The Holy or the Broken

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Arguably, legendary Montreal writer and musician Leonard Cohen's most popular song is the plaintive ballad Hallelujah. It's been covered by hundreds of artists, including Rufus Wainwright, k.d. lang, but perhaps most notably by the late Jeff Buckley. It's been heard in dozens of film and television soundtracks and seems, for better or worse, to have become a staple selection among singing contestants on reality shows.

holy-or-the-broken-cover.jpgBut a new book is shedding light on the strange journey the song has taken throughout the decades. In The Holy or the Broken, music journalist and former Rolling Stone magazine editor Alan Light reveals that the first recording of one of the world's greatest anthems was actually rejected by Cohen's record label, Columbia, in 1984.

Instead, the song, and the album it appeared on, Cohen's seventh studio album Various Positions, was released to little fanfare by independent label Passport Records.

According to Light's book, Cohen laboured over writing Hallelujah, filling a notebook with some 80 verses before recording. The song has biblical references, but Cohen's stated goal was to give a nonreligious context to hallelujah, an expression of praise. Some of those hallelujah moments are clearly sexual, given a lyric like "she tied you to a kitchen chair...and from your lips she drew the hallelujah." The author's droll humour is present throughout in lines like "you don't really care for music, do you?"

It wasn't until other musicians with a great respect for Cohen began performing and recording their own interpretations of the song that it grew in popularity. Velvet Underground founding member John Cale recorded it for the Cohen tribute album I'm Your Man, in which Cohen himself sent Cale newly written verses of the song. Then, in 1994, Jeff Buckley recorded his breathtaking guitar-based version, adding new elements to the song, for his critically acclaimed album Grace. The rest is history, as the song's familiar melodies and soaring chorus became as well known as John Lennon's Imagine or Unchained Melody.

"At a time when everything has fragmented so dramatically, it's sort of heartening to see that this song can connect as universally as it did," Light told the Associated Press.

Of course, not all of the interpretations have been well received. Cohen himself, in 2009 during an interview with CBC's Jian Ghomeshi, said he believes the song itself is good but that "too many people sing it."

Even one of the biggest rock stars the world has ever seen feels complicit. U2 frontman Bono recorded a cover version of the song for the 1995 Cohen tribute album Tower of Song. In his interpretation, the Irish rocker does a spoken word recitation of the lyrics and falsetto sings the chorus over some muted trip hop beats.

Light actually managed to get Bono to speak about the little-known recording. He had just finished a draft of the book, which had received Cohen's blessing, where he descibes the version as not particularly good when Bono finally responded to his request for an interview.

"What if he says how proud of it he is and I have to rework the whole thing?" Light said. That quickly proved not to be a problem: "The first thing he said on the phone was, 'I forgot what I said when I agreed to do this interview and then I remembered. It was to apologize to everybody.'"

- With files from the Associated Press

What's your favourite all-time version of Hallelujah? Is there another song that you believe has enough mythology behind it to warrant an entire book about it?  Let us know in the comments below.

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