It was already a rough week and then some with the end result (at least the electoral college version anyway) of the 2016 United States presidential election (more on that in my next blog post), but in the 4:00 hour this morning, I woke up from a semi-decent night’s sleep to find out we lost another music giant this year – Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen died on Monday, November 7th, but the world didn’t find out about it until a message to fans was posted on Facebook on November 10th: “It is with profound sorrow we report that legendary poet, songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen has passed away. We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries.” His son, producer Adam Cohen, said his dad “passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records [YOU WANT IT DARKER, just released on October 21st]. He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor.”
Born in Westmount, Quebec in September 1934, Leonard Cohen had an interest in music and poetry at a young age, and in 1967, at the age of 33, he released his debut album on Columbia Records – SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN. The opening song on that album, “Suzanne,” ended up being recorded by folks like Judy Collins, Nina Simone, Frida (of ABBA; on her 1971 debut album), and was sampled by R.E.M. on the song “Hope,” which appeared on their 1998 album, UP.
Between SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN and YOU WANT IT DARKER (which I can’t wait to hear), Leonard Cohen released 14 studio albums, eight live albums, and at least seven compilations. He was among an elite group of artists – including Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen – who had their entire catalog of albums on one record label – Columbia Records.
Admittedly, I wasn’t the biggest Leonard Cohen fan, but I always had a lot of respect for him, especially his songwriting, and grew to love many of his songs over the years, including “So Long, Marianne” (from SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN), “Bird On The Wire” (from 1969’s SONGS FROM A ROOM), “Famous Blue Raincoat” (from 1971’s SONGS OF LOVE AND HATE), “Chelsea Hotel” (from 1974’s NEW SKIN FOR THE OLD CEREMONY), “First We Take Manhattan,” “Tower Of Song” and “I’m Your Man” (from 1988’s I’M YOUR MAN), “Democracy” and “The Future” (from 1992’s THE FUTURE), “The Letters” (from 2004’s DEAR HEATHER), plus 1988’s “Everybody Knows” (from I’M YOUR MAN) and 1984’s “If It Be Your Will” (from VARIOUS POSITIONS; both songs were prominently featured in the excellent 1990 Christian Slater film, PUMP UP THE VOLUME).
Apart from being a big success in Scandinavia, Austria and the U.K., Leonard’s 1984 album, VARIOUS POSITIONS (his first album in five years), was not a popular album at the time, and had mixed reviews. One of the nine songs on VARIOUS POSITIONS (and the first song on Side Two), was a song called “Hallelujah.” It apparently took Leonard Cohen five years and 80 draft verses to write the song.
Of the song, Leonard Cohen said, “Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glory to the Lord.’ The song explains that many kinds of Hallelujahs do exist. I say, ‘All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value. It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion’.”
“Hallelujah” went relatively unnoticed for several years until Welsh singer / songwriter John Cale (a founding member of The Velvet Underground) heard Leonard Cohen sing an updated version of the song live in New York. John Cale enjoyed the song so much that he decided to record his own version. That version appears on the wonderful 1991 tribute album, I’M YOUR FAN: THE SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN, which features 80s and early 90s Alt-Rock royalty like R.E.M., Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch, Pixies, That Petrol Emotion, James, The House Of Love, Lloyd Cole, and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.
John Cale’s 1991 reworked version features just vocals, piano and lyrics that Leonard Cohen had only performed live. He asked Leonard Cohen to send him those lyrics, and Leonard did -15 pages’ worth! According to a 2010 piece in THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, John Cale claimed he “went through and just picked out the cheeky verses.” It is this version – used in the first SHREK film in 2001 – that has inspired most of the covers of “Hallelujah” that you know and love today, including one I’ll come onto in a moment.
Prolly the best Leonard Cohen tribute album I’ve ever heard, 1991’s I’M YOUR FAN was not purchased by many, but, according to a piece I saw online today, one person who purchased the album was a woman from Brooklyn, New York, and the person who used to house-sit for this woman was a singer named Jeff Buckley, the son of multi-genre singer / songwriter Tim Buckley, who died in 1975 at the age of 28.
He loved the version on I’M YOUR FAN, and reworking the song from John Cale’s own rework, Jeff Buckley performed “Hallelujah” in a bar in the East Village of NYC, where an executive from Columbia Records (Leonard’s Cohen’s longtime record label) was in the audience, heard the song, and signed Jeff Buckley right away. Jeff’s studio version appeared on his 1994 album, GRACE.
GRACE would turn out to be Jeff Buckley’s only album. In late May 1997, while in Memphis, Tennessee, Jeff Buckley went for a swim – fully clothed – in a channel of the Mississippi River and died of accidental drowning at the age of 30. His version of “Hallelujah” took awhile to find an audience, but when it did, you couldn’t escape it. It’s been widely used in television shows and films, and on April 20, 2013, just days after the Boston Marathon bombing, it was played at Fenway Park at the home opener for the Boston Red Sox, for a tribute honoring the victims of the bombing. Jeff Buckley’s version has sold well over a million digital copies.
On my little 20-year-old radio show, STUCK IN THE 80s (on WMPG community radio in Portland, Maine), in 2006, to mark the tenth anniversary of the show, I compiled a list of the 80 BEST 80s COVERS (1980-2005), and both the John Cale and Jeff Buckley versions were tied at No. 3 on the list.
A long way from Leonard Cohen’s dirge and gospel-influenced original version of “Hallelujah,” the song has been covered over 300 times in 32 years, including covers by Rufus Wainwright, k.d. lang, Bob Dylan, Regina Spektor, Willie Nelson and Bono of U2. In 2010, as part of the HOPE FOR HAITI NOW benefit album, Justin Timberlake, Matt Morris and Charlie Sexton took a version of “Hallelujah” to No. 12 on the BILLBOARD Hot 100, and most recently, the Texas A Cappella group Pentatonix took their version to No. 32.
Leonard Cohen has an incredible amount of accolades which spans decades, and was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2008 by Lou Reed, who said that Leonard Cohen was in the “highest and most influential echelon of songwriters.” Of Leonard Cohen’s songs, Matt Johnson of The The said, “When I listen to his songs, it’s a simple, stripped-down naked soul.” On Matt Johnson’s Twitter page for The The, he said, “I was lucky enough to have dinner with #LeonardCohen when I was a young songwriter of 22. He gave some great advice. RIP x”
Leonard’s also in the Rock And Roll Songwriters Hall Of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame, recipient of a 2010 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2011, was named a Companion Of The Order Of Canada, which is Canada’s highest civilian honor.
Back in the early 80s, Leonard Cohen once said of himself, “I get tagged as an art-song intellectual, but I’ve always tried to have hits.” Well, Leonard, within the next couple of weeks, you’re gonna get your wish. I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a half-dozen versions of “Hallelujah” flood the Top 50 of the BILLBOARD Hot 100 (including his original) and other singles charts around the globe. Hallelujah indeed.
R.I.P. Leonard, and many, many thanks…