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March 2017



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twain & tesla

the baffled king composing hallelujah

So how old are you, and what's your favorite version of "Hallelujah"?

In continutation of the Gross Leonard Cohen Earworm (apparently "Hallelujah" is the meme that will not quit this week) of the last few days, inauroillium just posted an an interesting link about the evolution and major versions of the song in a comment thread on cvillette's journal.

It is here, at clapclap.org.

I read it with interest. It's really fascinating.

In full disclosure, I should mention that I have... 14 versions of "Hallelujah," by 11 different artists, including three Cohen versions. (I would like the k.d. lang live versions and the Imogen Heap, but haven't tracked them down yet. Really though, I think the jewel of the collection is the Willie Nelson. He also does a bangup job with "Bird on a Wire.")

And I'm also going to talk in sweeping generalities here, and please be aware that I am talking about observed trends rather than categorical truths here, and that I'm aware that sweeping generalities are bull puckey.

But I think I really disagree with the reviewer's conclusion. I suspect that what's going on here is actually the opposite process, in which a bunch of forty/thirty/twenty-something musicians who grew up as part of far more ironical generations have found this amazing song seemingly neglected by their elders, and are covering the hell out of it.

And being limited by not being what Cohen is--which is to say, a mad freaking genius of irony and layering and evocation, the musical prodigies in my peer group are just not managing to get into it what he does. But in simplifying it they are making it more accessible to a wider range of people.

I have no idea how old the critic is, but the important data point he's missing is that a statistically significant chunk of my generation (I'm 36) and that of my immediately younger peers (in their twenties) love Leonard Cohen. Adore him. And, well, listen to his albums. Or songs, because we're often not so much an album-listening bunch.

I am going off anecdote here, and we all know what that's worth, but it seems to me that it's often baby boomers I hear calling the Buckley version "the definitive" one. (There are of course exception to this.) I think Cohen was just too ironical and fucked up for my parent's generation, who seem as a group (again, there are exceptions) to tend to prefer music that is more sincere. Cohen is not sincere. Cohen is yanking your chain, and that's a trick more commonly employed by people my age. (And the musicians of our parents' generations (because our parents span two generations) we've held on to--David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop. I had a great discussion with some friends at the climbing gym a couple of weeks ago regarding what the cutoff line for really, really, really liking Bruce Springsteen was. Determination: it's somewhere between me and the 39-year-old, and he may in fact be the line.)

So I would gess that that is a contributing factor in why metric tons of musicians (and music fans) in Gen X and Gen Y are obsessed with "Hallelujah," while our older compatriots prefer "Suzanne." Which is a perfectly nice song, don't get me wrong, but by contrast, you should hear my twenty-something friends talk about "Famous Blue Raincoat" and how they are trying to write stories around it. (Also a heavily covered song, these days. It used to be "Bird on a Wire" that got all the love.)

I'm not going to make any case that bitter ironicism is somehow more genuine than sincerity (because actually, I suspect it's a generational defense mechanism and the opposite is true). But we like "Hallelujah" because it's layered in irony and self-contradition and comes at the same thing from twenty angles. (Also, as a generation, we love weird-ass covers. Love them. When I heard Patti Smith was doing a covers album, I danced in the streets.)

Interestingly, because I don't watch enough TV to stay at all hip to current pop cultural trends, the first time I heard a cover of "Hallelujah" used in a TV show was at the end of an S1 episode of Criminal Minds. Where it is used over a brutally ironic montage of man-on-the-street interviews responding to an officer-involved shooting. Which is a good (legal) shoot, but may or may not have been engineered by the shooter--with or without his partner's knowledge. Oh, and they never tell you, either. You're left to construct the narrative on your own.)

I told the truth.
I didn't come to fool you.

I'm going to be out for most of the day, so feel free to amuse yourself arguing or agreeing in the comment threads. ;-)


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I'm 27 but I'm much influenced by the active and diverse musical tastes of my parents. Their record collection was strange.

Cohen's version of "Hallelujah" seems preferable to me - I didn't hear the Buckley version until college, and find it very pretty but enervating.
I've always been a big Leonard Cohen fan, almost broke an old "greatest hits" cassette of his from overplaying when I was 10. My personal favorite track is still "The Stranger Song" - y'know "it's true that all the men you knew/were dealers who said they were through/with dealing every time you gave them shelter".

