“This is a disaster.”
Leonard Cohen, singer, songwriter, had a song. Of course he did: he was a singer-songwriter, after all. He had lots of songs.
But this one was different. This one was special.
The song was “Hallelujah” and it was a song that the musical wordsmith had been slaving over. He had composed verses upon verses in a desperate attempt to find the right words. He knew had had something here, but he struggled to find the perfect vessels to carry it; the words that would set it free.
Cohen was recording the song for his seventh studio album, Various Positions, which he was working for in June of 1984 at Quadrasonic Sound in New York. Here he was, a folky singer-songwriter, recording an earnest, acoustic-oriented album in the midst of the height of ’80s musical excess. It was as if Cohen were a man out of time.
When Leonard Cohen finally finished recording “Hallelujah”, there was a relief and a joy. He had found the words he needed to say. The recording was produced by John Lissauer, who had also helmed Cohen’s prior release New Skin for the Old Ceremony in 1974. Lissauer was thrilled with the new cut, and excited for Cohen’s promise.
This was the record that was going to make Cohen a star.
Cohen and Lissauer excitedly brought the cut to President of CBS Records, Walter Yetnikoff. There was magic in the air for the budding musician; Cohen could feel it. Lissauer could feel it. It was hovering, palpable. Lissauer couldn’t wait for Yetnikoff to hear “Hallelujah.”
Yetnikoff took the song and gave it a spin, looking forward to hearing the song that Leonard Cohen and John Lissauer were so thrilled about. Cohen and Lissauer waited for a reaction. Silence. And then finally, Yetnikoff looked at them; Turned to them. And he said:
“This is a disaster.”
Sudden dejection was palpable in the room.
“What is this?” Yetnikoff continued. “This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. This is a disaster. Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.”
Cohen and Lissauer were thoroughly defeated. What had gone wrong?
Lissauer believes that Yetnikoff was expecting something different. Something more pop. Something with that smooth ’80s sheen. And the early reports from the studio had suggested to Yenitkoff that that’s what he was getting. What he heard instead was a slap in the face. He didn’t hear a hit. He didn’t hear something with any commercial appeal. He didn’t hear something that anyone would like?
Yetnikoff released the rights to “Hallelujah” and the entire Various Positions album so that Cohen was able to release it elsewhere. He did so, in the United States on the independent label PVC Records.
But nobody really seemed to notice “Hallelujah.”
The experience with Cohen and Yetnikoff essentially ended Lissauer’s career in music production. It was a harrowing experience of failure, of rejection. He turned, instead, to scoring films. And for a long time his relationship with Cohen basically ended. The two didn’t even see each other again for another 15 years. He felt like he had failed the gifted singer-songwriter.
But all was not lost. The song slowly began to attract admirers. And one of those was not just any fan. It was a man that was known as the greatest popular songwriter, well, ever. A man who just recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his lyrics.
That man was Bob Dylan.
When Bob Dylan first heard “Hallelujah”, he was immediately struck by its deep power and cutting beauty. He was in amazement of the songs incisive lyrics and the outpouring of its joyous spirit. He liked the song so much that he would even cover the song at several of his concerts in 1988.
And Dylan wasn’t the only one overcome by “Hallelujah.” The song found another admirer in the person of John Cale. Cale had started his career as an avant-garde classical musician before turning his guitar talents to the New York City proto-punk pioneers The Velvet Underground.
Cale had already been a longtime fan of Leonard Cohen’s work. One night he caught one of Cohen’s shows, when time seemed to stop. Cohen was playing a song that knocked Cale over with its sheer rawness. Its pain, its depth, its joy.
Cale begged Cohen to send him the lyrics, and Cohen obliged. Cohen sent them via fax. All of them.
It amounted to 15 pages.
Cohen, something of a perfectionist, had struggled mightily when writing the song, and even continued to shape and craft the work’s lyrics after the song was ostensibly finished. He sent pretty much everything, verses upon verses, to Cale. It was, to say the least, overwhelming.
But Cale was not daunted. He pulled lyrics from Cohen’s original studio version. He pulled lyrics from live versions. And various other snippets from the faxes he had received from Cohen. When at last it was settled, Cale finally recorded the finished version for a Leonard Cohen tribute album called I’m Your Fan, released in 1991.
Cale’s version of the song would be a pivotal moment in its life. NME magazine said that Cale’s version of “Hallelujah” was, “a thing of wondrous, savage beauty,”
Jeff Buckley, Full of Grace
Jeff Buckley, aspiring singer-songwriter, was the young, estranged son of the late folk musician Tim Buckley. The younger Buckley had hardly ever even met his old man. And his feelings towards him were ambivalent to say the least. But the elder musician cast a long shadow over his musical heir apparent.
When Jeff Buckley heard John Cale’s rendition of “Hallelujah,” he was struck by its intensity and realness the same way that Cale had been by Leonard Cohen’s original version.Buckley learned to play the song and it quickly became a centerpiece of his live shows.
When Buckley was finally ready to record his debut studio album, he had plentiful material to comb through, originals and covers. He would have to make difficult decisions about what to include and what to reject from the final studio album. But the inclusion of one song was never called into question.
Buckley called the song, “a hallelujah to the orgasm… an ode to life and love.” Scholar Daphne Brooks has said that Buckey’s rendition of Hallelujah is, “Gospel music with sex, desire, and love tangled together and representing the keys to existential revelation and resurrection.” At any rate, it’s really, really good.
And it was destined to be a shining star in the popular music canon.
To be continued…
– Brian M. Reiser,