The 15-Year Evolution Of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’

‘Hallelujah’ has been covered over 300 times by artists such as U2, Rufus Wainwright, and K.D. Lang

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Genius comes in strange disguises. As legend has it, Paul McCartney wrote The Beatles’ standard “Yesterday” in less than a minute after waking up having heard the song in a dream. But the long, strange journey of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” took over 15 years and the efforts of two additional musicians before taking its final form. As we celebrate the life of poet-musician Leonard Cohen, who died yesterday at the age of 82, the evolution of his mammoth hit “Hallelujah” deserves a closer look.

“Hallelujah” has been covered over 300 times by artists such as U2, Rufus Wainwright, and K.D. Lang, and used in countless movies and TV shows, including: Shrek, The West Wing, Watchmen, and Basquiat. Cohen wrote up to seventy different verses for the song over five years before deciding on the first version he recorded. But the song was released into near obscurity in 1984 after Cohen’s album, “Various Positions” was rejected by CBS Records and released on an obscure Independant label.

“He is a writer in that way that he labors over what these lyrics are,” music journalist Alan Light, author of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’ ” said. “Line by line, word by word, [he] throws a lot away and spends a great deal of time. And ‘Hallelujah,’ famously out of all of these, is probably the song that he says bedeviled him the most... He sort of was chasing some idea with this song, couldn’t find it and just kept writing and writing. And depending on when he tells the story, wrote fifty or sixty or seventy verses,” Light says.

Cohen would continue tinkering with “Hallelujah” on stage by changing the first three verses, slowing it down, and making it darker. Musician John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground, heard Cohen perform the song and was blown away. Cale asked Cohen for its lyrics so he could perform it himself. Cohen sent him a 15-page fax with the various versions he had written over the years. Cale combined the first two verses of the original with three verses from the Cohen’s live performances. He then altered some lyrics, bringing back the Biblical themes in the original version. Cale’s cover was released on a 1991 tribute album, “I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.”

According to Light, Cale is the first artist to “crack the code” on “Hallelujah,” but The “I’m Your Fan” album didn’t sell well and the song would once again fail to capture the zeitgeist. But the album was thankfully purchased by a woman in Park Slope, Brooklyn who was friends with struggling musician, Jeff Buckley. Buckley put on the CD while house sitting for his friend and fell in love with “Hallelujah.” One evening, Buckley performed a haunting version of Cale’s take on the song in a tiny bar in the East Village for a Columbia Records representative. Buckley would sign with Columbia and record his own version of “Hallelujah” on his 1994 album, “Grace.”

Although “Grace” failed to achieve mass-market success at the time of its release, it would grow in popularity after Buckley’s untimely death in 1997 in a swimming accident. The tragedy inspired a reevaluation of his work and “Grace” would finds its way to many best-of-the-decade lists. Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” snowballed in popularity, eventually being seen as the definitive version of the song. So, in the end, the version of “Hallelujah” that people know and love today is a Jeff Buckley cover of John Cale’s version of a song written by Leonard Cohen.

Here’s Willie Nelson’s version of the song he recorded in 2006.

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