There is a load of stuff going on at the moment about the choice of Leonard Cohen’s great song ‘Hallelujah’ for the winner of television’s ‘X Factor’. I thought we had reached the nadir of song abuse when it was used in the film ‘Shrek’ as a sort of sentimental reflection on the love of the ogre and his (now) green princess. In that case it was performed by Rufus Wainwright – which is fine in so far as it was a good interpretation of the song. But, I mean, really… in ‘Shrek’?
This song has been covered by hundreds of people and is now being murdered by buskers all over Europe. I heard a teenage girl in Lindau (Bavaria) killing it softly last summer. I gave her a couple of euros in the hope that she would go and get herself a drink, but also in order to encourage her – I used to busk around Germany and Paris when I was a teenager and I probably had the same effect on other people when I throttled their favourite songs. I understand it has been covered by around 120 people.
The song was written 25 years ago and it took Cohen five years to complete. During this time he wrote over 80 verses to it. Why? Because Leonard Cohen is one of the greatest poet-songwriters of our generation: he kept wanting to get it right. I recently contributed to a documentary on BBC Radio 2 (broadcast on 1 November 2008) in which Elbow’s Guy Garvey interviewed a load of singers about the song. I think (but I might be wrong) that he expected a bishop to deplore Cohen’s hijacking of religious language for ‘other’ ends, but I didn’t. I maintained that Cohen, in fact, had properly understood the Bible in a way that some Christians do not: that is to say, he understood that real human life – even that of the ‘heroes’ of the Bible like David and Samson – is deeply ambiguous. Whereas some Christians think that we must praise God at all times and tell him what we think he wants to hear from us, the biblical story actually portrays people as needing to bring the whole of their messy life to God. Cohen sings of the ‘broken and the holy hallelujah’.
Leonard Cohen is wonderful. He explores language and story in such a transparent way that he exposes the truth of the human condition in words that make you want to shout, ‘That’s what I feel/think/experience!’ And that is the power of the poet. Bruce Cockburn proposes in his song ‘Maybe the Poet’ that it is only the poets who can express the relaity of our lives and only the poets who can tease our imaginations in ways that keep the hope of heaven alive in desperate times. I haven’t got time to indulge in this, but read Walter Brueggemann and you’ll get my drift. Or listen to Cohen. Or Cockburn.