his songs, mingled their fibres in his agar-plate guitar, and created the elixir that Shakespeare, armed with only his quill and parchment, never could.

Am I blaspheming yet? I haven’t even got started.

Cohen’s song begins with a casual reference to the Biblical figure of David, destroyer of Goliath, subsequent King of Israel, poet and blessed musician: “Well I heard there was a secret chord/That David played and it pleased the Lord”. That Cohen casts aside his contemporaries (Dylan, Baez, Joplin etc), along with folk heroes of a bygone era, and yes, Shakespeare, to aspire to the achievements of David speaks volumes. And while the “secret chord” is probably not the A minor that closes the couplet, you just have to admire his gall.

David once wrote the following verse:
O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath
Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in anguish.
How long, O Lord, how long?
In “Hallelujah”, as in so many of David’s Psalms, blind desperation in the midst of blind faith is the underlying preoccupation. Attempting to bridge the gulf between the “holy or the broken Hallelujah” (whilst seemingly more concerned with the latter), both Cohen and David argue the validity of faith in times of crisis as well as times of calm. David was to later beg the Lord for forgiveness after having an affair with a subject’s wife, before having him killed in the front line against the Ammonites, and Cohen may well have felt some sympathy with this. David was a musician, after all.

Cohen’s sexuality, however, is only apparent in the admiration of beauty in the second verse. The central sexual verse was omitted from the studio recording, but did appear on both John Cale’s and Jeff Buckley’s spellbinding covers. The verse could shed some light on the nature of the speaker’s discontent, which is presumably why Cohen opted to only sing the words when in concert, for fear that recording them might immortalise his troubles: “There was a time you let me know/What's really going on below/But now you never show it to me, do you?” Certainly, it could not be argued that such a verse was omitted because it spoilt the ethereal air of the rest of the song, as the verse almost piously concludes, “every breath we drew was Hallelujah”.

All this hyperbole and no perspective leads to some inevitable, questions: is Leonard Cohen a prophet? No, he’s a folk singer. Is “Hallelujah” the lost Psalm? No, it’s a pop lyric. Which should hopefully alleviate any unease this article may have brought to believers.

But there’s one more point for debate, one far less clear-cut and worthy of the scholarly attention it will no doubt receive in years to come: is “Hallelujah” poetry? As the original Bard might (but probably wouldn’t) have said—that is the question.

By: Colin Cooper
Published on: 2004-04-08
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