There’s a Blaze of Light in Every Word of Hallelujah

When Columbia’s executive producer first heard Hallelujah, he looked Leonard in the eye and muttered, “This is a disaster.” A prayerful hymn with biblical references, Hallelujah wasn’t viewed as a hit that would top the charts. At the time, songs like Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Kenny Loggin’s Footloose were getting listeners up and dancing. Hallelujah, Columbia Records believed, would do nothing but put them to sleep.

Joni Mitchell / Leonard Cohen / Leonard Cohen / Bob Dylan.
Source: Getty Images

But, boy, were they wrong. Hallelujah is a brilliant masterpiece. It’s a poem that unites and touches the souls of religious and secular people alike and has grown to become one of the most covered singles of all time. From Bob Dylan in the late ‘80s to Jeff Buckley’s high-pitched version in 1994, Hallelujah is beautiful in every form.

A Summer of High Art

It was the summer of 1983, and Leonard was in New York recording his seventh album, Various Positions. The pressure to release a good, solid LP was especially high, considering he hadn’t released a single song in the preceding five years. Along with producer John Lissauer, Cohen experimented with different sounds, introducing synthesizers for the first time into his work.

Leonard Cohen and friends perform live.
Photo by Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Lissauer described his time with Cohen as one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. “Leonard and I got along so well it’s almost scary,” he told Rolling Stone. “There were no roadblocks, no disasters; it was great start to finish – it was high art, it was just thrilling.”

Who Wrote Hallelujah?

Unbeknown to his fans, Cohen spent those five years away from the studio writing and tossing and writing and tossing around 80 drafts of Hallelujah. But when he finally brought it into the studio, he was no longer the “tormented, struggling artist.” According to Lissauer, he showed no signs of confusion.

Leonard Cohen writes in a notebook.
Photo by Jack Robinson/Getty Images

“There was no ‘Should we do this verse?’ I don’t think there was even a question of the order of verses, any ‘Which should come first?’ And had he had a question about it, I think he would’ve resolved it himself,” Lissauer revealed.

What Does Hallelujah Mean?

Out of the 80 verses Cohen composed, four lucky ones made it to the final cut. And his filtering process depended on how much emphasis he wanted to place on the religious elements of the song. Eventually, Leonard held onto a few biblical references but made sure to add sentences that would relieve the song from its heavy, theological mood.

An Italian theological painting.
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Still, there’s no denying the song’s religious undertones. The song’s repetitive chorus (Hallelujah x 4) delivers a prayer-like feel. And the word itself, Hallelujah, comes from the Hebrew Bible: Hallelu – to praise joyously, and Yah – the unspoken name of God.

I’ve Heard There Was a Secret Chord…

Straight away, Leonard Cohen paints us a picture of David, a prominent biblical figure and a heroic harp player, who, with the help of a “secret chord,” manages to cast away evil spirits. According to the first book of Samuel, David refreshed King’s Saul soul by playing holy music to his ears.

Leonard Cohen performs on stage.
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David’s secret chords had the power to untie the knots of spiritual oppression and release King Saul from his confusing haze, allowing him to see the light. “So, Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” ) Samuel 1, 16:23(

The Minor Fall and the Major Lift

After such an inspiring opening, Leonard shakes off his own solemnity by asking, “You don’t really care for music, do you?” It’s a striking contrast, sure to remind his listeners of their restless minds, ones that are too busy to pause and enjoy the melodies a spiritual life has to offer.

Leonard Cohen sings.
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Leonard then describes the harmonic progression – the minor (sad-sounding) key and the major (happy-sounding) key. The minor fall could be attributed to Adam and Eve’s tragic fall from grace and the major lift to Jesus’s crucifixion and his return to the heavens.

A Baffled King

The first verse ends with a baffled king composing Hallelujah. There are several arguments as to why the king is baffled, but one interesting suggestion concerns the mysterious nature of love and devotion. Faith is a path one walks upon, never quite knowing where they might end up.

