Leonard Cohen writer, composer of Hallelujah (one of my favourite songs) will be in Australia at the end of Jan 2009. He talks to Neil McCormick, Telegraph, London
In 15 years away from the stage, Leonard Cohen has endured psychological crisis, spiritual transformation and the loss of his fortune in a financial fraud, yet he treats such personal dramas as the stuff of art. "We basically all lead the same kind of lives," he said recently. "Gain and loss, surrender and victory - popular music has to be about those subjects."
It is all there in one song in particular, an epic, gospel-tinged ballad of desire and rejection, love and sex, God and man, failure and transcendence, the inevitability of death and triumph of the spirit against the greatest odds. Performed by a 73-year-old man with a shattered voice, it is a song with the power to turn a rock arena into a cathedral.
The song is Hallelujah. Written and rewritten by Cohen over the years, it has come to be regarded by many as the greatest song of all time. It has been recorded and performed by more than 100 artists in a dozen different languages, including versions by Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bono, KD Lang, Rufus Wainwright and, most famously, Jeff Buckley. It has featured on the soundtracks of dozens of films, from Shrek to the dark satire Lord of War.
It is, in many respects, a song for every occasion. Rufus Wainwright has said, "It's an easy song to sing. The music never pummels the words. The melody is almost liturgical and conjures up religious feelings. It's purifying." It was not, however, an easy song to write. When he works, Cohen explores every lyrical permutation, sometimes completely finishing verses then discarding them. He claims there are at least 80 verses to Hallelujah. "I filled two notebooks and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel [in New York], on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, 'I can't finish this song.'"
He has actually recorded two distinct versions, with almost completely different lyrics, and it is partly this that lends the song its openness to interpretation, as artists mix and match verses. It subtly alters over time to reflect the needs of the moment.
Appropriately, in its original version on Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions, Hallelujah is, partially, about the act of songwriting itself. Cohen invokes the Biblical story of King David (composer of psalms and so the original songwriter) and the woman whose beauty overthrew him, Bathsheba. The protagonist offers up his "sacred chord" to a lover whose indifference to art is expressed in the put-down, "You don't really care for music, do ya?"
Cohen first rose to minor prominence in the late Fifties as a Canadian poet and novelist (he has produced 12 volumes of poetry and prose), turning to songwriting only in his thirties in an attempt to generate some income. "In hindsight it seems the height of folly to address one's economic problems by becoming a singer," he subsequently said, although he was an accomplished musician who had performed with country bands in university in Montreal.
Despite standing in dark contrast to the prevailing hippie spirit, his 1968 debut was greeted with popular acclaim. Yet for some, Cohen's doleful voice and challenging subject matter became synonymous with "bedsits and razorblades". He once dryly described his reputation as "suicidal, depressive, melancholic and a ladies man, as if women appreciated these other qualities".
Cohen's amorous interests are to the fore in Hallelujah. Bathsheba seduces and defiles David. But the singer pointedly expresses no preference for "the holy or the broken hallelujah". In the end, despite acknowledging failure, confusion and weakness, he pronounces himself ready to stand defiantly before the "Lord of Song" with "nothing on my tongue but 'Hallelujah'." The second version of the song - which appeared in 1994 and retained only the chorus and concluding lines - is even more overtly sexual than the original. It is also emotionally harsher, the bitter reminiscence of someone who admits "all I've ever seemed to learn from love / Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya."
Former Velvet Underground member John Cale helped shape it with his own recording in 1991, when Cohen faxed him 15 pages of lyrics. "I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses," Cale claimed. It was this that Jeff Buckley covered for his 1994 album Grace. Buckley described it as an homage to "the hallelujah of the orgasm".
Though it dispenses with the final redemptive verse, Buckley's recording retains the song's religious character. This is part of its innate appeal, the contrast between its harsh depiction of life and the quality of uplifting transcendence contained in the repeated soaring Hallelujahs.
"That's what it's all about," says Cohen. "You're not going to be able to work this thing out. There's no solution to this mess. The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is when you embrace it all and say, "Look, I don't understand a ****ing thing at all - Hallelujah!'"
Buckley's version (and his subsequent death in a swimming accident in 1997) really began the afterlife of Hallelujah. Versions are regularly used as background music during montages of people getting bad news in TV hospital dramas and death scenes. Asked about the song's enduring appeal, Cohen says, "It's got a good chorus", which is true, if disingenuous. It is a song that tells us failure is OK, indeed it is human. It is a song that suggests it is enough just to have lived.
It is a lesson Cohen seems to have taken time to arrive at. A self-confessed depressive, in 1994 he retreated to Mount Baldy Zen Centre near Los Angeles, beginning five years of seclusion during which he was ordained as a Buddhist monk. He has said of the experience, "Life became not easier, but simpler. The backdrop of self-analysis I had lived with disappeared. It's like that joke: 'When you're hitting your head against a brick wall, it feels good when it stops.'"
His new-found equanimity faced a challenge in 2005, when he discovered his retirement funds had been siphoned off by a trusted manager. More than $5 million dollars was gone, leaving him, aged 70, with just $150,000 in his account. "I had to go to work," he said. "I have no money left. I'm not saying it's bad. I have enough of an understanding of the way the world works to understand that these things happen." It is this that has put him back on the stage and in the studio, where he has been recording a new album. Given the lengthy gestation of Hallelujah, however, it might be unwise for fans to hold their breath.
"The only advice I have for young songwriters is that if you stick with a song long enough, it will yield," he recently said. "But long enough is not any fixed duration. You might have to stay with it for years and years."