The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Holy and the Broken Hallelujah

So for several months now--since a friend of mine referenced it online, as a matter of fact--a particular song has been rattling around in my brain, inviting me to embrace its complexities.

I refer to Leonard Cohen's classic song "Hallelujah." One of the great things about the song is that there is no one correct version of it--the lyrics vary wildly in order of the verses and in content. (This is true, by the way, whether Cohen himself is singing it, or another musician is covering it. In fact, covers tend to be more standardized--John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright all use pretty closely similar versions).

Here is, for example, what is posted on YouTube as the "original studio version":

Note the verse:
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
Won't be hearing that again.

Ok, let's go to John Cale:

(Quite possibly my own favorite version, though the next contender is close)

And, just for good measure, a really good late Cohen performance:

So, we have a verse introducing the story of David, singing before the Lord--but with a bitter edge. Then, the story of David and Bathsheba--"You saw her bathing on the roof/Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you." And, just to complicate matters more, the story blends with that of Samson and Delilah--"she tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne and she cut your hair". Bathsheba may have a verse herself--"I've seen your flag on the marble arch/but love is not a victory march," sometimes feels like a wry observation from a woman whose preferences were not, shall we say, consulted.

The other verses, in counterpart, speak of the bitterness of betrayal, the seeming meaninglessness life and love itself ("maybe there's a God above/but all I've ever learned from love/is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you"") can present at times, and our own crippling inability to "only connect." And throughout, the narrator refuses to accept the stereotype of an easy festal shout of "Hallellujah!" Life hurts, bucko. You may give that shout--but not easily, not without the experience of desolation that the spiritual life doesn't immunize us from.

The biblical references frame the song--in some versions they follow each other, in others not. They invoke Scripture but not in a simple re-telling--the scriptural story goes back and forth with a narrator who (as the verses quoted above shows, and ) is pretty jaundiced about life, and, as this and other verses show, about love--sacred at times (the "Holy Dove was moving too"and yet so transitory. But then what a finish--in the versions that use it:
I've done my best,
it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel
so I learned to touch.
I've told the truth,
I didn't come here just to fool you
And though it seems it all went wrong,
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallellujah
George Herbert has gotta love that. Seriously, beat this as a theological rumination--it's a testament of a soul battered, not broken, hurt by life but choosing to love, and appearing before the Great Mystery with truth and a kind of hell-busted joy.


DorianTB said...

John, I was wowed by your "Hallelujah" blog post! So many people seem to feel it's overused lately in films and TV shows, but the renditions of the song you've shared here are valuable reminders why Leonard Cohen's moving song still resonates with us today.

Anglocat said...

Thanks so much, Dorian! I appreciate your dropping in, and leaving the comment. I admit, I've only seen the song used once in TV or film--it was in "The West Wing"--although I know it gets used a fair amount (I may have to watch "Shrek" just to see how the hell it fits into *that* universe).

Glad you stopped by!