A renaissance painting of Saul and David.
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Another explanation for “baffled” has to do with Leonard himself. The singer spent years composing Hallelujah. A reporter from The Guardian even described how he likely “banged his head against the floor” until he reached the result he longed for. Similarly, Leonard might have pictured David “banging his head” before coming up with “the secret chord that pleased the Lord.”

Your Faith Was Strong but You Needed Proof

The second verse deals with the story of David and Bathsheba. It’s a (terribly relatable) tale about the abuse of power in the name of lust. Leonard begins by recalling how David “saw her (Bathsheba) bathing on the roof.”

A chorus accompanies Leonard Cohen’s theater performance.
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Samuel 2, 11:12 reads: “David arose from off his bed and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof, he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.” David then invites Batsheba into his palace and impregnates her, only to discover that she’s married to Uriah, a soldier who’s busy fighting the war.

She Tied You to a Kitchen Chair…

Leonard then turns his attention to a harrowing tale – the story of Samson and Delilah. Delilah was a Philistine who was bribed into coaxing Samson to reveal his highest strength, his hair, which she then proceeded to cut.

Delilah cuts Samson’s hair.
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“She tied you to a kitchen chair / she broke your throne, she cut your hair,” sang Leonard. A kitchen chair is too simple for a king to sit on, and it’s Leonard’s way of reducing even the most heroic character to a low position.

Both David and Samson risked their fortitude by giving in to their temptations.

You Say I Took the Name in Vain

The song’s third verse has Leonard acknowledging the different phases one goes through with their beliefs. Sometimes you “know the name,” sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes your “Hallelujah” feels like holy, complete praise. And sometimes it’s a broken down, confused cry.

Leonard Cohen performs on stage.
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But in the face of confusion, there’s always “a blaze of light in every word.” It’s Leonard’s little reminder that regardless of one’s state, there’s always a glimmer of hope waiting around the corner. Without sounding too cheesy, as long as you have a little “Hallelujah” in your heart, all is good.

I Did My Best, It Wasn’t Much

As the song is brought to a conclusion, Leonard reminds us of his frailty, his fallibility. When he couldn’t feel “God’s love,” he resorted to worldly, palpable things (“I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.”) He then quickly reinforces the idea that his intentions were always good, “I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya.”

A portrait of Leonard Cohen.
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Finally, the remarkable fourth verse ends with a man who has nothing on his tongue but “Hallelujah.” Even though all went wrong, and his path was muddled with confusion, temptation, despair and anguish, he ends up surrendering his need for control and acknowledges that sometimes, it’s better to raise your arms in renunciation and simply cry out “Hallelujah.”

“It’s Almost Like Sex”

While most listeners usually pay attention to Leonard’s lyrics, Hallelujah’s melody is no less moving. It’s a barely perceptible rhythm that sways back and forth. It starts out as a slow, serene harmony but gradually evolves into a spirited chorus of guitars and voices.

Leonard observes with a concentrated, contemplative expression.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

“It builds, it lifts, then there’s always the one word coming back down,” David Miller of the classical group Il Divo told Rolling Stone, “It’s almost like sex – it builds, it builds, there’s that moment, and then the afterglow. To go on that journey, the whole thing taken as an experience, is wonderful.”

They Used Brushes, Not Drumsticks

Lissauer said they aimed for “strength without bashing,” and “even when it got large, it always had restraint to it.” For that reason, the drummer, Richard Crooks, was asked to play with brushes, not sticks. The song’s force came from its sincerity, not from any pounding thuds.

Brushes on a drum instead of drumsticks.
Photo by National Jazz Archive/Heritage Images/Getty Images

As for the chorus, they didn’t want a big gospel choir accompanying Leonard’s voice. It ended up being an eclectic group of people, including producer Lissauer himself and his wife. “In a way, we were trying to get it to be a community choir sound, very humble,” he explained.

What Is the Song Hallelujah About?

Beyond the lyrics and melody is Leonard’s own performance. He delivered sentences like “I don’t even know the name” with sarcastic, weary humor, creating a striking disparity between the verses and the soaring, grandiose chorus.