But then, Leonard Cohen is one of my all-time top 5 writers, and I think "Beautiful Losers" is one of the top books ever. I loved "The Energy of Slaves" poetry collection too. So I don't think I'm a typical 27-yr-old respondent on this one?
cohen is not for everybody. Thank the God of the week for that.

random tangents

One of the reasons to love modern technology is that old songs need never, ever die. We can compare Caruso and Pavarotti in more than theoretical terms, long after both men are dead.

I think my generation--I'm 49--may be one of the split-points* for irony--we had Richard Nixon, and if his presidency wasn't an incubator for irony, there's no such thing. (Only Nixon could go to China! Peace with honor!) Which was good, because the only way to preserve any sanity during the Reagan years was to either drink the Kool-Aid or fall back on irony**--and the former only led to brain death. People your age must have grown up swimming in it, like tadpoles, so that you have it in the bone and in the marrow.

Cohen generally, and "Hallelujah" specifically show how you can*** do almost anything with really great material, and still get something useful and workable, even if it's not the same as the Master Version.**** It's like distributing large amount of awesome yarn, and finding that people have made wonderful sweaters and shawls and scarves and afghans and throws, and felted things and woven things--and sometimes the best they could do was a tuke. Which is OK, but maybe a little pedestrian, considering what they had to work with. So I love all the versions of "Hallelujah" that I've heard, even though some are just tukes. Because it's some awesome yarn they're working with there, and it makes even a tuke look mighty fine.

Willie gets underestimated, both as a songwriter and a performer (his interpretations of Other People's Work are always awesome) because of the Myth of Willie. But you don't write the things he's written without knowing how songs work, and I think knowing how songs work as a maker adds to it when you perform someone else's work. The better versions of "Hallelujah" may be coming from people who are better songwriters themselves. Also, Bruce wry and wistful is always better than Bruce Without Doubts. ("57 Channels", perhaps?)

*There better not be only one, or we're doomed, doomed, I tell you. I'm pretty sure irony is a virus, because some people you wouldn't expect to display it are infected these days. I know ironic evangelical Christians.

**There was substance abuse, of course, but it was even less effective as a coping tool than the Kool-Aid.

***And maybe sometimes shouldn't, but it's a free country, sort of.

****Master Versions of a song may vary. I'm stuck on a later one of "These Foolish Things", because of the rhythm the singer approaches it with, and others, like Mel Tormé's version, haven't seemed quite right. I'll find another one at some point, I'm sure.
I like Buckley's and Wainwright's fathers rather more than them, but not a whole lot either.

However, Louden Wainwright and Geoff Muldaur, and a bunch of their offsprings have made a Bix Beiderbecke tribute album, (what?)

Private Astronomy - A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke - Deutche Grammophon

This is way worthwhile, and even better, totally off topic.
I prefer the Jeff Buckley "Live At Sin-é" version to any of the other. I actually espcially hate his studio version.

I found the song randomly through iTunes when I was looking for Buckley's "New Year's Prayer" (which used to be the theme for USA's series version of The Dead Zone) my freshman year of college, and I loved it. I hadn't seen it on any TV shows at that point. I promptly showed it to my girlfriend (who was then someone else's girlfriend), who announced that that was the song used in the The West Wing episode "Posse Comitatus." The montage it was used in was really only about one person being sad, and were the song not there, the scene would be just as pwerful (good acting...good drama).

Of course, this was the first time it showed up on TV...oh wait, the article did said that. I really should re-read before I write.

I haven't heard the Buckley version that I like used in anything. And frankly when I hear his studio version used in most thing it makes me cringe and squirm. I can't remember the last thing I saw it used in, but it really was one of those "everyone is crying" scenes (maybe it was Grey's Anatomy??), and it just had the stink of being overdone and overused.

This article was fascinating, and the music major in me loved it (I do take that degree out to excercise it sometimes). My girlfriend and I got the chance to see a Phillip Glass composition featuring Cohen's poetry. It was a great experience, even though one hour of Glass is enough for me, and the score resembled some of his latest movie scores a little too much.

Oh, you wanted age. I'm 24. And Cohen was presented to me as an anthologized poet and a singer/songwriter who was writing music that was reactionary--he's in the 20th century section of the music history book. For a while, I seriously had no idea his music enjoyed popularity.
Yet again I am reminded that for those of us who hear music as sound, the rest of you sound like crazy people.

I can't stand Leonard Cohen, because he can't (or won't) sing on-key. End of story! I don't much like the Buckley version of "Hallelujah," because he does melodic curlicues that get on my nerves. I can bear the Rufus Wainwright version, although I'd like it better if his singing voice were less nasal. (Like the piano, though.) Haven't heard any others.

