Q&A with Alan Light, Author of “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah”
Alan Light was a senior editor at Rolling Stone, founding music editor and editor-in-chief of Vibe, and editor-in-chief of Spin Magazine. He has been a contributor for The New Yorker, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Elle, Mother Jones, and the Oxford American.
Light is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: the Story of the Beastie Boys” and co-authored Gregg Allman’s 2012 autobiography “My Cross to Bear”. Now, he shifts his focus to the music of the great Leonard Cohen.
More specifically, Light focuses on one particular Cohen composition: the (for better or worse) much-covered “Hallelujah”. His new book, “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah” is an in-depth look at the history of the song and just what it is about the classic tune that has given it so much staying power and significance.
RYAN MIFFLIN: This is the interview that almost didn’t happen. Alan and I tried to schedule this interview for several weeks before the holiday; something happened on my end and then Alan got sick and we had to reschedule a few times. So, first of all, Alan, I appreciate your patience and appreciate you being here, and second, I hope this experience for you lives up to the buildup we’ve given it!
ALAN LIGHT: [Laughs] Well, it’s alright. We worked it out on both sides and that’s what happens and I’m glad we could get it together.
To start off, go ahead and tell us about your new book.
My new book is called “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah”. And it’s the story of the song “Hallelujah” and its unprecedented trajectory and kind of amazing journey from obscurity and from Leonard Cohen’s label actually not wanting to put out the album that the song was recorded for, all the way to its status now as an international anthem and a contemporary standard and a song that’s been recorded hundreds and hundreds of times. The book is a look at how, over the course of a number of decades, this song went from nowhere to everywhere.
What was your relationship with this song and what made you decide to take this route, to focus on this one song, rather than the artist, or a broader subject?
I truly never set out in my life thinking ‘Oh! I should go find a song to write about!’ I just had this realization that this song really had gone through a history and, again, a trajectory that was unlike any other song I could think of.
I looked around a couple of years ago and this song was being sung at the Olympics by KD Lang and it was being sang at the Haiti telethon by Justin Timberlake and it showed up at my high holiday services and I realized it was being used in a lot of different kinds of religious services and ceremonies and thought ‘Wow, this is really rare.’
Every other song that I could think of that was kind of like that was something that people discovered immediately. When “Bridge Over Troubled Water” came out, it was a big huge hit, everybody knew this was a very special song, people started to record it and use it, and that happened right away. This song (“Hallelujah”), it took ten, fifteen, twenty years, before it had the momentum that had gotten it around the world and into so many places and into so many uses. And I was interested to think about what it was that happened with this unique case of a song that took a long time to catch people’s attention, and once it caught their attention, they can’t shake it, and it continues to find new uses and new contexts and new lives.
It just seemed like that was maybe potentially a rich enough story to spend some time thinking about.
What is it that makes this song so special? There’s a quote from Bono in your book that says ‘It may be the most perfect song in the world.’ I don’t know anything about writing songs, so is it the words? Is it the structure? What makes this song function at this level?
I think there’s not any one easy answer to that. With a writer like Leonard Cohen I think it’s very easy to get hung up talking about the poetry and talking about the lyrics. While I obviously spend a lot of time talking about the words to this song, I do think that the way people experience a song is first through the melody and the mood and feel of it.
One thing that was really good for me was that I found a really beautiful instrumental version of this song that was recorded by a ukulele player – a guy who’s considered the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele – and I talked to him about it and he said, ‘Look, this song isn’t about the words at all to me. This song is just about the sound of those notes and the progression of those chords, and the melody.’ That it really works so beautifully as an instrumental was a really important thing for me to hear and remember that people get to the lyrics and the lyrics are important, but first there’s something that’s really elemental and irresistible and powerful in those notes.
And I think that there’s an incredible power to that word and that idea of “Hallelujah“. It’s a word that cuts across different faiths and different belief systems. I spoke to a friend of mine who said that she was told very early on in her career that whenever you’re singing at an interfaith setting or somewhere outside of your synagogue and you’re not sure, any song with “Hallelujah” in it is going to work. Everybody responds to that word and that idea and they get that idea of gratitude and of surrender and everything that comes to your mind when you hear that word.
So I think in a world where people are looking for spiritual connections, maybe not through conventional means – and certainly the song IS used in plenty of conventional services now, too – I think this fills a need in people’s lives for a certain mood and emotion and feeling. I think that’s as much about the sound and about that central ‘Hallelujah’ concept as it is about the wondrous and beautiful verses that Leonard wrote for it.
I hear people joke a lot that it’s almost become a rite of passage for a band or a singer to butcher their own version of this song, regardless of their genre or whatever.
Do we know how many times it’s been recorded?
