Saturday, April 21, 2007

Leonard Cohen Reference in "On Beauty"

I recently read the book On Beauty by Zadie Smith that got my attention with this reference:

“A clearing opened in her mind, and in it she tried to restage one of her earliest memories of Howard – the night they first met and first slept together…. A hundred and two degrees in the New York smog. ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen playing on her dime-store record player, that song Howard liked to call ‘a hymn deconstructing a hymn.’ Long ago Kiki had submitted to the musical part of the memory. But it was surely not true. ‘Hallelujah’ had been another time, years later. But it was hard to resist the poetry of the possibility, and so she had allowed ‘Hallelujah’ to fall into family myth… When on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Jerome had played his parents an ethereal, far more beautiful version of ‘Hallelujah’ by a kid called Buckley, Kiki had thought, yes, that’s right, our memories are getting more beautiful and less real every day.”

An ethereal, far more beautiful version? I agree that the lyrics Buckley uses are superior to the version Cohen recorded on Various Positions, but that’s because Buckley is actually covering John Cale’s own version of the song that was itself based on verses written by Cohen. Cale says, “After I saw [Cohen] perform at the Beacon I asked if I could have the lyrics to "Hallelujah". When I got home one night there were fax paper rolls everywhere because Leonard had insisted on supplying all 15 verses.” Cale did a fantastic job of putting them together and recorded the far and away best version of the song, period. But the way Buckley sings this song – well, to me, the better description is “a smarmy, far more narcissistic version.” Buckley seemed to miss the fundamental idea that the whole ‘hallelujah’ concept is ruined when you sound like you are singing to be recorded so that you can masturbate to the sound of your own voice later.

Lyrics by Leonard Cohen (John Cale version):

I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah


Your faith was strong, but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah


Baby I've been here before,
I know this room I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you
I've seen your flag on the Marble Arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah


There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
I remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah


Maybe there's a God above,
All I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who out drew you
And it's not a cry you can hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah


Cohen singing the Various Positions version on German TV. Even though I personally love Cohen’s voice, I recognize that his voice is not lovely; on this song, though, he sounds just wonderful.

Cale singing the definitive version of this song, accompanied by a kind of bizarre Sims 2 video somebody put together that you should just ignore. His voice is clear and strong and perfect for letting the Words ring true. And notice how he and Cohen both sound like adults?

Buckley singing (eventually; it takes about a minute for him to start) the version that has become hugely popular after his premature death by drowning. So I guess he’s now some kind of saint or angel that is supposed to make this more poignant but this song doesn’t work for me. I actually don’t dislike Jeff Buckley in general; I find that his lyrical singing style is fine for the often overwrought songs he wrote for himself. (He's one of those pale, shrunken-chested types, no doubt wildly romantic to young girls, and he always seems to be wearing a white t-shirt. Check it out.)


Tam said...

I like all of the versions, including Buckley's. But I have a higher tolerance for smarminess than you, I suspect.

jen said...

I prefer the Cale version, which, incidentally, I saw used in a dance concert recently. Buckley's version just isn't as powerful, and Cohen is Cohen. (I saw another dance piece to a Leonard Cohen song, and backstage several other dancers were going on about how much they hated the music... I like him, but his sound is apparently irritating to some people)

cartaufalous said...

To fully appreciate Jeff Buckley's version, listen to Rufus Wainwright's. Twice, if you can.

Sally said...

Tam, I think I tolerate the smarmy or "ethereal" quality better in women. Sexist, I know. ;)

Jen, "his sound is apparently irritating to some people" is definitely true. It made my freshman roommate seem to simultaneously go into a coma and explode with violence.

C, Rufus W's version sounds a lot like the Buckley version to me, only mellowed out from severe drunkenness. In some ways, I prefer it because R.W. obviously doesn't give half a shit about the song and is just screwing around. This seems less icky somehow.