‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’ There. Are there any more perfect lines in all of pop music’s history? I almost don’t need to write about them or the song they come from. I could simply instruct you to sit and contemplate their beauty ‘until ye start as if the sea-nymphs quired.’ That would be enough. But as Guy Garvey, Jeff Buckley, k.d. lang and many others have found, Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece is just too delicious to be left at that. It’s a song that not only aches to be listened to, but aches to be understood and enthused over.

Hallelujah’s depth was all too apparent to me from the moment I came across it for the first time: Jeff Buckley’s superlative, fierce and tender rendering, heard on a compilation tape my now husband made for me back in the first few weeks of our relationship. I don’t remember any of the other songs on that tape. All I remember is ‘Hallelujah.’ Consider that I was in love then like I hadn’t been before. Consider that I might have been especially vulnerable at that moment. But even so, the song’s power was so extreme that there is only one possible explanation for it: duende.

‘I heard there was a secret chord/that David played and it pleased the Lord.’  I heard those lines and began to weep; they cracked me open and broke me. A secret chord? Of course there is such a thing. The idea seemed so powerful because I had always suspected that a ‘secret chord’ existed. In other words, Cohen perfectly articulated an idea I had only ever dumbly sensed: that the beauty of music could be so profound that even God would react to it as I just had: the omnipotent one wouldn’t be able to help it. But there’s more. Actually, what Cohen is suggesting is not just the existence of the secret chord, but also the necessity for the singer or poet to pursue that secret and find it out, no matter what the cost (it’s a ‘broken’ hallelujah after all). The chord is not just a mesmerising possibility but a way of life. Buckley knew that: he lost his life in pursuit of musical purity and intensity. Lang knows it in the way she sings that pronoun ‘she’ in the line ‘she cut your hair.’ She knows the erotic passion and the loss involved, but also the weight of queer history: the song, too, is allowing her to sing of her love for women in such a nakedly erotic way that it it feels like a historical release–from all the secrecy and suffering that used to be involved in being gay. She isn’t singing merely for herself here. In her hands ‘Hallelujah’ becomes the ‘I Have a Dream’ of queer politics.

Lang knows what other great interpreters of ‘Hallelujah’ know: he song is a call to arms, a way and a liberation. Leonard Cohen is a lucky, lucky man that such a song arose in him. And any singer of real duende is lucky when they take on this song, because it will release in them a trueness and sweetness that feels like a pinnacle and a blessing to singer and audience alike.

A link to Buckley’s version is included below.

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=AratTMGrHaQ

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Call a singer a ‘crooner’ these days and you don’t exactly appear to be giving them a compliment. ‘Crooner’ seems somehow to be the opposite of ‘rock’n’roll.’ Crooners are smooth, unruffled creatures of some bygone era: think of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Bing Crosby. You can’t easily mosh to ‘Volare,’ ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Isle of Capri.’ If punk is all pogo and piledriving, crooning is a fondle well-nigh horizontal. At odds with the times, it’s not designed for mp3 listening (you have to really listen to and feel the quiet bits–turning up the volume in your headphones as you pass the mechanical digger and the ambulance with its siren on won’t aid your appreciation of the music) and it don’t look good on the modern dancefloor. Why then, does crooning have such a bad press? Is it really a synonym for sentimental slop? Perhaps, if your name is  ‘Tony the Rat-Pack style Wedding Singer.’ But take a look at the etymology and there’s the beating heart of the word: ‘to sing in a subdued tone and reflective or sentimental style.’ Crooning, in other words, is singing that thinks, acts as a pure mirror, reflects back emotion. More than that, the word’s origin is ‘probably from Dutch cronen to lament,’ (Chambers Dictionary). And so we return again to duende, saudade; the great sadness that reaches up through modern masters like Richard Hawley and Nick Cave. A synonym for ‘croon’? Perhaps ‘ache,’ perhaps ‘grownup lullaby.’

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In The New Theatre Oxford, a run-down art-deco venue with a strange subterrannean bar and eccentric plumbing, I finally saw the light. Like all good conversion experiences, this one wasn’t expected, but was resisted. And when it came it engulfed me: we’re talking annihilation, bliss, negative capability, no ‘me-ness’ whatsoever. One of those.

The cause of this little epiphany? Richard Hawley, a geetarrman with a terribly un-rock’n’roll name,  on tour with his band, and supported by a rather impressive neo-rockabilly combo, Vincent Vincent and the Villains. For the uninitiated, Hawley has managed to pass most of his professional life safely out of the limelight. Formerly a guitarist with the Longpigs and Pulp, Hawley is a man who who failed an audition with Morrissey because his voice was too good and who was overlooked for a Mercury due to the presence on the shortlist of the talented and more noisy and skilfully self-promoting Arctic Monkeys. Hawley, it seems, is a past master at the ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ syndrome. And in today’s climate of rabid, narcissistic capitalism, where only the very young seem to matter, and where success had better come instantly or it can’t be called success at all, Hawley seems especially ‘out of time.’ He’s a slow burn kind of artist, a rockabilly throwback, a northern Elvis–and someone who describes himself on his website as a ‘speccy twat.’  Not the kind of profile that could lend itself to selling mobile phones or ‘designing’ perfume.

