In 1984, the Canadian singer Leonard Cohen arrived at the studio where he was recording his album Various Positions and presented the song Hallelujah. Nobody knew at the time his struggle to compose it, and almost nobody appreciated at all. The song was hardly heard for almost a decade. Then Bob Dylan sang it in a show. Then John Cale did a cover, followed by Jeff Buckley. The song exploded. It is considered today one of the most reproduced songs of all time.
Leonard Cohen suffered to write it. It is said that in one specific writing session held at the Royalton Hotel in New York, he was seen sitting on the floor wearing nothing more than his underwear, banging his head on the floor. He was obsessed with guarantying that the lyrics would be perfect – he wrote eighty verses, but recorded only four. Through the years, though, he sang one or other verse that was unknown to the general public and made changes in the ones that they did know.
I came to know the song because of – well, pardon me, through Shrek, the animated movie. I fell in love with it instantly, but it took me a lot of time (mostly because I was a child when I heard it the first time) to understand the meaning of the lyrics. Or at least the meaning that they have to me. I don’t think we will ever know what Leonard really wanted to say when he came up with the words, but knowing is not what’s important here.
Songs are individual and their effect on us is frustratingly particular. As soon as we hear a melody or pay attention to the lyrics, we take possession of them and they start to mean something entirely too personal and intimate. That’s why some people find a song relatable and others don’t. And that’s why music can bring people together; however particular its meaning is to us, songs have the power to show you that if someone feels affected by it the same way you do, then both of you have something in common.
Hallelujah has an ever-lasting impact on me because of some aspects of the song. I will explain to you some known meanings, specially discussed in Alan Light’s book, The Holy or The Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’ (there’s a book, a whole book, dedicated specifically to a single song! You gotta admire that), then I will give my personal interpretation. It is important to explain that I didn’t read the entire book, just an excerpt.
Leonard starts the song glorifying music right away: “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played and it pleased the Lord”. I haven’t read the Bible yet, but apparently there’s a passage that says that King David repelled an evil spirit by playing harp – his music scared the evil spirit away! Only gloriously precious things have the power to do that. He continues by saying: “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?” That’s an amazing insight on human nature. Music has a divine power, so to speak, but most people don’t appreciate it, seeing it as a merely entertaining (and often futile) type of art.
We can see beyond that as well. A lot of things can be considered incredibly special and even divine, if it comes to it, but are unappreciated or considered futile. Love, for instance. Faith. Arts. Nature.
Then there are two lines about music composition, which I won’t dare to talk about since I never played anything in my life aside from a few piano keys when I was a child. And he ends the verse with: “The baffled king composing Hallelujah.” Again, the king is baffled probably because while he composes, he is impacted by the underestimated power of music.
Before continuing, it is important to contextualize the word Hallelujah. It can be translated in several ways, but they all revolve around the idea of a praise to God. Saying Hallelujah, then, is almost like admitting that you are thankful to be where you are, that you are happy with the forces in which you believe, and that you salute them.
Ok, moving on. “Your faith was strong, but you needed proof.” I love when he says this. It’s another core truth, isn’t it? It is a rare thing to find someone who doesn’t need any proof to believe – which, if you think about it, is a contradiction in itself.
Then he continues, bringing back King David and his biblical reference: “You saw her bathing on the roof / Her beauty in the moon overthrew you.” The story supposedly goes like this: King David arose from his bed one night and saw Bathsheba washing herself under the moonlight. According to common knowledge, he had been brave and good until that point, but he was seduced by Bathsheba, which led to feelings of lust, intrigue, abuse of power and painfulness. Now, to feel seduced by something is kind of like feeling greed, right? To want more of something, want so much that you are willing to ignore your own sense of right and wrong to have it. To me, this kind of turn in someone’s life (from good to bad) is only caused when you lose a certain kind of essential innocence.
Which fits with the next verse perfectly: “She tied you to a kitchen chair / She broke your throne and she cut your hair / And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah”. This is the most impactful verse of the song, on my case at least. According to Alan Light, the words make reference to Samson and Delilah, but for me the verse means something different altogether. Being tied to a kitchen chair is an indicative of being incarcerated against your will – in other words, losing your independence. Throne is a word associated with power – so when a throne is broken, someone becomes powerless. The act of having your hair cut under protest or because you can’t avoid it is a clear sign that you are being deprived of your identity. And taking from your lips – from inside of you, by force, the Hallelujah – it’s kind of like having your faith taken away.
So the whole verse means, in my vision, that someone lost his independence, his power (or will), his identity and his faith. You can’t be more broken than that. You lose these four pillars, you lose what I consider the essential core of human nature. What do you become then?
When the song continues, the tone is slightly less dramatic. “You say I took the name in vain / I don’t even know the name / But if I did, really, what’s it to ya?” I am risking my reputation with lyrics interpretation here by admitting that in my humble opinion he is referring to the not-so-shockingly common and vainly overused name of God. The verse is a critic as well. Even if he really uttered the holy name in vain, what has anyone to do with that? It’s his business.
“There’s a blaze of light in every word / It doesn’t matter which ya heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Leonard wants to show, in my opinion, that during your lifetime you will love and hurt, laugh and cry, win and lose, be challenged and judged. But you will have the Hallelujah too – the happy one and the broken one. And both are special.
Finally Leonard admits his sense of failure towards the music and his hope that he did it right somehow. “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 ya.” He tried exhaustively to do the best possible song and maybe felt that it wasn’t enough. I believe he couldn’t find a way to translate what he really wanted to say, so he made his best to ensure that at least people would relate to some part of it.
But he felt victorious in the end. “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue by Hallelujah.” For me, that’s an analogy for life as well. Even when things don’t go as expected, even when we realize we are not where we wanted to be, we will still say Hallelujah. It doesn’t matter if it’s a holy or a broken one. We will say it. Because one way or another, we are made it this far.
I love this song. I’ve heard so many versions of it, and Leonard Cohen’s is not my favorite, I admit. It fascinates me every time: the lyrics, even though they are very religious for the most part, and the melody that brings optimism and hope to the song. I am not a religious person – I didn’t even understand the biblical references until I took the time to research them. But for me the song is more than that. It talks about human existence and our way of reacting to the world that surrounds us. What we may or may not appreciate, the risk to lose it all and what comes after it and, most importantly, the unbending and eternal faith involved in being alive.