When the late Leonard Cohen delivered “Various Positions,” the album that included “Hallelujah,” which in time would become his most famous song, the record label executives recoiled in distaste and confusion.
“Ironic, really, that when Cohen’s producer played the song to Cohen’s record company the head of the label said, ‘What is this? We don’t even know what this is,’” says Sylvie Simmons, author of “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen,” and a music journalist who interviewed the singer extensively over the years.
So Columbia Records decided not to release the album that contained “Hallelujah,” a song that over the three decades that followed would slowly gain fans and followers. An estimated 300 artists have covered it. Countless contestants on TV singing competitions such as “American Idol” would try their voices at it. And it seemingly appeared anywhere at anytime – movie soundtracks, awards shows, memorial services – and still does.
Cohen died in his sleep on Nov. 7 after a fall at his home and since then his life and music have been lauded for their spirituality and poetry, the lovely melodies, the cigarettes-and-whisky gravel of his deep, deep voice. And while he’s written plenty of classic songs, from “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire” to “Take This Waltz” and “Everybody Knows,” there’s only one Cohen song that almost everybody actually does know: “Hallelujah.”
The song dominated the airwaves as news of Cohen’s death spread -- including Kate McKinnon’s post-election transformation of the song into a requiem for Hillary Clinton on “Saturday Night Live” -- and two weeks later, America’s pop-culture psyche is still steeped in “Hallelujah.”
Yet it is not by any means a traditional standard. It wasn’t a hit for Cohen when the independent Passport label put it out after Columbia’s rejection. It’s not a simple lyric, its meaning open to many interpretations. But there it is. Sung by Southern California singer Tori Kelly during the Emmys’ In Memorium tribute in September. Featured on the soundtrack to “Shrek.” Played after the 9/11 terror attacks for solace and comfort.
“As far as the popularity of it goes, I guess you could take the cynical view that it’s a beautiful melody with someone singing ‘Hallelujah’ over and over,” says Jim Clements, a writing instructor at the University of Southern California and singer-songwriter with three albums to his credit.
“I don’t think it’s that,” he says. “I think the reason the song is what it is is because it’s quite a profound lyric that connects to people.”
Though it took its time reaching them, with seven years passing from its release 1984 until John Cale of the Velvet Underground asked Cohen if he could cover it, and Cohen, in turn, faxed him many pages of lyrics. (Cohen famously worked on the song for four or five years, writing as many as 80 verses as he struggled to piece it together.)
The Cale version inspired others, including soon after, a take done by the late Jeff Buckley, who grew up in Orange County, for his 1994 album “Grace.”
“I tried to read ‘Moby Dick’ when I was in ninth grade and I couldn’t connect to it,” says Robert Rex Waller Jr., the singer-guitarist in the Los Angeles alternative country band I See Hawks In L.A. “I read it later in life, mid-30s, and went, ‘Oh my God, I get it.’
“It wasn’t that ‘Moby Dick’ wasn’t great when I was in the ninth grade, it’s that I wasn’t ready for it,” says Waller, who also teaches writing for visual and performing artists at USC. “Maybe the culture wasn’t ready for ‘Hallelujah’ when it came out, and maybe we are now.
“Maybe that means we’ve grown up a little bit and learned a little bit about defeat,” he says.
Waller points to the message of defeat in the lines of “Hallelujah.” To Clements, “it’s a song about failure, a song about things not working out, which has kind of been at the center of all of Leonard Cohen’s writing.”
That adds up to another big part of the mystery of “Hallelujah”: it’s not a cheery love song in the least.
“So what is it?” Simmons says. “Well, there’s been a number of lengthy articles, even a book (Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’”), and an hour-long BBC documentary trying to answer it.
“Most seem to agree that it’s the closest thing to a 20th century sacred text, which went on to become an all-purpose hymn in the new millennium,” Simmons says. “All-purpose because Cohen wrote so many verses for the song, so you could choose to end with ‘the holy-’ or ‘the broken Hallelujah.’
“And with the words so dense in meaning, it could be either the ultimate feel-good song or a bitter commentary on the human condition or human relations,” she says.
The malleability of the song surfaced once more just days after Cohen’s death when SNL’s cold open featured castmember McKinnon in her Hillary Clinton character and pantsuit performing it solo on piano, a commentary on the passing of the iconic singer-songwriter as well as an embodiment of the defeat of a presidential candidate.
“Singing the lyrics in that context the song still made perfect sense,” Clements says. “It’s about trying, and probably failing. ‘Hallelujah’ is a song about, ‘I did my best, it wasn’t much.’”
Simmons says that at times Cohen expressed concern that the song was done so much in so many different spotlights that it was overused.
“He had always expressed gratefulness to anyone who covered his songs, at least in our conversations, but he wouldn’t have minded a moratorium on this one,” she says.
Still, it will be remembered, a part of his legacy that undoubtedly will endure, with much of that due to the innate spirituality that Cohen, whose philosophical pursuits and practice of Zen Buddhism are well known, built into the bones of the lyric and melody.
“I grew up singing in church choir, I sang Handel’s Messiah in college,” Waller says. “I mean, how many times have I sung the word hallelujah? Yet in this song it’s different, and you’re grabbing onto that word that gives you a spiritual element.
“When he sings, ‘The minor fall, the major lift,’ it lifts you up out of it,” says Waller, who has sung “Hallelujah” in past shows and says he might do it at Cohen tribute show in January. “I think that’s why so many people do it, it makes them feel better when they feel that lift.”