I suppose that all this low-key stuff hadn’t made me feel over-excited about Hawley himself. The beginning of our relationship wasn’t especially promising. A friend from work had given me a CD copy of ‘Coles Corner’ as a Christmas present in December 06.  As I’d never heard of Hawley, the CD languished over that festive season in the glove-box of my car, until the time came to do a post-Christmas pilgrimage to the in-laws, and I found myself playing the record whilst driving across the Norfolk fens. My other half wasn’t overly impressed: ‘he’s a bit of a crooner,’ remarked J, in a  tactful expression of mild disapprobation. I could see his point, and yet, even on that first listen I felt that a) crooning wasn’t a bad thing (you’re reading the blog of someone who grew up listening to Sinatra, Crosby, Bennett and their ilk) and b) those melodies! right from the outset they gave me that feeling along my breastbone, that sweet hit of pain…I began to suspect the presence of some serious duende right away. Elation, longing, emptiness. Oh yes.

But it still wasn’t love-yet. For me to fall in love with an artist (and, by the way, if you aren’t totally, madly besotted with the singers and musicians you listen to, what on earth is the bloody point?) I have to test their records to destruction. My car doesn’t possess a CD changer or an MP3 socket, and therefore you can only play one CD at a time. So I have evolved a method of listening to music whereby I play the same CD over and over again when I’m alone in the car, travelling to and from work. It’s a kind of intensive listening not encouraged in ipod culture, but one which has several advantages. If the record’s ok but not a Great record with a capital G, you will tire of it after about 3 listens. But if it is a Great, it will withstand repeated scrutiny: you become greedy for it, and it plays itself in your mind even when it’s not playing. The music possesses you, and the relationship becomes erotic, amorous. The relationship between you and it mutates from the cerebral to the physical. The music is, to steal from Keats, ‘proved upon the pulses.’ Over time, ‘Coles Corner’ crossed this rubicon.

And yet, and yet…There was still something missing. I bought tickets to see Hawley last September, only to find the gig was cancelled and postponed. But I wasn’t gutted as I might have been if this had been, say, a postponed trip to see Nick Cave. Something within me remained to be convinced that he deserved to be up there with Cave in my personal pantheon of musicians. It only became clear why I’d had these reservations (and why they were misplaced) when I arrived at the gig itself and heard Hawley play.

The first bit of excitement came with the choice of supporting band. Vincent Vincent were exciting, literate and incredibly sharp. Quite often when you go to gigs, the support act is some kind of disconnected distraction from the main event. Not here. Vincent Vincent weren’t Hawley identikits, but acted as well-chosen foils to Hawley himself. ‘Hawley likes these guys a lot,’ I found myself thinking. And so when the quiffed and shiny-suited ‘speccy’ one arrived on stage, it felt like a very natural progression, as natural as I imagine it would have felt to see one of those 1950s touring shows featuring Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis all on the same bill.  Except that this wasn’t a show coming out of the Deep South, but the Deep North.

As soon as Hawley opened his mouth to speak I felt immediately at home. Don’t forget that we were sitting in a theatre in Oxford, heartland of England’s establishment, and here were these magnificent Sheffield tones, coupled with the comic timing of a skilled club comedian. OK, so he’s from the wrong side of the Pennines (I’m from Bolton, originally) but I loved him for suddenly taking away the sense of exile I always feel at living in the south. Right from the outset, when he rallied us with the phrase ‘Let’s ballad,’ that draughty, damp old theatre seemed as intimate as Hawley’s front room, so much so that I wanted to have a chat with him between songs. When he apologized for one song, ‘Lady Solitude’, worrying that it might be ‘crap’, I felt I could almost get up out of my seat, walk onto the stage and convince him just how groundless his fears were.

‘Lady Solitude’ was, in fact, the standout moment of the entire gig. It came about half way through, and by the time he played it I felt I had slipped away from myself almost completely. He had begun his set with ‘Valentine,’ and from the first notes, I realised why I’d had a problem with Hawley up until that moment: on record, he had sounded almost too perfect, as if he suffered from that musical disease endemic in the digital age: overproduction. But then I understood: he sounds flawless because that’s the kind of beauty he’s naturally capable of releasing from both voice and guitar. His is not dry, airbrushed studio perfection, you understand, but a kind of loving concentration on the work in hand.

And what work it was! All of it made 500% more sense when played live. The guitar sounds he produced from the extraordinarily lovely-looking instruments he used on stage had ‘conjured soul from body. ‘ Or was it his voice that did this? Who can tell? His voice and whichever guitar he used were a continuum, with the body of the man bridging the two. I was reminded of Benedick’s comment in Much Ado about Nothing:

BENEDICK: Now, divine air! now is his soul ravished! Is it
not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out
of men’s bodies?

Benedick’s talking about the lute+voice effect here, but nevertheless, the comparison still stands for guitar+voice: the experience of being taken by a song, an experience as ancient as song itself, holy and erotic…and this is how I was feeling before he began to play ‘Lady Solitude.’ A few bars in, however, and I was completely gone: silent tears spilled down my face, so many I didn’t bother to try and dry them. This for me is the ultimate gift that any artist of whatever genre can deliver. Very, very few singers have had this effect on me. It’s a response that’s spontaneous, rare and precious, and amounts to a kind of knowledge about the world. As Nick Cave would put it, that knowledge is saudade, the sadness that lives ‘deep down things’ and which only the truly great can access or retrieve in the form of duende, deep song.

So this, really, is a call to arms. For all those that don’t know Hawley, get hold of Lady’s Bridge or Coles Corner and don’t delay. Your life should not be without music like this.  But don’t expect anything flash. This is the hard part: most of what we tend to consider good these days is flash, jump-cut, neon. Instead, give it time, listen intensively. That’s what this ballad thing is all about. Soul. The long haul. Ravishment. History.