‘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