Whatever You Do, Just Avoid Bono’s Cover
December 25, 2008
Via PhDiva, a headline I didn’t quite expect to see — “Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ Is Surprise Christmas Hit.” (Though since this is in Britain, I’m reminded of Cohen’s quip that he had always appreciated the support he received from music labels for American promotion — Various Positions, on which the original version of “Hallelujah” appeared, was not released in the US until it came out on CD in the 90s.) Even though they’re not buying his version(s). As much as I prefer the inclusion of the full original lyric (as he’s been doing in recent shows, apparently), the live version from the aptly titled Cohen Live is phenomenal. Maybe he’s an acquired taste, but then again, I am a member of the Facebook group, “If I Listen to Anyone Singing ‘Hallelujah,’ It’ll Be Leonard Cohen.'” (Take that, Buckley-promoting-Facebookers!)*
But then there was this sentence:
Some may argue that “Hallelujah” is an inappropriate song for Christmas since it is represented in the dolorous lyric as a cry of sexual climax, and romantic failure.
What makes the stunning Positions triad of “Hallelujah,” “If It Be Your Will,” and “Night Comes On” so stunning is that Cohen is talking purely about sex just as much as Donne was ever talking purely about sex.** (Or, to quote Cohen quoting Faulkner talking about Keats, “He’s talking about a girl” — “Well, he had to talk about something.”) The redeeming aspect of the song, religiously speaking, isn’t that it’s educational, but that it is about God, belief, and faith.*** Take the final verse of all versions of the song:****
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’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Understood without any consideration of faith, it’s hardly understood at all. It’s praise for the fact of life amid disaster; from a more religious perspective, I suppose, one might say for being created because even when the Creation does not seem or appear good, he knows that it is good and to be a part of it is good and worth thanks.
*I should eventually admit that Buckley’s version is wonderful, and that Cohen’s (lack of) singing voice does hamper him, especially on the Various Positions version. But someone has to be a Cohen partisan when it comes to this song, and I’m more than willing to fight losing battles.
**This also probably applies to “Coming Back To You,” but it’s just not on the level of the other three.
***I should point out here that Cohen’s never been one for orthodoxy; from what I can gather, he’s a Reform Bu-Jew who, even in the phases more Bu than Jew, made sure to light candles on Friday night. This is mostly irrelevant, but worth pointing out when talking about religion and the man, I suppose.
****Firstly, WordPress needs to give me a footnoting function. Secondly: HOLY SHIT: the Buckley/Wainwright version of the lyrics drops this verse. Don’t know how I hadn’t realized it/forgot this. Let me retract the word “wonderful” and replace it with, “is much prettier than Cohen’s/is (possibly) the prettiest.” OK, so that version the Brits are buying up maybe is really about sex, but that’s beside the point. Just a general bone to pick here: yeah, you can probably sing it and arrange its music better than Leonard originally did. But leave the lyric alone. You’re not going to make it any better.
And even though I’ve posted this before, I’ll do it again as a (relevant) Chanukah/Christmas treat: Leonard Cohen singing his song, his way, this summer:
Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas, everyone.