The most recent numbers are 360-some times. But that’s just recording. I mean, that’s not counting all the people who have performed it. Bob Dylan performed it, U2 played it, Regina Spektor and many, many others have played it live, but not recorded it. And that doesn’t count all of the YouTube versions of people shooting themselves singing it or singing it at camp or talent shows and every place else that it’s gone. So there’s no way of knowing.
There is the story of Brandi Carlile, the singer, who said she was coming up as a young songwriter in LA and played a place called the Hotel Café, which is a big songwriter’s showcase spot in LA, and there was a big note taped to the soundboard that said PLEASE DON’T PLAY “HALLELUJAH”. They were having to hear it night after night after night and finally reached a point of saying, ‘Enough already, let’s drop that one from your set.’
You keep waiting for when it’s going to become over-saturated and when it’ll be just too much, but we continue to see this song appear over and over again and it doesn’t seem like its run out of steam yet, or that it will anytime soon.
You mention Brandi Carlile and in the book she talks about how this song became a unique religious expression or religious experience for her growing up. Can you share that?
Yeah, Brandi was one of the most powerful interviews I did for the book. It was kind of amazing to hear her talk about it because she talked about growing up as a gay person of faith in a small town and trying to reconcile her own life and her sexuality with her Christianity and feeling hostility from both sides about that and really feeling confused and that it was this song that expressed that “Hallelujah” isn’t just about the beautiful glory and the best times, that it’s something that you fight for and that it’s cold and its lonely and its broken and sometimes “Hallelujah” is something that you reach kind of at the end of your rope. A lot of what Leonard Cohen writes about in the song is that you’re presented a lot of pain and heartbreak and challenges in your life and sometimes in the end all you can do is just throw your hands up and still stare in astonishment at the wonder of it all and still be grateful for what it is you have and that “Hallelujah” comes not just out of joy, but out of pain. Brandi explained that hearing Jeff Buckley sing that in this incredibly intense and personal and intimate way really was what gave her a path to think about how to resolve these different parts of her life and how to be able to move forward. She would listen to this song over and over again on repeat on a boom-box when she fell asleep. It was more than just the beauty of this song; it was this message and the central idea at the heart of the song that really turned around a lot of where her life went. It was remarkable to hear that from her.
A lot of what was most satisfying and surprising was just talking to regular people who used this song in their wedding or at a funeral or at very key moments in their lives. I found a couple who had named their daughter “Hallelujah” because of this song. It’s easy to be so cynical about music now. It’s easy to feel like it’s just turned into a commodity and it’s kind of cheap and it’s all around you and it’s free and nobody cares about it the way people used to care about music. But when you talk to people about this song, you really can see how important music can be and what it can be in people’s lives that’s really not like anything else and in these really significant moments how much it means to them to be able to turn to a song like this. The feeling that gives them is something that nothing else will give.
It’s very healthy for me to hear that music can still matter like that, can still be important like that.
What did you find out from Leonard Cohen about the versions he likes and those he doesn’t really like?
Well, Leonard does not really do interviews, so I went to him looking for his blessing and his support for this book, which he enthusiastically gave. And I don’t really blame or fault him for that. I mean, first of all, he doesn’t really do press anyway, and second of all, what’s he going to say? I mean, if he told me that he thought of a line while he was brushing his teeth, it’s not really going to help the mystique of this magic song. Like, what at this point is really going to help? So I understand that.
He has said previously that some of his favorites are KD Lang’s version and Bon Jovi’s version, which is really interesting to hear because Leonard Cohen fans tend to hate Bon Jovi’s version and think it’s one of the real manglings of this song. But I think that he likes that they do it as a big power ballad and can fill an arena and make it a real rock song. I think he kind of gets a kick out of that.
Let me ask you about some of your favorite and least favorite versions of the song.
My punt answer for my own favorite is really the way that Leonard sings the song now, on this tour and his last tour, since he started performing again. It feels like it’s really absorbed all of the wisdom of the different performances. Where it is now for him, it just feels very complete. It’s obviously very emotional for me to hear him sing it now having spent the last couple of years thinking about this song, but I think if I have to choose one, the later-in-life Leonard performances of it are my favorite.
I think KD Lang does a really magnificent job. I think her voice suits it really well and I think she brings a different kind of reading which is a very powerful one.
I respect Jeff Buckley’s version of it a little more than I love it. I don’t love that edit of the verses quite as much as the way Leonard does it; it’s missing some stuff that I really like. But I get why it doesn’t fit Jeff Buckley. What I think is incredible in Jeff’s performance is the performance – I think his guitar part is amazing. And the vocal is really powerful and effective for what it does. But it’s not the one for me that gets all the way there.
