‘Hallelujah’ is an infinite song. That’s the conclusion I came to last night as I sat down to Guy Garvey’s excellent hour-long documentary on the subject. Half asleep as I write this, I know it’s infinite because I have a feeling I could continue talking about it forever. Perhaps, in some recess of my mind, I will. Talking ‘Hallelujah’ will serve me well when I’m down in hell; all I’ll need as my get out of Sheol card will be a couple of blogs on ‘Hallelujah’ and the Prince of Darkness will be powerless to resist me. I’ll breeze past St Peter with a snappy rendition of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’  and before you can say ‘space-time continuum’ Beatrice and Dante will have put the kettle on, I’ll be talking about generous pronouns and Jeff Buckley will be tuning his guitar.

Garvey’s programme was gentle, intelligent and he himself was wonderful when talking about Buckley’s rendition of ‘I Know It’s Over’ in the midst of a live recording of ‘Hallelujah,’ and about the guitar intro Buckley wrote for his version of the song. He was even better than wonderful when he told us that the song is powerful because it uses ‘mantra’ (the word ‘Hallelujah’) and that, writing for Elbow, he uses the mantra idea a lot: listen to ‘One Day Like This’ and you will understand what he’s talking about; by the end of the song, not only will you be singing too, but Dante will have fished out another mug with your name on it, in anticipation of your arrival.

Although Garvey’s show was a real treat (great not to have a presenter who speaks like they’ve been to Presenter Academy) I did feel there were one or two things I wished I’d been there to add. Some talk of pronouns for one thing. Last night, no one mentioned those little functional words and how they deliver the experience of the song to the listener and the singer; how they also allow the song to take on an almost infinite variety of political meaning. The pronouns are powerful, man. Look what happens when I alter them:

She tied me to the kitchen chair,

she broke my throne and she cut my hair,

and from my lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Well, ‘she’ is still OMG sexy, but suddenly the song seems firmly personal. Garvey showed how Cohen’s song really ceased to belong to Cohen the moment it had been released as a record. But if he’d written it like this it would simply have been a lovely conversation you overhear on a bus, say, or in a restaurant, and it would still belong to Cohen. But switch back those pronouns and feel the difference:

She tied you to the kitchen chair,

she broke your throne and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

 

Suddenly someone has broken into your memory, bypassed all the security and has reached the vault where all the precious things are, the ‘Casket of Dreams’ if you like. No guards or weapons can help you and you are utterly defenceless. The speaker can really hurt you now, and he does. But, and this is the amazing thing, he hurts you in a way that makes you thank him and sing back ‘Hallelujah,’ purely or brokenly, depending on how the song finds you at the time.

But the pronouns’ power doesn’t end there. They gift the listener many other things; great sex for one. If you’re lucky enough to have had sex like that, it makes the memory suddenly, overwhelmingly present (‘so that’s what happened, was it? Jesus!’); if you haven’t, it gives you such a powerful sense of being there that for a few glorious seconds you can imagine what that feeling is like. Either way, you experience a kind of ecstasy of imagining. You experience the pain and glory of ‘The Vision of Eros.’ You are more than half a poet.

However, if you’re the right kind of singer or listener, ‘Hallelujah’ can make you more than half a revolutionary too. I’ve already hinted at the political drive in k.d. lang’s interpretation. What happens to me, feminist me, when I listen to the song? One female contributor to Garvey’s programme described how she felt it was a man’s song, because of its use of that pronoun ‘she.’ I found that strange: I have never felt it was a man’s song, as though women were somehow excluded from its ‘Hallelujah.’ Rather, I feel the song is an opportunity to change gender. I become a man when I listen. I am Samson. I am David. I am the strong man tied to the kitchen chair, I am the poet-king. And nobody, the song gives me courage to say, can gainsay my claim–  watch those impish, insurgent pronouns go.

But women, too, can see their own strength reflected in the ‘she’ of the lyrics. How many times, in poems and songs, are women hated and scorned for their beauty or sexual power? Not here. ‘Hallelujah’ is revolutionary in its understanding of female sexual power, just as it also, simultaneously, teaches us about acceptance of sorrow, humiliation and loss. OK, so she cut your hair, Samson, but, you know what? you still got that broken hallelujah, and that’s worth just about everything. Her beauty overthrew you? Christ that hurt but bring it on– give me more– don’t stop–please. You are nothing now, but what a glorious nothing, an infinity of nothing. Submit, let go, be thankful.

‘Hallelujah,’ though, isn’t a political manifesto (no ‘victory marches’ here, no banners, no slogans). But it is poetry. Yet, there’s a paradox. It is only poetry when sung. The lyrics on their own are very fine indeed:

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

I’ve highlighted the stresses in this line in bold to point out to the poetry anoraks amongst you that this is a deft iambic pentameter line that uses a feminine unstressed syllable at its close in a lovely, breathy way. The line drifts off ‘upstairs, downstairs, somewheres’ at the end, wherever you want it to go. And ‘baffled’ is so just. Overwhelmed by the song, not even understanding what he’s doing or what love is doing to him, the poet-king keeps going, in a state of negative capability.

But the song doesn’t stand up as poetry on its own because the words ache for the melody; dammit, the chord sequence is even described in the lyrics, they’re on such intimate terms. The words, beautiful as they are, need the music to keen properly. More than that, they demand the right interpreter.

‘Hallelujah’ does not render its cover artists magically equal, as Garvey’s programme demonstrated. In fact, the contrary is true–it renders them glaringly unequal. Garvey included many interpreters of the song, but, even he, democrat that he is, still couldn’t help suggesting that there was one supreme singer of ‘Hallelujah:’ Jeff Buckley. All ‘Hallelujahs’ to date lead to him. And the mystery deepens. Cohen’s masterpiece appears to be a bit like the Sword in the Stone: it demands a King Arthur to pull the prize from the rock. Not that Buckley is the only King (Katherine Williams emerges from the programme as a contender) but it does demand a supreme sensitivity in the artist to get ‘Hallelujah’ to fully yield. But to get the song to yield, the artist must first fully yield themselves to it. It’s that thing about risk again, that thing about duende.

So Garvey, here’s a gauntlet. I know you said you’re scared to take on ‘Hallelujah’ (who, after all, wants to end up in the seventh circle of the abyss where Bon Jovi will be doing their tight-trousered ‘Hallelujah’ till kingdom come?) But I know you can take on this song of songs and win. You won’t be able to help it, you little sod. You’re too intelligent, too sensual for that. Go on, give it a go. I dare you.

Buckley does a ‘Hallelujah’ on a fine Smiths song and utterly transforms it. Imagine this inserted into a live version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Or, better still, find Garvey on Listen Again (Radio 2) if you still can.

A link to Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’:  http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=hooPU2mdsH4

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‘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