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Author’s book explores many meanings behind Buckley, Cohen song ‘Hallelujah’

How Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ stopped being about sex

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Before it was used in every sad movie montage ever, before it was an anthem for cancer survivors and natural disaster recovery, “Hallelujah” was just a song — a weird, sexy song.

Canadian folk singer Leonard Cohen’s original version had about 80 different verses, according to author Alan Light, with one explicitly referring to sadomasochism. When crooner Jeff Buckley recorded the song’s most famous version in 1994, he interpreted the tune as “a hallelujah to the orgasm.”

In this light, it’s odd that more than 300 acts have covered Cohen’s sexually charged tune since 1984, turning the song into one the world’s best-known sentimental ballads.

“It’s now been clearly established that you can mix and match the lyrics to pick the verses depending on what you mean, if you don’t feel like ‘she tied me to a kitchen chair’ is the right verse for a church service,” said Light, the former editor of both VIBE and Spin whose new book “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’” tracks the history of the tune.

“Even if the specifics of the lyrics don’t match the situation, it’s about overcoming, surviving obstacles or pain or heartbreak — the things that life throws at you.”

And that mood, if not the specifics of the lyrics, are what make the song universal.

Light will be reading from his book on March 10 at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights, with a live performance of “Hallelujah” for good measure by the Guggenheim Grotto, an Irish folk-pop group.

It’s a more special reading than most — the church is the site of a famous performance of “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley at a tribute concert for his father.

Light assumes that this is the version he will hear — but with so many versions around, he isn’t sure.

“I should probably ask,” he said. “Or I should just be pleasantly surprised.”

Alan Light reading “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’ ” at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity [157 Montague St between Henry and Clinton streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 875–6960, www.stannholytrinity.org], March 10, 3 pm, $10 suggested donation.

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Reader Feedback

Danielle from Paris, France says:
"It’s a more special reading than most — the church is the site of a famous performance of “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley at a tribute concert for his father."
Jeff Buckley never sung "Hallelujah" at the tribute concert for his father, he sung Tim's songs. He begun there and his memorial service was there on 1st august 1997. That's the truth.
March 9, 2013, 7:15 am
Kate from Maine says:
Danielle is right, I'm not sure why Alan Light would make such a claim. Any fan of Jeff's knows he performed three songs during the tribute to his father Tim at St Anns. Those songs being "I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain" (Tim's song to ex-wife Mary Guibert & son Jeff) "Sefronia- The Kings Chain" & "Phantasmagoria in Two" he did not perform "Hallelujah."
May 31, 2014, 4:35 pm
Kate from Maine says:
*My apologies, as I'm unable to edit my last post I just wanted to add Jeff that Jeff also performed "Once I Was" for the finale (so technically that would make four songs) Anyone who hasn't heard the St Ann's recordings definitely should take a moment to listen.
May 31, 2014, 4:45 pm

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