Back when we were young and frisky and ever so much wiser than our elders, we all got a huge kick out of one episode of the hopelessly square Lawrence Welk Show. There was good old Myron Floren on his accordion, and there was a scrubbed-and-polished young couple, she in pinafore and petticoats, and if her name wasn’t Becky it should have been—and they were poppin’ and boppin’ to One Toke Over The Line, Sweet Jesus for all America to hear. It was wunnerful, wunnerful, Mr. Welk said, a “modern spiritual!” Young America never stopped hooting over that one. Doggone! It’s got Sweet Jesus innit, don’t it? Good enough, right?

I was thinking about it the other day when I was listening to yet another version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a fine song that has had the hell sung out of it for forty years. Many of the covers are superfluous at this point but some of them are sung by choirs and individuals of an overtly Christian bent, I guess because of all the Hallelujahs in it. A stunning version by the Soweto Gospel Choir has generated a long thread of comments in the Praise Be and Glory To God and Hosanna categories. Clearly it’s a religious song! Well, not exactly.

Just about all Leonard Cohen’s songs manage to pretzel up sexual longing, ecstasy, and Jesus to such a degree that one feels sort of dirty on multiple levels. If you’re not paying attention you might believe they’re in the Christian Music canon. It’s not hard to visualize Lawrence Welk’s haloed crew in one of their frictionless renditions, their smiles beatific, their bodies swaying in throes of chastity, singing Remember when I moved in you, the holy dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah. Who needs heaven, anyway? Hallelujah!

Well, it’s that kind of song, and sounds like it. It can work in mysterious ways. And frankly, by the time the Soweto Gospel Choir is done with the thing, there’s no appreciable difference between orgasm and that other rapture. So maybe it doesn’t matter.

It does remind me of the time we young-uns made the same mistake. It was 1968, and in the name of Relevance, which was a thing then, the pastor at Resurrection Lutheran thought the Young People should sing something contemporary in the front of the church. That’s what was happening then: people in custody of the finest choral works ever composed and one big kick-ass pipe organ decided that what the modern church really needed was some young pipple up there with guitars doing some sangin’. He left it up to us, and we were all over it. We put our heads together to decide what current relevant song we should sing and in our finite wisdom we came up with “Suzanne.” Leonard Cohen again: uh-oh.

That was on the basis of the second verse, which is of course about Jesus, because that’s what Leonard Cohen writes about. Jesus, and sex. We padded up the nave with our guitars and sat on the steps leading up to the chancel in our Sunday bell-bottoms and hair beads, faced the congregation, and picked nervously through the opening E chord. Even though most of us were in the choir, we were a little nervous because we felt more exposed, but we crept timidly into the first verse just fine, which ends with the river answering we’d always been her lover, a word that had never once been uttered in that space. And then she touched our perfect body with her mind. And then we hauled Jesus into it, in a verse that must have been deep because we had no idea what Leonard Cohen meant by it, and damned if Jesus didn’t touch our perfect bodies with his mind, and we sort of petered out after that.

And this being church, there wasn’t going to be any applause, which might have helped at least put a punctuation point on the thing and let us go on with our lives, but instead we sort of drifted sheepishly down the side aisles, past the uncertain smiles of our elders. The pastor told us afterwards that it was very nice and then he gave the organist a raise. Nobody in the congregation had much to say about it, as I recall, but maybe they were thinking about Communion, when they got to touch His perfect body with their tongues.