I first fell in love with Leonard Cohen’s music in college, listening to it over at Tami’s when she lived with Rachel in that funny little house on the east side of town. We would dance and sing along, and it was good.
I first heard of Jeff Buckley in college as well, when Lesley would bring his album Grace along to our radio show, which was at the butt-crack of dawn, as I recall, and she would play his music and I would play things like “You’re Ugly” by the Butt Trumpets. Our radio show is probably where I first heard the song “Hallelujah,” but it’s not where I first recall it.
I remember riding with Pete and Shaun in Pete’s old Jeep, listening to, of all things, the Shrek soundtrack, with the Rufus Wainwright version of “Hallelujah.” This was years and years ago, when Pete was still in his first marriage, and Shaun and still I went to Minneapolis together. Pete loved the song, and I did, too. It wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered it was written by Leonard Cohen.
It’s one of those songs that whenever I hear it, on the radio or on a TV show or as part of some schmaltzy something or other, I stop what I’m doing and listen. I like almost all the versions (Bono, I’m looking in your direction), and it strikes me as a kind of poem come to life, and for that alone I love this song.
A few months ago, out of the blue, Shaun handed me a copy of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the unlikely ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light. I had just finished the first five books in the Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones, as it’s known) series, and at nearly 6,000 pages and a hundred or so main characters, I didn’t really feel up to reading another book for awhile. But Light’s book was just what I needed. Rather than an epic, rambling adventure (which, trust me, I love), this was an in-depth study of one song, written by one man, and performed by dozens or more people the world over. It’s sung at weddings, funerals, the beginning of Olympic ceremonies; it crosses generations & countries & language barriers.
At times it got overwhelming, like a too-large piece of rich chocolate cake, and I had to put it aside for a day or two, just because it’s rather intense to read hundreds of pages all about one song. But it’s a cultural study, an arc of human history told in relation to one lovely piece of writing interpreted many different ways. It was delightful.