A portrait of Leonard on stage.
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Leonard did so on purpose. He wanted to stress the song’s central premise, that “the world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled.”

“But” Leonard once explained, “there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah’.”

Jeff Buckley Didn’t Know Leonard Wrote It

Interestingly – and although I can go on praising Leonard’s incredible delivery – it’s Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah that really catapulted the song to worldwide acclaim. A hungry young songwriter, Buckley came across Hallelujah while housesitting for a woman in Brooklyn.

A portrait of Jeff Buckley.
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It wasn’t Leonard’s original version that he heard, but a cover done by John Cale as part of “I’m Your Fan” – a tribute album released in 1991. Buckley fell in love with it so much that he crafted his own version, which he performed at the Sin-é, a local bar in Manhattan’s East Village.

Jeff Played Around With the Song’s Emotion

In order to buff up his album’s track list, Buckley recorded interpretations of classic songs, Hallelujah included. Like Cohen, Buckley kept tweaking it, playing a different pitch and a different key every session. “Feel, performance, emotion is what he was tinkering with,” explained Steve Berkowitz, an executive from Columbia Records.

Jeff Buckley performs on stage.
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Berkowitz was among the first people who happened to hear Buckley’s version of Hallelujah in the crowded Sin-é café. He was struck by Buckley’s performance. His voice wasn’t nearly as deep or smoky as Leonard’s, but it was precisely that sharp contrast – Leonard’s heavy lyrics with Buckley’s high falsettos – that impressed him.

Worried of What Leonard Might Think

Jeff Buckley released his debut album, Grace, in the summer of 1994. Grace and other hits, including Lover, You Should Have Come Over, and Mojo Pin won over the ears and hearts of many of its listeners. But his version of Hallelujah is what really sealed the deal. It’s been used extensively in several TV shows and films, including The West Wing, The O.C., and One Tree Hill.

Jeff Buckley poses for a portrait.
Photo by Bob Berg/Getty Images

Despite the public’s enthusiasm, Buckley said he never felt quite comfortable with it, admitting once that he hoped Leonard Cohen wouldn’t hear his version for fear that he would be upset about his interpretation.

Not Everyone Was Impressed

We haven’t been able to find a clear answer as to what Leonard’s opinion on Jeff’s version was (if you manage to find something, please write to us in the comment section). Yet we did find Rolling Stone magazine’s general take.

Stephanie Zacharek speaks on the microphone.
Source: YouTube

Rolling Stone’s music critic, Stephanie Zacharek, reviewed Buckley’s whole album, and when she came to discuss Hallelujah, she wrote that his vocals didn’t always stand up: “He doesn’t sound battered or desperate enough to carry off Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’”

He Is Mentioned in Several Songs

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has been covered multiple times over the years, but other musicians’ appreciation of him doesn’t end there. This gifted poet has been mentioned in many songs by other artists, including Canadian singer Joni Mitchell and Israel’s Ehud Banai.

A portrait of Joni Mitchell at the recording studio.
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More artists include Nancy White’s “Leonard Cohen’s Never Gonna Bring My Groceries In” and Austin Lounge Lizards’ “Leonard Cohen’s Day Job.” Other singles that mention him in the lyrics include Jeffrey Lewis’ “Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song” and Lucinda Williams’ “Rarity.”

He Formed His Own Band at 17

So, where did Leonard’s journey towards Hallelujah begin? On a chilly, autumn day 1934 in Quebec, Canada. Leonard was raised as an Orthodox Jew and found music and poetry to be the most fascinating subjects in school. He taught himself to play acoustic guitar and at the young age of 17, formed his own band – a folk group called The Buckskin Boys.

Leonard Cohen poses, holding a light bulb.
Photo by Andrew Stawicki/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Leonard attended McGill University and graduated with an arts degree in 1955. A little over a year later, the ambitious writer published his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies. The collection is made up of poems Leonard wrote as a student at McGill.

