This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #9: Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen (+) covered by Jeff Buckley, K.D. Lang and a Cast of Thousands.
When I was jus a boy, my family went to Church every Sunday. We always sat in the back pew on the left side of the church. We always sat on the left side of the back pew, too. On that left side of the pew stood a pillar that separated the seat on the very end from the rest of the pew. My father always sat in that special place. I always sat on the other side of the pillar, with my mother and sister next to me. Most of the people who made up the congregation of my Church all sat in the same seats each week, too. As everyone entered and headed down the aisles, we would always nod and smile at them and they, in reply, would do so at us. Sometimes, my parents would share a whispered critique. Sometimes, those who walked by, stared straight ahead and never even acknowledged us. My parents made note of that, too. After the service was over, sometimes there would be tea served downstairs and, if not, there would certainly be conversations held outside, on the Church steps, before everyone got into the cars and drove back home to put on their comfortable clothes. We do so adore the skin we inhabit.
In technical terms, going to Church is suppose to be about your Religion and about offering thanks and praise to whichever God you choose to follow. For those for whom Church means spirituality, inviting The Lord into one’s heart is a life-affirming experience. For those who live to sing the praises of The Lord, the word, “Hallelujah” was coined. The origin of the word is such that it, quite literally, means “to sing praises to God”. For many people, the word, “Hallelujah” has always been a sacred, religious word and the emotions connected to it were always aligned closely with piousness and religion. Thus, it was a word reserved for those closest to God.
This brings us to Leonard Cohen. Cohen was a Jewish, by birth but, he was a secular man, by nature. So, when he came to write his signature song, “Hallelujah”, it should not come as a surprise that the song plays like a hymn but, it not a song of praise to The Lord. In fact, the essence of “Hallelujah” is that it helps to break down the wall that separates the pious from the rest of us and acknowledges that we, too, can and should deserve our own moments of “Hallelujah”. He does this by using the Bible to prove his own point. In the first few verses of his song, he talks about two important Biblical figures, King David and Samson, who both were first presented in the Bible as being pure and ideal in God’s eyes but who, in the end, both proved fallible, for one reason or another. Cohen’ point with both is that we are guilty of putting imperfect people on pedestals and worshipping them and their deeds as if they were flawless of character when, in fact, we all have or weaknesses and we all make our mistakes, too. The important point being that our misdeeds or weaknesses shouldn’t disqualify us from ever feeling the elation of a moment that results in a feeling of Hallelujah. Cohen gives examples of sexuality, living purposeful lives, achieving hard-fought goals and so on. That he weaves religion, in and out, all through this song, gives “Hallelujah” an air of beauty that makes it instantly recognizable regardless of who is singing its verses aloud.
Leonard Cohen released “Hallelujah” in 1984. It was his first hit in many years and helped to revitalize his career; setting him up as an elder statesmen of song, during the second half of his life. When first released, “Hallelujah” was not a huge hit for Cohen. Instead, it is a song that was recognized by other musicians for the craftsmanship of its’ lyrics and, because of the attention they showed to the song, it gained a larger audience and ended up becoming the iconic song that it is today.
The first person to recognize the importance and beauty of “Hallelujah” was John Cale, who was a key member of The Velvet Underground. He sang the song using the piano. Cale’s version was slower and softer than Cohen’s. It was a worthy cover but, its’ greatest impact was to come when Cale’s version was heard by a young, up-and-coming performer named Jeff Buckley. *(You can read about Buckley in a previous post, here). Buckley recorded his own cover of “Hallelujah” for his debut album. There are many fans and critics who find Buckley’s breathy, emotional rendition to be the definitive take on the song. Regardless of whether or not you agree, the way Buckley emotes is representative of the feeling of Rapture many people experience when they find God and allow Him into their heart. After Jeff Buckley completed recording his cover of “Hallelujah”, he passed away in a tragic accident; thus, adding to the mystic about his cover. Many others have followed Buckley in covering Cohen’s song such as Canadians Rufus Wainwright (who sang it as Cale did, with piano accompaniment) and fellow Canadian, K.D. Lang, who recorded this song on her album of Canadian classic covers called, “Hymns of the 49th Parallel”. Lang, also, sang this song during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
“Hallelujah” is a beautiful song filled with phrases that conjure up much in the way of imagery in our minds. Regardless of who sings it, it feels like they are experiencing a form of exultation that, in the past, was reserved for only those with a direct connection to God. But, thanks to the genius of Leonard Cohen, that pre-requisite has been de-mystified and has been made more accessible for the flawed characters, like us, who inhabit our planet but yet, attempt to strive for happiness, while living lives of compassion and empathy. Which brings me back to my days in Church as a child. I never felt the Rapture as I sat with my parents in the back row on the left hand bank of pews. But, what I did feel was a sense of community with the other people who were there. Our Minister would speak about Charity and Compassion from the pulpit. My parents and those around me would smile and nod their heads. And while I know we were not all perfect people, we did our best to be good and to make a difference in the lives of others; which has been my mantra, going forward, my entire life. With that in mind, I have always felt worthy of every “Hallelujah”-calibre moment I have experienced…….and so should all of you, as well.
So, without further delay, here is Leonard Cohen, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, K.D. Lang, Rufus Wainwright and even, Choir! Choir! Choir!……all with their versions of the Cohen classic, “Hallelujah”. Enjoy them all or just the one you really like.
The link to the video for the song, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Leonard Cohen, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Hallelujah”, as covered by John Cale, can be found here.
The link to the official website for John Cale, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Hallelujah”, as covered by Jeff Buckley, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Jeff Buckley, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Hallelujah”, as covered by K.D. Lang, can be found here.
The link to the official website for K.D. Lang, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Hallelujah”, as covered by Rufus Wainwright, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rufus Wainwright, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Hallelujah”, as covered by Choir! Choir! Choir!, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Choir! Choir! Choir!, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.