I don't know what the lyrics are doing, and I don't care (this is also why, though I'm younger than you, I don't listen to Springsteen much). I'd be perfectly happy if most song lyrics consisted of "blah blah blah," as long as those words were sung artfully. And anyway, often when I find out what the lyrics of a song are, they're so ridiculous that I have difficulty listening to the song after that. (Hint: never look up Led Zep lyrics, or if you do, take Forgettol immediately afterward.)
I hope you play jazz. ;-)
I have developed a pet peeve with versions of Hallelujah.

I get twitchy and move to the next song if the singer sings "You" instead of "Ya".

Because if you 'correct' Cohen's pronunciation, it doesn't rhyme with "hallelujah" anymore.

Nullo metro compositum est. Non curo. Si metrum non habet, non est poema.

I understand that every artist gets to interpret the song in their own way and wants to bring something of their own to it, and I certainly can't claim to have any deep understanding of the layers under the song, so on, because I'm not a perceptive person in that way, which is why I'll admit it's a mean little pet peeve of mine.

But it seems like people trying to clean Cohen up, and messing up the song to do so. Trying to make Cohen clean and neat seems to me to be rather missing the point.
Certain people reading here might be interested to learn that Someone Who Knows Of Such Things told me the other night that Leonard Cohen is going to be touring this spring. Dates are due to be announced sometime this week. North America first, then Europe.
I love you more than oxygen for telling me this.
i have long held a theory about covers: people tend to prefer whichever version they heard (or rather, got to know) first.

i'm 39, and i prefer cohen's version for listening. but john cale's version on the shrek sountrack was transposed and therefore is easier for me to sing loudly. :) though i do get grumpy for the same reason as tamnonlinear: it's supposed to be ya, not you (dammit), so that it rhymes with "hallelujah." i always sing it (defiantly, if necessary) as "ya."

i'm less grumpy about cale's having cut some lyrics out, but that's because i grew up with songs having "the 45 version" vs. "the album version" so i can explain it off and it doesn't bother me so much.

Alyx is 40

I imprinted on the John Cale version on I'M YOUR FAN.

Re: Alyx is 40

We are one and the same! 40, and imprinted on the same one. :D
I hate that song.

There is a long story about why involving a race riot in Concord, NC and the death of NASCAR driver Davy Allison, and my time on the factory floor assembling electronic cash registers.

Hallelujah has come to mean "Cue the cheap sentiment please" because after Allison's death the radio played it ALL THE TIME! because it was easier to have a big emotional meltdown over a dead celebrity than the horrible race riot sparked by the brutal police beating of a black suspect, which had friends who had eaten together for decades eyeing each other with suspicion.

Now every time some TV show plays that song to underscore a poignant moment, I cringe.
I came to Leonard Cohen through John Cale's Hallelujah (and, later, Concrete Blonde's Everybody Knows), so the Cale is still my favorite. Instrumentally it feels darker than the Cohen.

I also like Bono's weird beeps-and-boops cover, though. That probably disqualifies me from having any more opinions.
Disclaimer: I'm not musically adventurous. I rarely listen to anything that someone did not physically hand me and say "listen to this".

I'm 39. (For the Springsteen question - yes, I love him, though not obsessively.) I first heard "Hallelujah" on the Shrek soundtrack. I knew vaguely that it was a Leonard Cohen cover, but that's as far as I went until the post in Chaz's journal the other day. Then I went and skimmed through the link from the comments about the evolution of that song.

So I went over to YouTube as it's handy and listened to a few other versions. I didn't particularly like the Buckley though I couldn't really say why. I was disappointed with the K.D. Lang version - she could do a lot more with that, darn it! And then I finally listened to the Cohen all the way through. The differences in the verses threw me, but then I listened a few more times.

Why does no one actually cover the Cohen verses all the way through? Or does anyone?

I still really like the Shrek soundtrack version. But now I also really like Cohen's. It's like they start out as the same song and partway through turn into two different songs. The Shrek version is much more of a downer - I don't see it as entirely depressing, but it's very, very bitter. The Cohen version is more defiant. Cohen's not bitter. He's not defeated.

I love how different people can get a lot of different styles out of the song. I just wish people would also cover all of Cohen's verses instead of sticking with Buckley's.
Here's a discussion of this article on Metafilter. I found it edifying, anyway. I'd never realized how often the song had been used in TV shows -- I don't watch a lot of drama series.

