Once in another lifetime, one of toil and blood…
Stop the music! It wasn’t that bad. In fact I had the sweet pleasure back then of teaching three high school courses based on lyrics of rock ‘n roll songs. The one that was in place when I started at the school was called "Poetry as Rock" (it was the 70s…things like that were possible). The immense popularity of that course allowed me to create and teach two (ahem) advanced courses…one based on the Beatles and one based on Bob Dylan. This was the great “They pay me for this!” period of my life.
I would hand out the lyrics (which I generally had to transcribe myself after repeated listens of the records, which is why some of my students have gone through life thinking the line in Idiot Wind is “I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of leopards that change stripes” instead of “I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike”). We would play the song and then I would lead the class through a discussion of the song. Invariably there would be a student who, when challenged by me on his or her interpretation, would ask, “How did I know that I was right?” Or, “How did I know what was in the songwriter’s head?”
My answer to the first question was that it was not a matter of being right; it was a matter of logically supporting your interpretation with evidence found in the lyrics. You cannot suggest that Eleanor Rigby, for instance, is a song about marriage just because there’s a verse in it about a wedding.
To the second question, I would answer that art is the meeting of the artist’s imagination and the audience’s imagination. Artists plumb their hearts and minds and experiences to create things for us, and we consume the art because it speaks to our hearts and minds and experiences, though maybe not always in exactly the same way the artist intended. That’s what makes art art and not math—there is no right answer because people can and do bring to their appreciation of the art what they will.
Having said all that…indeed, having lived by that…I am nonetheless in a constant state of bafflement over the oft-times preposterous use of Leonard Cohen’s magnificent composition Hallelujah. The song is now the go-to song in tragedy…9/11, Haiti, Sandy Hook. It happened again just last week when the folks at Fenway Park chose to use it as the soundtrack for a big screen montage of the traumatic week of the Boston Marathon.
Musically speaking, I am a lyric man first and foremost (which is why for most of my life I’ve been able to dismiss the nit-picking over Dylan’s voice—a little like complaining about Meryl Streep’s nose as far as I’m concerned). I realize that most people take their music melody first. This was certainly true of my students. The most satisfying feedback I ever got…and I got it over and over again…was that the classes made them suddenly aware of this poetry that was in their ears all the time. The music was no longer something simply to move to or get lost in but to think about.
Still, the judgment of those 16-year olds from American Bandstand prevails. Whenever Dick Clark would play a new record for them and ask their opinion, approval was always the same: It’s gotta good beat and you can dance to it.
Nothing else quite explains the inexplicable use of Hallelujah as a spirit-lifting anthem in times of trouble. It’s a song that lyrically is about seduction, sex, betrayal, anger, and vengeance, with a chorus dripping in irony. Yet masses of people insist on hearing it as a song about healing and grace. I had to wonder in watching last week what would happen if they scrolled the lyrics on the big screen at Fenway so the crowd could sing along. Would anyone notice and wonder why they were all singing a break-up song:
Well I heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do ya?
Well it goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Ironically it starts with an appropriate bit of condescension: there’s secret in the music, but you don’t get it, do you?
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
And now there’s a verse that earns the song its place high on the Nobby Works playlist, as our Norman O. Brown would have it in Love’s Body: the triumph of body/sensuality over soul/spirit.
Well baby I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew ya
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
Okay, I was alone before you came along, and now I’m alone again. You beat me…now do your touchdown dance and get the hell out of here (but a flag is mentioned, so there's that).
Well there was a time when you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show that to me do you?
And remember when I moved in you?
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
In the 60s there was a great faux scandal over the Kingsmen’s version of Louie, Louie. If I can recall my high school days through the haze, one of the offending, though non-existent, lines was, “I’ll never lay you again.” If Leonard Cohen had recorded Hallelujah back then, the scandal would've been real. This verse alone would’ve alerted the lyric cops, and they’d have been burning copies of the record from Birmingham to Boston.
Well maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who'd outdrew ya
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
There's a line in a Dylan song that's similar, though not so subtle: "Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you." Dylan, always with an ear for the treasures of others, was the first major artist other than Cohen himself to sing Hallelujah. Before John Cale’s world-weary version and Jeff Buckley’s ethereal version, Dylan performed a driving, pounding version in concerts, and this verse made it a comfortable fit with his own finger-pointing songs. He sings the chorus, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah…,” with much the same disdain he brings to “How does it feel?” I think Bob got the hurt and anger right (he has an ear for that, too). And at the risk of coming off elitist, I'd say that if Dylan--or the similarly vocally challenged Cohen--were the only ones ever to sing the song, it's unlikely that anyone but the their fans would ever know of its existence.
Cohen is often opaque on what his original intention was with Hallelujah. Whatever it was, I can’t believe he ever thought for a moment he was composing a song that would become a stand-in for The Star-Spangled Banner, God Bless America, and We Are The World all rolled into one whenever the nation needed a song to get it through a dark time. It would be as if Eleanor Rigby suddenly became the stand-in for Here Comes the Bride and We’ve Only Just Begun. Cohen is no doubt happy with the money and fame the song has brought him…and well he should be (though the maudlinization of it must concern him). It is--despite the misuse and overuse--one of the most sublime masterpieces in music recording history. Its wild, bewildering appropriation by Canadian Tenors, American Idols, TV producers, church choirs, first responders, Shrek (!), etc. etc., etc…all underscores the truth of a lyric by another pretty good songwriter: "Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest…lie, la, lie."