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.
I did at one time like “Hallelujah.” But it was completely ruined for me when Kate McKinnon sang it as Hillary Clinton the night that Trump was elected, especially the final verse:
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Well, that is kind of funny.
Okay, I’ve seen it now, so I retract my statement. And evidently Leonard Cohen died the night before the election, too.
Barbara Scott, I wept when Kate M. sang that as the defeated Hillary. I thought it was poignant and magnificent and heartbreaking. Best cold opening to SNL ever.
Kate McKinnon is magnificent. I only see the occasional SNL skit when it’s shared because apparently I don’t stay up that late, except that I do…what am I doing then? Another personal favorite of mine was Matt Damon as Brett Kavanaugh.
I don’t stay up late either, but I never miss SNL. We subscribe to Peacock streaming, so we can watch SNL and Seth Meyers at a decent hour. CBS All Access to get Stephen Colbert, and for Bill Maher, we just go to YouTube and can watch for free. We also have Netflix streaming. We cut the cord on our TV long ago: cable and satellite were getting pricier all the time, and we really don’t watch much TV.
Jeff Buckley sang the definitive cover of “Hallelujah,” end of discussion. I remember that Lawrence Welk number: stoopid disguised as innocent. Cohen loved a dessicated ambiguity, and his young fans thought that pretending to dig it made them sophisticated and juicy. I got the willies imagining the facial struggles in your church sanctuary as you exited, stage left…everyone feeling stoopid as they tried to look innocent. Some of Tommy Smothers’ expressions come to mind. In the 70s we would have said that all of these confused folks -Cohen, Welk, Tommy Smothers, their fans young or old, your audience, etc. – were “ambivalating.” So it goes.
Oh! I’m going to look that one up. Jeff Buckley sounded like no one else. I still remember the album cover.
Shoot, I’m thinking of Tim Buckley. I get my dead 28-year-olds mixed up. That was good.
Nance: I won’t dispute your comment about the Jeff Buckley version. But I also love K.D. Lang’s and Rufus Wainwright’s. I think it must be an easy song to sing for people who, unlike me, are musically talented. There are a lot of good versions.
There’s a terrific film I watched recently about Leonard Cohen on either Netflix or Amazon Video.
Love K.D. Lang’s version and I also love Rufus Wainwright but haven’t heard him sing it. I guess I know what I’ll be doing this afternoon.
You’re on a roll. A holy roll.
Certainly the kind of roller I aim to be!
Luther took the tunes from many drinking songs and set hymns to them because, “Why should the devil have all the good songs?”
Cool! The only one I can think of offhand is A Mighty Fortress Is My God. Is that a drinking song?
The evokes a delightful image.
I was back in the US in ’66, a medivac to Bethesda USNaval Hospital, and had a months convalescence leave before going back to Viet Nam. My then fiance Cary and I spent a week in NYC, she had a friend who let us use her apt on the upper west side while she was away.
We went one evening to the Bitter End, We had gone there in 65 just after we met. At a table near us a group was laughing and talking, and Leonard Cohen was among them. We found out who it was when he got up and went up on the small stage.
He sang a poem he said he’d just written, Suzanne. It got a standing ovation, I was told that was rare for the Bitter End.
Three weeks later, I was back in Quang Nam province. But the song stayed with me.
I agree about the Jeff Buckley version. All others pale.
I’m still trying to figure out the words to Louie, Louie.
It was an article of faith among some junior high school boys that the unintelligible lyrics were dirty. (I was skeptical.) Recently I heard that the lead singer of the Kingsmen had had dental work done just before the recording session, and the local anesthetic hadn’t worn off yet, so he was nearly drooling, and that’s what accounted for the famous mumble. I don’t know if that’s really true, but there are recordings (like Richard Berry and the Pharaohs, 1957) in which the words are clear.
Okay,folks. How early do you go to bed??? SNL comes on at 8:30 Pacific time, not 11:30. If you can stay up until 9:30, you not only get the cold open and monologue, but Weekend Update too. And all of this is available Sunday morning on YouTube.
Weekend Update is my favorite part! Colin Jost and Michael Che have such a rapport! They seem to actually like each other and crack each other up all the time. And I adore Sarah Sherman and Bowen Yang! I think that this is the best cast EVER… and that includes the first few years.
I really recommend the documentary about Hallelujah (called, appropriately enough, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song). The song was almost not released, because some record exec didn’t like it. Just think. And I add my vote for Rufus Wainwright’s cover — Jeff Buckley’s is great, but I think Rufus’s is better.
Cohen’s version — live — was the best by far. End of discussion (hahaha). All others pale. (More hahaha.) There is no room for argument, or even for disagreement. (Even more hahaha.) Attending his late-career concert was a spiritual experience, and that’s coming from someone who does not have spiritual experiences. I cried start to finish. He should have had the Nobel prize, but it was given to Dylan for the extent of his influence, not for the quality of his work. Sure Dylan is great, but somebody once told me that if you compare the play of a chess Grand Master with the play of an International Grand Master, the International Grand Master is playing an entirely different game. That describes Cohen over Dylan: an entirely different game.
Funny, church choirs rarely include the verse where Leonard laments that his lover doesn’t tell him what’s ‘going on down below’ anymore. Maybe preachers are afraid a graphic description of youth night in the church basement might ensue. You hear Hallelujah at a good many funerals but the ones that really crack me up are families that choose to play Sarah McLachlan’s ‘In The Arms of An Angel’ at Granny’s funeral. That particular ‘angel’ not being Gabriel but heroin. Either Ole’ Granny was a crack ho or her kids and grandkids have never *listened* to the lyrics of the song??? Sarah was married to the son of a lovely but haunted man we knew many years ago. He died quite an unfortunate death and I’ve always wondered if this song was written for him. I hope they’ve all found peace.
Thank you, Murr! I’ve never actually listened/paid attention to the words in Hallelujah carefully before. Oh, my! I love the Cohen live version the best.
I searched “Hallelujah lyrics” on my phone (Safari using Google search engine) and got the Cohen version, but with this as the only music credit:
“Songwriters: Leo Robin / Pete King / Vincent Youmans / Clifford Grey
Hallelujah lyrics © Leo Robin Music Co.” There’s an old blues song by Robin with different lyrics. Can you straighten that out Murr?
Those credits are bizarre. For all the details (the correct ones!) see the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hallelujah_(Leonard_Cohen_song)
The Leo Robins et al attribution is incorrect. There is apparently another “Hallelujah” written in 1927 by Leo Robin. (There are, after all, so MANY songs named “Hallelujah” or “Alleluia”, so it’s little wonder that they all get confused. When I googled Cohen hallelujah, Google is also misattributing the Cohen song to L. Robin. It’s in a number of places I’ve seen.
I don’t know how anybody will ever get it straightened out!
Pentatonix’s a cappella version of Hallelujah is right up there although Cohen was the master.
I love how naive and earnest (and so often clueless) we all were in the 60’s.
I still am, though less earnest, I think.
So I went away for a while and just came back and discovered a number of ends of discussions, which pleases me no end. Looks like everyone straightened everyone else out, and thanks for playing!
Murr, see the conversation in response to Collins, about the Cohen “Hallelujah” being misattributed on the web. It’s almost an understandable error, being that so many songs are titled “Hallelujah” or “Alleluia”, but it’s ALL OVER THE WEB, from what I’ve seen today. And none of the sites I’ve visited have any contact means offered, by which to notify the site of the error.
Do you have any idea how to correct something like this?