Adam (Leonard Cohen’s son) tells the story of an amusing moment between Cohen and perhaps his closest creative peer, Bob Dylan.
“A lot of people have made the comparison between Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen over the years and there’s some hilarious stories.”
“Like the two of them are sitting in a cafe in Paris and Dylan says to him, ‘How long did it take you to write Hallelujah?”
“And my father completely lied to Dylan and said, ‘Oh you know couple of years.’ “
“I think it was [actually] seven years”, says Adam.
“And then my father returned the favour and said, you know, ‘How long did it take you to write Just Like a Woman?’ and Dylan said ‘Fifteen minutes’.
“And that’s very much about process I think. Dylan had this quality where he would ‘from the hip’, you know spit and polish, spit and vinegar and then this old man of mine was much more like chiseling marble.– BBC Scotland
Hallelujah is a spiritual masterpiece in contemporary music. Hallelujah is a Hebrew word meaning ‘Praise the Lord‘. The song was released in 1984 on the album Various Positions, but achieved little success initially. Not until it was covered by the likes of Jeff Buckley, Bob Dylan and Rufus Wainright did it start to garner wider attention. After being featured in the film Shrek (2001), many other arrangements have been performed in recordings and in concert, with over 300 versions known. The song has been used in religious ceremonies, film and television soundtracks and televised talent contests.
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
I find each listen as I try to absorb the lyrics an ineffable experience. I made a family DVD many moons ago for my eldest son’s 3rd Birthday which included his Baptism set to Cohen’s Hallelujah. It is the first song I remember my son being enamoured with – so Hallelujah will always be ‘his’ song. We dedicated another Cohen song to our daughter after she was born called You Got Me Singing.
Written in the key of C major, the chord progression in Hallelujah matches the lyrics from the song: “goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift“: C, F, G, A minor, F. Cohen wrote around 80 draft verses for Hallelujah, with one writing session at the Royalton Hotel in New York where he was reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, banging his head on the floor. His original version contains several biblical references, most notably evoking the stories of Samson and Delilah from the Book of Judges (“she cut your hair”) as well as King David and Bathsheba (“you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you”).
Cohen’s lyrical poetry and his view that “many different hallelujahs exist” is reflected in wide-ranging covers with very different intents or tones, allowing the song to be “melancholic, fragile, uplifting [or] joyous” depending on the performer. Rufus Wainright’s version below offers a “purifying and almost liturgical” interpretation.
1. Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen song) – wikipedia