An Established Poet

Leonard published his first collection of poetry at 22 and was granted a $2,000 scholarship to travel around Europe at just 25. It was only in his early 30s that he decided to explore songwriting. By then, he was already an established novelist and poet.

A portrait of Leonard Cohen in a park.
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When he first played his songs around New York, agents from the music business glanced at him suspiciously and asked, “Aren’t you a little old for this game?” But Leonard wasn’t looking to become the next “hot thing” in the mainstream. He wanted to create, to inspire, to move. And those things had little to do with his age.

He Dealt With Depression From a Young Age

Leonard Cohen suffered from ongoing depressive episodes throughout his life. And they weren’t your average slumps and mood swings. They were crippling episodes that no medication really managed to solve. “I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin. I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies of the religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through,” he explained.

Leonard Cohen sits at home.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Cohen later revealed that he had “dealt with depression ever since my adolescence. . . Moving into some periods, which were debilitating, when I found it hard to get off the couch, to periods when I was fully operative, but the background noise of anguish still prevailed.”

He Went Through Several Hospitalizations

Despite years of fame and success, Cohen found himself in his mid-60s depressed and discouraged. He had been through several hospitalizations and had already tried taking tricyclics, MAOIs, second-generation antidepressants, and anticonvulsants. But nothing helped.

A portrait of Leonard Cohen.
Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images

He had just released one of the most successful albums of his career, The Future, yet he found himself “really, really low, on many medications . . . I pulled my car over to the side of the road. I took out all the medication and threw it out the window.”

A Zen Buddhist Monk

Leonard’s troubling mental state led him to seek answers and help in places that completely strayed from conventional therapies. In 1994, he went to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center located near Los Angeles.

An exterior view of Mt. Baldy Zen Center.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He spent five years in the center training under Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. After two years in the center, in 1996, he was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and was given the Dharma name Jikan.

So Long, Marianne

In the 1960s, Leonard bought a house on the Greek island of Hydra. He shared the place with his girlfriend and infamous muse, Marianne Ihlen. During his time on the island, Leonard wrote several books of poetry, one novel, and songs for his first two albums.

Marianne and Leonard are holding hands.
Source: YouTube

When he and Marianne broke up, Cohen wrote the song “So Long, Marianne.” Years later, in 2016, Marianne died of leukemia. And upon hearing the news, he wrote her a letter saying, “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

On Fatherhood

Another woman Leonard dated was artist Suzanne Elrod, who later became the mother of his two children. She’s pictured on the cover of his album “Death of a Ladies’ Man,” and has also inspired the character “Dark Lady” from his novel of the same name.

A picture of Leonard and Suzanne.
Source: YouTube

Leonard and Suzanne’s two kids, Adam and Lorca became the light of his life. “Until you have children, until you really get stuck, it’s like dating for the junior prom,” Cohen once noted; “I believe that in a certain way, having children is the only activity that connects you to mankind and makes a serious assault on the ego.”

He Regretted Mentioning Janis Joplin

Cohen’s other relationships included one with French photographer Dominique Issermann sometime in the ‘80s, and in the 90s, with actress Rebecca De Mornay. But before both of those ladies, back in 1968, Leonard came across the late and great Janis Joplin.

A portrait of Janis Joplin.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The lyrics of his song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” give a racy description of their affair. “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, You were talking so brave and so sweet, Giving me head on the unmade bed, While the limousines wait in the street.” Years later, Cohen confessed that he felt bad about writing that part.

Never Quite Satisfied

It’s hard to believe, but Leonard was never truly satisfied with his writing. The writer would spend days, months, and even years going over his song lyrics until he was satisfied. One example is his song, “My Secret Life.”

Leonard Cohen performs on stage.
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Cohen began writing the song in 1988, but it took 13 years for it to appear on his album. “I can’t discard a verse until I’ve written it as carefully as the one I would keep,” he later explained. Even his song “Bird on a Wire” didn’t satisfy him. He was quoted saying that he “hadn’t finished the carpentry.”