And I mentioned before that to hear it instrumental on a ukulele played by an amazingly talented virtuosic musician was very good for me to hear it simple and instrumental and see that it still carries that power when you get away from the intricacy of the poetry of the song. Maybe just to clear my own head, that’s a version I found out that I would go back to.
I want to ask you about Bono’s version…I read an interview with you recently – would you share that story about his involvement in the book and the feelings out there about Bono’s version?
It’s very funny. Bono recorded a version of this song in the ‘90s for a Leonard Cohen tribute record and he did this kind of trip-hop spoken word thing over sort of a dance and electronic beat and it’s just sort of terrible. It just doesn’t work at all. There’s hardly anyone who will really defend it.
It takes a long time to get Bono on the phone. I knew that he would talk to me at some point and we’ve worked together before and they said ‘Yeah, he’ll do it’, but he’s off being Bono and it takes months to get him to schedule something. So I wrote this whole section about what a disaster his version is, and of course, as soon as I was done, I get this call saying ‘OK, Bono can talk to you on Thursday.’ So now he’s going to tell me what he likes about his version and I’m going to have to rewrite this whole thing or I’m going to feel like a jerk.
So the phone rings, ‘Hi Alan, it’s Bono, and I couldn’t remember at first why I said I was going to do this interview, and then I remembered that it was because I have to apologize to everybody.’
He proceeded to say he knows what a botched job he did on his version of “Hallelujah” and it’s something he’s always been kind of embarrassed about. He knows in the experiment what he was trying to do, but it’s something he never should have put out and he was very good humored about it. It’s a song that means so much to him. As you said, he calls it maybe the most perfect song ever written. He’s always talked about how important Leonard Cohen to him as a writer, so he’s always felt a little bit like he blew his shot at this great song. It was very, very funny talking about what he was trying to do, why it didn’t succeed, and why now he has to live with the results of that.
I guess he’s made his peace with it. They (U2) have sung it off and on. On their last tour they played it in their encore. They would do a section of it as an intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name” on the last seven or eight shows on the tour. So I guess he seems OK about singing it again now, but it took him a while to get over the way he had butchered it when he went into the studio with it.
Let me ask you about a couple of performances that have happened since the book came out. And you know right where I’m going with this.
Tell me about Adam Sandler at the 12/12/12 Concert.
It’s so funny. This book came out the first week of December. In the book I actually wrote that I’m waiting for somebody to do a parody of this song. It’s been taken so seriously for so long and it’s shown up in so many high profile situations. I don’t know if it’s going to be Weird Al Yankovic, I don’t know if it’s going to be in a Jud Apatow movie, but somebody somewhere is going to take the air out of this song a little bit. It’s definitely waiting to happen.
The next WEEK! At the 12/12/12 show, Adam Sandler comes out and does the “Hallelujah, Sandy Screw Ya” song. So my book’s out of date in a week, but I guess I made the right point.
People were writing me really, really offended that he had spoofed the song and put dirty lyrics in it or whatever. It made me laugh, first of all. And, second, I think it’s just evidence that this song has that kind of status. If you’re going to get up there in front of the millions and millions of people who were watching that broadcast and do a parody of it, you’ve got to know that everybody’s going to get it! He’s got to know that everybody knows that song and has a relationship to it where they’re going to know why it’s funny that he’s doing that. It just kind of validates that the song really is up at that altitude at this point.
I thought it was pretty funny. Rolling Stone asked me to write a piece that night, which I did, kind of responding to Sandler’s version, and I got a nice reaction to that, so it made it very timely. I’ll tell you, a lot of people said ‘OK, he’s done the parody now, that’s going to retire the song for a little while. People won’t be able to do it straight.’
But, two days after that was, tragically, the school shooting in Connecticut and instantly the song was back in a bunch of memorials for those kids. That next week, the judges and contestants on The Voice all opened the show by singing “Hallelujah” and holding up signs with the names and ages of the victims on it. I mean, it wasn’t even 48 hours later and there wasn’t any sense that the Sandler thing had knocked that song off of its perch for a minute. When people needed a song that delivered that emotion, it was right back to “Hallelujah” instantly and it still worked and fulfilled that feeling for people.
I think its Regina Spektor in the book who says that the song is indestructible at this point. It doesn’t matter who does it or what they do to it. You can’t take away from the power of it now.
The Voice tribute was the next one I wanted to ask you about. I don’t watch The Voice, so I saw it the next day on the internet and I was immediately impacted by the performance. I mean I love the song, it’s beautiful, and I was just overwhelmed by the signs with the kids’ names. So I put the link on my radio show’s Facebook page. It received so many critical comments from people saying that it was totally misused; you know the line in there about love being about shooting the one who outdrew you, and all that. I was really surprised, but I actually took it off my page, so I could really search my thoughts on it. What was your take on that?
