‘HALLELUJAH’: Leonard Cohen, a journey, a song

Campbell Dalglish
Posted 9/29/22

The documentary “Hallelujah,” directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, explores the life and times behind Leonard Cohen’s most famous song, first released in 1984, …

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‘HALLELUJAH’: Leonard Cohen, a journey, a song


The documentary “Hallelujah,” directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, explores the life and times behind Leonard Cohen’s most famous song, first released in 1984, and performed and recorded to date by over 350 performers with over 60 instrumental recorded versions. The song, as Cohen confesses, comes from a place “no one knows, that is grace. That is a gift.” But it took him seven years to write it, condensing 80 to 180 different verses down into four that were finally recorded. Columbia Records refused to market the Cohen album “Various Positions,” on which the song was included on the flip side, neither understanding its religious or musical structure, nor its appeal to an audience in search of romantic spiritual/sexual enlightenment.

Cohen knew his work was good, and wanted it to be seen as secular, not bound by religious doctrine, and so Columbia’s rejection was devastating. Then Bob Dylan performed it live in 1988 in Hollywood, a raunchy rendition full of passion, emphasized by his own personal unique phrasing that initiated the importance of this song in live performance. In 1991, John Cale released a recording of it on his album in his own style, rendering every line of poetry with full-throated melodic lines, which were then picked up by the golden voice of Jeff Buckley, son of Tim Buckley, to render it in its current, most popular rendition on his album titled “Grace.” Buckley said he would be embarrassed for Cohen to hear it, as it was probably “too boyish.” Boyish? Or sounding like the song fell out of the sky full of “grace,” like an Icarus with singed wings? 

Documentarians Geller and Goldfine (“Ballets Russes”) recall their interview with Dominique Issermann when trying to reveal Cohen’s creative process, describing the song “Hallelujah”: “It’s like a bird that is touching the walls of culture. It is very symbolic. It is very mysterious.” Recently there’s the live performance of the song at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts by Chris Judge and the Red Hot Chili Pipers that lifted the ceiling off that old classic theatre with a full choir of bagpipes. 

Cohen’s journey to fame began when Judy Collins pulled him out of the dark shadows of his poetry and urged him to join her in a live performance of his first big hit song, “Suzanne.” He got stage fright and walked off, only to return to great applause. “Suzanne” went on to induce many youths, including myself, to follow Cohen’s muse in search of love with all its highs and lows. I dropped out of college and eloped to Europe.

In 1994, Cohen spent five years at Mount Baldy Zen Centre to “get straight with himself” after a bout with alcohol. He left the center to return to his poetry and music with renewed faith. Cohen’s personal rabbi, Mordecai Finley, recalls: “We all spoke about feeling that we were in the service of the Muse [the Bat Kol].”

Having studied piano under Dr. Ted Alexander, master jazz pianist from Denver, I learned various positions for jazz chords, and for years I wondered over the secret chord mentioned in this song. In the piano’s heptatonic scale, there’s a half-step between the third note (E) and the fourth note (F), and again the seventh (B) and eighth (C). Cohen points out this secret chord that “pleased” his Lord David, that baffled him. The eight-note scale, like a ladder with two broken rungs leading first a half-step down into a minor (despair), and then reaching the top with a final half-step up to a major (delight), could be what the poet James Stevens might call “Strict Joy.” 

Looking at Cohen’s life through the lens of his “Tower of Song” about relations and the “Various Positions” ハalbum that Columbia refused to promote, perhaps he simply means for us to climb this broken ladder in our own lives. In the face of a world you cannot make sense of, “you either raise your fist, or you sing Hallelujah.”