His Death

After nearly five decades of writing, singing, moving and touching the world with his incredible gift and depth, Leonard Cohen passed away. He died during his sleep in the fall of 2016, at the age of 82. The statement released to the press read, “We have lost one of music’s most revered and prolific visionaries.”

A portrait of Leonard Cohen.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Cohen’s manager, Robert Kory, said that the death was sudden and unexpected, yet peaceful. Experts reported that a contributing cause might have been a sudden fall he experienced shortly before going to bed.

John Cale Added Different Verses

The person we owe Jeff Buckley’s cover to is John Cale. The Welsh singer sang a different combination of verses which were used in nearly all the covers that sprung afterward, including the one appearing in the soundtrack of the animated movie Shrek.

A still from John Cale’s video of Hallelujah.
Source: YouTube

John Cale’s voice isn’t as deep as Cohen’s or as light and high and Buckley’s, yet the raspiness and the emotion behind his performance make it one of the best covers out there. Cale even released a music video of him playing the song on the piano.

Rufus Wainwright’s Heartrending Piano Playing

After listening to Jeff Buckley’s cover, American singer Rufus Wainwright decided the song was too beautiful to pass on. He was so touched by the lyrics that he immediately rushed to the recording studio so he could sing the words himself.

Rufus Wainwright’s performance of Hallelujah.
Source: Vevo

Like John Cale and Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright sang the five-verse anthem, rather than Cohen’s original version which included different verses. Wainwright’s rendition includes a piano which adds tremendously to the heartrending tone of the song.

Bob Dylan Began Performing It on Tour in 1988

Four years after Leonard Cohen released Hallelujah, Bob Dylan began singing the song on his tours around the world. People weren’t very familiar with it yet, but Dylan brought the crowd to tears with Cohen’s lyrics. He catapulted it into the scene.

Bob Dylan performs on stage.
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As one story goes, Dylan asked Leonard how long it took him to write Hallelujah, to which he responded, “several years.” In return, Leonard asked Dylan how long it took him to write I and I, and Dylan responded, “15 minutes.”

Imogen Heap Was Nervous to Cover It

Decades later, Hallelujah became relevant for a new generation when the drama “The O.C.” asked Imogen Heap to do a cover for a scene where one of the characters, Marissa, dies. Heap told reporters that she was terribly intimidated by the request at first.

A portrait of Imogen Heap.
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Eventually, she recorded a stripped-down, acapella version of it. Making it her own instead of trying to stick to Leonard’s original version or Jeff’s famous cover. Heap’s version is featured in the final episode of the show’s third season.

The Song’s Recording Engineer Struggled

Leanne Ungar, the recording engineer who worked with Leonard on the album, said that Hallelujah was a “real struggle.” “I remember Leonard kept asking me to put more and more reverb on his voice,” he recalled.

A portrait of Leanne Ungar, Leonard Cohen, and Sharon Robinson.
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According to Ungar, she loved hearing the “the texture of his unadorned voice” and didn’t want to play with it too much. Ultimately, she wasn’t too satisfied with the results but understood that she had to follow Cohen’s instructions.

The Song Has Sexual Undertones

Jeff Buckley was quoted saying that, for him, the song was definitely about sexual release. “The hallelujah is not a homage to a worshipped person, idol or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm,” he explained.

A studio portrait of Leonard Cohen.
Photo by Jack Robinson/Getty Images

Other people felt that there was an obvious sexual undertone to Leonard’s lyrics. Folk singer Allison Crowe described it as a “very sexual song,” and producer Lissauer shared that the song had an “obvious sexual undertone.”

It’s a Joyous Song

When Various Positions was released, Cohen was questioned about Hallelujah and whether the song was meant to tear down the listener or, on the contrary, serve as a beacon of hope for humanity. To Leonard, the answer was clear.

Leonard Cohen smiles to the camera.
Photo by Fresco/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“It’s a joyous song,” he told the press. The last verse was Cohen’s favorite: “And even though it all went wrong, / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah!” Years later, when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he recited this line in his acceptance speech.