What I thought was interesting in The Voice version is that they did one of the verses that is not often used. It’s one of the verses that’s not in Jeff Buckley’s version, so it’s not as commonly known. So I was surprised and impressed that they went back in and said, ‘What are the lines that are going to fit what we’re trying to say?’
Obviously, if you’re going to do the song at this point you do that first verse, because it’s the one everybody knows. That may or may not speak exactly to what the situation was. But, a long time ago this song became about something bigger than the specifics of the lines.
It was such an important moment for the song with the Jeff Buckley version of it after September 11th when VH1 made their official video response with footage of the rescue workers and scenes of families and all that. That was one of the things that really kind of burned the song into people’s brains. I talked to the people at VH1 who put that together and made that decision and one of them said ‘Well, you know, he’s not really singing about that. It doesn’t exactly fit what’s going on.’ But the mood and the feeling – and I think if you strip away the details that, yes, especially in the Buckley version, a lot of the song is about heartbreak and personal relationships and intimacy and overcoming the hardships of that part of your life – if you get off the specifics of that, I think the overall message of this song is about someone fighting through adversity and trying to find survival and hope after whatever it is that life throws at you.
And you know what, that kind of is what they were trying to say using that in The Voice, and that kind of is what they were trying to say after September 11th. And if all the lines don’t exactly match up, what the bigger picture and what the spirit of the song is…that part of it still does fit.
What became clear a long time ago is it’s OK with this song to take what you want, use which verses you want, cut it, recut it, edit. That’s something that the writer is OK with and has at least passively given his approval to. And that’s something that really separates it from a lot of other songs that sort of have that feeling. You know, if you don’t feel that this verse fits singing it in church, you drop that verse and don’t use it. Some say that betrays the meaning of the song, and others say, ‘Listen, the song is out there. You take what you need from it. Interpret it for what you find in the song and there’s not a right and a wrong way.’ So, certainly The Voice can raise some of those questions again, but in the end I think there’s a reason it’s effective in those moments and I think there’s a reason that people go back to it.
The Voice ties in with my last question a little. The success of songs used to have a great deal to do with how many times it was recorded. You know, Hank Williams would have success with his own song, and when Tony Bennett cut the same song, that was another level of success. The Beatles and Bob Dylan kind of shifted that to people primarily doing their own music. But, with shows like American Idol and The Voice, where they’ll do theme nights or highlight a specific songwriter on one show, it seem like maybe we’re shifting back to the “song spreading” mentality. But this song defied whatever trends or eras of songwriting have come and gone. Do you think we’ll ever see a song that transcends all that again?
It’s obviously heard to know what the future holds for this song or any song. But you’re absolutely right that in some ways it feels like this song comes from a different time. The notion of a standard used to be…well, that’s what pop songwriting was. It would come from a Broadway show or it would come from a songwriter pitching songs or whatever. And if it hit, you would hear it all over the place from all kinds of different people.
Then we reached a point where it was assumed that the singer was the songwriter and a song was a very personal expression and what determined whether it was any good or not was how real or true or honest it felt. That’s a little less true in country music and R&B where I think there is still some more division between songwriters and singers. But still, it’s not the same kind of thing. When you see songs that take on a bigger life like that, they tend to become emotional. Maybe it’s “I Believe I Can Fly” or “I Hope You Dance” or “I Will Always Love You”, they are songs that are sung at school talent shows or hotel cocktail bars or places like that. But this one just went everywhere and it’s hard to think of another one in a long time that’s done that.
Maybe it is as you say, between the TV singing shows, and the extra emphasis now on producers making music. I think kids don’t grow up right now with as much of a sense of singer/songwriters being the usual thing. But, hopefully the greater lesson is that a great song eventually will find its way out there.
When Leonard turned in this album, Columbia wouldn’t put it out. Then, for ten years hardly anybody knew this thing existed. And then it started to get a little attention and after more years and more occurrences and more uses and all that it starts to surface. So the lesson is if a song is really, really great, it will eventually find its way.
That’s a very heartening thing to see. And in some ways it feels like Vincent van Gogh, or artists who were not discovered until after they were dead. At least with this one, Leonard was still around to see this happen and to see his career grow from this attention. It’s a better version of that story. But it’s certainly not something you see in pop music – at least not frequently. I think in some ways never before in exactly this way. Can it happen again? Sure, if it happened like this, it can happen again. But it’s a pretty wild story. That’s why it seemed to be worth spending this many pages on.
“The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah” is available from your favorite book-seller.
Book jacket courtesy of Atria Books
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