Saturday, March 15, 2008

O'Keeffe Purple Hallelujah




Hallelujah

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well, really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah




Leonard Cohen, Antwerp 17/04/1988
You know, I wrote this song a couple of.., it seems like yesterday but I guess it was five or six years ago and it had a chorus called Hallelujah. And it was a song that had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from beginning to the end.


The first verse is about King David, of David and Goliath fame, of David and Bathsheba fame, and of authoring many Psalms fame - including Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want".


King Saul lost favor with the Lord, and the Lord selected David to become the next King. David gained entree to the royal court when his harp-playing eased the torment King Saul experienced from evil spirits. David beguiled King Saul with his playing, and in this way gained favor from King Saul, and gained power in King Saul's court.


In the first stanza, the fourth and fifth verses are musical description of the sung word "Hallelujah". Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means "Glory to the Lord." David's play helped King Saul sense the peace and greatness of God's glory, even as the King was baffled by the evil spirits, and was also baffled about David's destiny to rise in power and take over the throne.


I can't escape noticing the fifth verse: "the minor fall, the major lift." This is music terminology. It also (accidentally?) describes man's inevitable fall into sin, and Jesus "major lift" of bearing the burden of man's sin, thus resolving man's dilemma.


The second stanza is about David and Bathsheba. Regarding the first verse, Cohen:
According to the Judaic tradition, David asked for ordeal. But the Rabbies said we should be reluctant to do so because ordeal there will sure be!


Bathsheba was a married woman. David, walking the roof of his house one evening: saw her bathing, took her in adultery, and they conceived a child. David had her husband intentionally abandoned to a certain death in combat. His liaison with Bathsheba damaged his Kingship, aka "broke his throne". She preoccupied him from his tasks, aka "tied you to her kitchen chair". His actions, such as having her husband abandoned to certain death, shamed him. Jews sometimes cut their hair when they are shamed. Yet, in spite of it all, Bathsheba helped David experience God's glory. She drew the Hallelujah from his lips.


In the third stanza, the story moves to the singer and his girlfriend. She says the singer betrayed their love, i.e. "took the name [hallelujah] in vain", possibly by not loving as deeply or as spiritually as she desired. He says: there are many ways to express and experience the glory of God. This is the point of the poem. Expressing this was Cohen's driving motivation. From this spring the most beautiful verses in the song:
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
The end of the fourth stanza especially interested Bob Dylan, and was the reason Dylan covered the song:
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah


Over coffee one morning, Cohen told Dylan he had spent a year composing the poem which became the song. Dylan was surprised, and told Cohen he (Dylan) composed lyrics for most of his songs in 15 minutes. Heh. I love that story.


Cohen recorded the song in 1984. Cohen is basically a poet who went into rock and roll in the late 1960s, at an advanced rock and roll age: upper 30s, and with benefit of only a growly voice. Cohen's 1984 version never really took off. Dylan covered the song soon after.


John Cale asked Cohen if he could cover the song, and Cohen sent Cale an additional 14 verses which Cohen had scribbled and worked on. Cale added verses, lessening the impact of the Biblical/spiritual story, and making "Hallelujah" more of a relationship song - a very excellent relationship song.


In 1987, a sensuous Christian singer named Jeff Buckley covered the newer, John Cale version of the song. Buckley added new guitar instrumentation. Buckley added excellent vocals. Buckley added his smoldering hot, my-cheekbones-can-cut-glass, melt-the-Christian-girls-panties tragic sexuality to the song. And then Buckley did something which vaulted the song into everyone's consciousness: he drowned while swimming in the Mississippi River, becoming an instant tragic Christian music martyr to millions(?) of chaste Christian girls looking for some type of sexual experience - even if they could only find it listening to a Buckley song. Buckley's best album was "Grace". The best song on that album was "Hallelujah." Hallelujah can easily be a tear jerker. Tragi-dramatic teen-age Christian girls love to cry. Thus, a little piece of music history was born.


Leonard Cohen soon enough embraced the second version of the song, i.e. the secular version - the Cale/Buckley version. Its really quite good. Cohen:
It was a song that had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from beginning to the end. And finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the "secular" Hallelujah.


Here are some of the newer, secular lyrics. Note that even these lyrics have been tweaked in various covers, by various artists, through the years:

Baby, I've been here before.
I know this room, I've walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch,
But love is not some kind of victory march,
No it's a cold and it's a very broken Hallelujah.

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below,
but now you never show it to me, do you?
I remember when I moved in you,
And the holy dove was moving too,
and every breath we drew was Hallelujah.

Now maybe there's a God above,
As for me, all I ever learned from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
and it's no complaint you hear tonight,
and It's not some pilgrim who's seen the light
it's a cold and it's a very lonely Hallelujah.


Those lyrics are country music good:
"now you never really show it[your true self] to me, do you?"


Which of us hasn't walked a mile in that singer's cowboy boots? There's a transcendent poetic addition to this "secular" version:
and it's no complaint you hear tonight,
and It's not some pilgrim who's seen the light
it's a cold and it's a very lonely Hallelujah


That gives me chills. The lover, broken, crying out as best they can to God above.


Hallelujah has been covered, at last count, by 44 artists. They all cover the secular version. Only Cohen and Dylan ever sang the original version - and Dylan dyslexically juxtaposed a lot of those words - or maybe it was intentional. Probably even Dylan cannot, all these years later, remember which.


The song has been incorporated into lots of movies and television episodes. It's in the culture now. You've heard it, even if you don't think you have. Here's a link to Dylan's cover, simply b/c it's cool in that Dylan kind of way(you should stare at the lyrics as you listen!), and b/c I have a soft spot for the original, more biblical version.


Update: Actually, Dylan's is the best cover:





Dylan's cover leads to YouTube, and you can go crazy there, and listen to growly, groovy Cohen(in a period piece!), Cale, smoldering Buckley, K.D. Lang(an interesting, almost over the top theatrical performance), Allison Crowe, Sheryl Crow, Rufas Wainwright, Astounded85, and clips from Shrek, The West Wing, and many other shows.


Some final notes about Leonard Cohen. He's a spiritual guy, and lived for years at a retreat with a yogi/spiritual leader. Cohen is genuine. He said(quoting from memory): I live in a room with a table and a chair as adornment. I appreciate the voluptuousness of simplicity. I love that.


Below is a "Hallelujah" intro Cohen gave during a performance in Poland - during a perilous political time - when Poland was trying to break away from the USSR. It was a moment of upheaval and peril. Cohen's reference to "a great Judgement" had significance for his audience, as an atheist USSR had fought to deprive Catholic Poland of open worship.




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2 comments:

lisue said...

Hi. I read what you wrote about the song and I just thought that you'd like to check out the newest version of it sung by Kate Voegele.

gcotharn said...

Thanks, Lisue. I clicked your link, and was charmed by the clean integrity of Ms. Voegele's version.