I prefer the Jeff Buckley version, but that's because Grace is one of my favorite albums ever.

Now to seek out the Willie Nelson version.

ETA: I'm 28.

Edited at 2008-03-09 04:58 pm (UTC)
Rufus Wainwright has the prettiest voice, but he pronounces you like "you" and not like "ya," so I think I actually deleted his version (the most I've had at one time was 4). My favorite is the one I heard first- off the Leonard Cohen Best Of CD my dad bought, oh, eight or nine years back. And in all fairness, I'm not just obsessed with "Hallelujah"- pretty much every song on that CD is a mind-blowing, weltenschaung-changing event.
Oh, and I'm 23, if that makes any manner of difference, XD.
I'm 45. My favorite "Hallelujah" is k.d. lang, followed by Rufus Wainwright.
I'm 38 (no! how did I get to be this old?) and I never even heard the song before Shrek, so for me the John Cale/Rufus Wainwright version will always be my definitive one.

I do not like the Jeff Buckley. I was more disappointed than I expected to be by the k.d. lang version.

speaking of weird covers, have you encountered the Puppini Sisters yet? I have an absolutely bizarre one by them -- the Smiths' "Panic" done as Andrews Sisters style. Yours, if you're interested.
Here via hernewshoes.

I am 29, and I quite like Leonard Cohen (both the more and less sincere songs), but I confess that for whatever this does to date me and label me, my favorite version of "Hallelujah" is Jeff Buckley's. Because it's pretty. Leonard Cohen does it very well, and shows us different aspects of it. It's more playful in Cohen's versions, and it's a beautiful song no matter what, but I love what Jeff Buckley does with the music.
Cohen. The original.

I don't mind the Buckley, but I don't PREFER it.

The Shrek version is nice. I like the mix of the voices.

But Cohen. The original. ALL the way.
Funny, I was first introduced to other versions of this song when you linked the YouTube of k.d. lang performing live. Before that, the only version I'd heard was on the Shrek soundtrack.
I only discovered Cohen about 3 years ago, and had somehow never run across "Hallelujah". I have no idea how that happened.
Since I saw that YouTube, I have collected several versions of the song. I'm not really sure which is my favorite -- I think it's a tie between Cohen and lang
My absolute favorite, though, is the live video performance from lang. Something about her stance, her face, something....just makes it so very much more powerful.
EDIT to add : I'm 37
Oh, and an odd note : the Buckley version is the #1 top song on iTunes.

Edited at 2008-03-09 06:28 pm (UTC)
Cohen then Wainwright and, by the way, I haven't seen my 30's in over 20 years.
I have nine versions in iTunes at the moment: Bono, Brandi Carlile (live at KCRW), Jeff Buckley, John Cale, k.d. lang (twice: Hymns of the 49th Parallel and a live version from "Sounds Eclectic"), Leonard Cohen (twice: the 4:39 from Various Positions and the 6:56 from Cohen Live), and Rufus Wainwright.

When I heard Patti Smith was doing a covers album, I danced in the streets.

Patti Smith covering Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Tears For Fears, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles (plus some others, but when half the album's that good it doesn't matter what's on the other half). How can you not like that? (I bought Twelve the day it streeted.)

Speaking of Patti Smith and covers, I have her version of the Grateful Dead's "Black Peter". On the same album (Stolen Roses) are Bob Dylan doing "Friend of the Devil" and the Stanford Marching Band pumping out "Uncle John's Band".

Deadicated, though, is a far better album: Warren Zevon's "Casey Jones" tops my list, but Suzanne Vega's two contributions ("Cassidy" and "China Doll") are as good as I expect from her, Lyle Lovett does a great "Friend of the Devil", and the Indigo Girls version of "Uncle John's Band" is right up there.
39 here, and absolutely the Cohen version. I'm not sure that I could tell the difference between the different Cohen versions.

Lately, I've been listening a lot to Death of a Ladies Man, which has had me arguing quite a bit with myself about just how bitter I have become.
24 and hmmm...

At first, it was the one I heard first, on the Shrek soundtrack. After various exploration (probably Bear's fault) I decided that I am not a fan of Buckley and am kinda unsure on most other versions. (I did find a fun college a capella of the song, though.) Lately my favorite version has actually been Allison Crowe.

I dunno. I am so not in the normal range for musical tastes of my generation--I grew up in a house of brit folk rock and classical music and generally mimicked my parents' musical tastes until college.
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