Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – A Meditation On Healing Religious Wounds And The Breadth Of Religious Symbolism

I spent about 18 hours driving this weekend, and it had the opportunity to listen to a lot of music as well as a couple of books on tape. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has long been one of my favorites, and I listened to it probably a dozen times during the course of my drive. The following stream of consciousness is the result.

Leonard Cohen has achieved near iconic status in the poet/singer/songwriter community, while barely being able to sing. For an introduction, see his biography at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_…) and a recent, well-worth watching documentary – “I’m Your Man” (see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478197/) that features U2 and numerous other luminaries and their accolades to Cohen, as well as performances of famous Cohen pieces by many of the same people. His website has a lot of useful information as well –http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/. This essay (http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/ – see “UNDER THE SPELL OF STRANGER MUSIC – LEONARD COHEN’S LYRICAL JUDAISM” under the “Analysis” button) lays the foundation for understanding the religious influence in his work.

Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is particularly meaningful to me. In it, he uses various symbols from his Jewish background in a way that produces a particularly powerful experience for those of us who have had intense experiences with the same symbols. As an aside, I remember being in Peru as a missionary, and being taunted by children in the street with a feigned ecstatic chorus of “hallelujahs”. And, ironically, I remember thinking at the time that we were not anywhere near as ridiculous as the Pentecostals and other charismatic evangelicals who used that term as part of their worship. Little did I know how much more ridiculous we were in so many ways that were they. But I digress.

My walk with Cohen this weekend made me think about the transformative process many people who come from literalist religions backgrounds undergo, and how during the later stages of that process we reintegrate and reinterpret our inherited symbols. James Fowler describes this in his book “Stages of Faith”. Elizabeth Kubler Ross alludes to the same thing in her stages of grief paradigm (google that), and much of ancient mythology plays with the same theme in countless adventurer into chaos, transformation there, and eventual return and reintegration into society. I deal with some of these concepts at http://exmormonfoundation.org/2006Con….

It is a measure of my recovery that I still feel an intense allergy to Mormonism’s foundation symbols – the silhouette of J. Smith; of the handcart pioneers; of the Salt Lake Temple; of the beehive; and most of all, of the Angel Moroni with trumpet. Hence, I am fascinated by Cohen’s treatment of his ancestral symbols, both because of what it will mean for me when I can do the same with mine, and because Cohen’s work is simply brilliant.

I have decided that part of the next phase of my recovery will include a concerted effort to integrate some of Mormonism’s foundational symbols into others that have become more meaningful me of late, such as Dali’s Geopoliticus Child (see http://dali.urvas.lt/forviewing/pic12…), Escher’s various metamorphosis pieces (see for example, http://imagecache2.allposters.com/ima…), the oroboros (see http://www.asetusa.com/sc/oroborus.jp…), the ying-yang symbol (see http://www.csusm.edu/rms/images/yingy…), evolutionary landscapes (seehttp://www.dillgroup.ucsf.edu/dl_imag…), the windswept tree (see http://www.cyprusbyclick.com/CITY_GUI…), Etc. . This is part of a therapeutic method some psychologists refer to as de-sensitization. For example, an arachnophobe might be exposed to images of spiders in a sufficiently safe environment to allow her to wrestle with her fear on a regular basis. Gradually, in some cases at least, she will be able to deal with more intense images and with sufficient familiarity her fear can be overcome. I’m not sure to what extent this will help me to slay some of my Mormon demons, but I have been convinced that it is worth a try. Leonard Cohen is one of my guiding lights in that regard.

Cohen’s voice is so bad that I don’t particularly like his rendition of the piece. My favorite cover is by k.d. lang. My favorite is her Juno aware performance. Her emotion, and the crowd reaction, put this over the top. k.d., btw, is a lesbian c&w artist who hails from a small town not far from Calgary. When she came out of the closet close to 20 years ago, that was even less trendy around here than it is now. Quite a human being; a fitting transmitter of Cohen’s art. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCJzn0… . A more restrained version can be found athttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AW_H-V….

My second favorite cover is by Rufus Wainwright, which you can find in both audio and video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMrZ7l…. It is also included in the documentary noted above. Imogen Heap does a wonderful rendition of part of the song, which you can find at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PE1OFH… .

I have cut and pasted the lyrics in full below, in both their versions. The owner of a piece can change it as he wishes. The more sensual nature of the later rendition is even more provocative than was the original.

There is far too much in this piece for anyone to comprehensively analyze it. So I will simply let the words stand for themselves. Depending on how others responde to this, I may add something later to indicate what partiuclarly resonated with me.


best, bob

Leonard Cohen Hallelujah (CD – Various Positions – 1984)

Now 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, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

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

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

(CD – Leonard Cohen in Concert – June 1994 )

Baby, I’ve been here before.
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew you.

Yeah I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,
But listen, love is not some kind of victory march,
No it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, (Hallelujah…)

There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below,
Ah but now you never show it to me, do you?

Yeah but I remember, yeah when I moved in you,
And the holy dove, she was moving too,
Yes every single breath that we drew was Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

Maybe there’s a God above,
As for me, all I’ve ever seemed to learn from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.

Yeah but it’s not a complaint that you hear tonight,
It’s not the laughter of someone who claims to have seen the light
No it’s a cold and it’s a very lonely Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

I did my best, it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come all this way to fool you.

Yeah even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

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