The Original Hot Priest


What more is there to say then, finally, about "Hallelujah?"

Leonard Cohen’s mystico / erotico / feel-good anthem -- a Song for All Seasons -- suitable for busting out for a myriad of celebratory occasions, as well as moments of weighty gravitas -- weddings, funerals, divorces, hockey matches, brises, graduations, investitures of heads of government, inking of non-alignment pacts….you know.

An Ur-Anthem carved out of the living rock (William Faulkner, Land of the Pharoahs) -- a tune from a 'toon (Shrek) so ubiquitous and indelible in the culture, it’s like it’s always been there (a chilling thought, actually). Supplanting "Land of Hope and Glory," "Happy Birthday to You," "How Much is that Doggie in the Window," and even "Louie Louie" as the number one earworm burrowed deep in the Universal Mind.

Simply put, you could do worse than investigating this new doc Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (a Mouthful!). Directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, and based on a book devoted to the song in all its glory glory by Alan Light.  Just make sure you bring an empty bladder -- as it's kind of a long slog. (They could have snipped at least 20 minutes and no one would have been the wiser. A good case for the superiority of home flat-screen viewing versus the actual cinema experience, come to think of it).

And if you are a Leonard Cohen fan -- and who isn't, I ask you? Pistols at dawn if not! -- you won’t want to miss the action unfold in real time here.

Leonard comes across as a super nice Jewish boy throughout, thoughtful and extremely hard working -- a slave to his craft, a prisoner of his Muse. He actually bandies the word Grace around (a lot) in reverential reference to the mysterious process of songwriting. And no one, but no one, has an unkind word to say about him throughout  -- other than wolfish Walter Yetnikoff, former CEO of CBS Records. Who, when Cohen submitted his Various Positions album -- an album containing Leonard’s first, "Old Testament" version of "Hallelujah" -- a work in progress over the years boasting at least 100 plus verses (if not the 9 Billion Names of Yaweh), cruelly rejected it for US release with the gnomic, almost Talmudic, Posing of the Question; namely:

"I know you're great, Leonard…but are you any good?" 

Cohen's absolute goodness is of course a matter long since adjudicated in the minds of the 32 alter kakers (myself included) who flocked to the 12:30 pm screening of this new documentary yesterday at the Film Forum here in the West Village.

Now I need to come clean here: I have a (somewhat) vested interest in this song "Hallelujah-- as the best known version of this song to this day is the haunting rendition by my late friend and collaborator Jeff Buckley, which graces Jeff's only studio album Grace. An album that opens with two of our songwriting collaborations, "Mojo Pin" and the title track.

Scratch a young person today (yikes!), and odds are they might not register a flicker of recognition vis a vis Jeff Buckley per se (forget about little ol' me)  -- but they very might well know "Hallelujah." In fact, they might go so far as to assert that Jeff Buckley wrote "Hallelujah."

Fact is, the song qua song really took off in the history of human consciousness sometime in the late '90s when various Pop Idol contestants here and in the UK chose to sing it on television, a couple of them mentioning Jeff Buckley's version en passant -- and I'll be damned that I didn't see a commensurate bump-up of my songwriting royalties re "Grace" and "Mojo Pin," for a couple of pay-periods, anyway -- as myriad Pop Idol fans went online to check out Jeff's version on iTunes, and wound up hitting the Buy Album button.


Which propelled Jeff's "Hallelujah" to the #1 streaming song (neck and neck with Yael Naim's New Soul) -- for a while, anyway -- a rising tide that floated all boats as it were (my own little kayak included).

So yes I said yes I will Yes…we need more Hallelujah in the world. Bring it on, Hooray for Slugwell -- the cornier, the most commercial version the better! It's all good.

Couple observations here:

Ace producer / songwriter John Simon (The Band's Music from Big Pink, Manfred Mann's My Name is Jack, Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills, and best of all, Leonard Cohen's first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen) does not warrant either a name-check or a look-see in this documentary. John Hammond, Sr. on the other hand is awarded all the credit here for signing Cohen and producing his early work -- which is kind of unfair as, truth be told, it is the Simon-produced and arranged Leonard Cohen songs strategically sprinkled throughout the soundtrack of Robert Altman's 1971 masterpiece McCabe and Mrs. Miller that absolutely sealed the deal on Leonard Cohen -- not just for me, but also for many music fans who might have missed the Cohen boat first time round. (FYI, John Simon, along with Tom Wilson, are two stellar producers from that 60's Golden Age of Music who absolutely deserve documentaries of their own. Last I heard, singer / songwriter Marshall Crenshaw was hard at work on a Tom Wilson doc.)

Also conspicuously absent is footage from Murray Lerner's Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 film, arguably among the greatest of Leonard Cohen's live performances captured on celluloid (there's a lot of live footage out there, much of which I've been blessed to view courtesy of my old friend Mitch Blank, The World's Only Sane Dylanologist).

Fun Fact: did you know that Leonard Cohen was one of the Canadian heroes who helped Scottish junkie / literati Alexander Trocchi lam it out over the border to avoid an imminent bust in NYC?

A personal note:

For years I resisted having to learn Jeff Buckley's arrangement of "Hallelujah" on general principles; i.e., I didn't write the song, and I am not a jukebox. In fact, as a Leonard Cohen fan (but hardly an obsessive one), I only first heard this particular number when I was sent a copy of Jeff's Grace album. Eventually, with a big tour of Australia looming for Gods and Monsters a few years ago as the house band of State of Grace: A Tribute to Tim and Jeff Buckley, I finally buckled down and learned the sucker. And it felt good to play under my fingers -- what a beautiful song!

The minor fall and the major lift.

All Summer in a Day.

Bittersweet -- just like life.

"Quest for the philosopher's stone. The alchemists. Drugs age you after mental excitement. Lethargy then. Why? Reaction. A lifetime in a night. Gradually changes your character." - James Joyce, Ulysses, "The Lotus Eaters"

Leonard Cohen, after his initial breakthrough success, numerous affairs, and numerous depressions; after his gradual descent into marginal obscurity; after spending 6 years in the self-imposed exile of a Zen monastery; after learning that his longtime trusted manager had bankrupted him by embezzling more than $5 million from his bank account and selling off much of his publishing -- after all that -- which would have broken a lesser mortal -- Leonard Cohen came back strong on the world stage for a remarkable Third Act, giving his All before rapturous audiences; literally skipping off the stage at the end of his shows like a delighted child.

"And isn't that whatcha want, really? All -- or None??" - Little Richard on Jimi Hendrix

"Death be damned -- Life!" - Don Van Vliet, The Host the Ghost the Most Holy-O

Add new comment