Alan Light Will Talk About 'Hallelujah' in Nashville, but Leonard Cohen Won't Be Singing It



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Alan Light did an impressive thing: write an entire book about one song. He chose Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which you've surely heard a billion times by now, a fact that is especially weird considering that Cohen's label, Columbia Records, passed on it (as the story goes). Light's book is called The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” and he'll be at Vanderbilt University to talk about it at 10 a.m. on Jan. 15, in the Divinity School art room (G-20).

Leonard Cohen, for his part, will not be returning to Nashville as part of the Old Ideas World Tour. Of the North American dates announced today, Atlanta (March 22), Memphis (March 24) and Louisville (March 30) represent your shortest drives. (Has it really been more than three years already? His performance at TPAC in 2009 was one of the best shows I've ever seen or am likely ever to see.)

Light was interviewed on NPR's Weekend Edition recently, a segment that includes this passage:

"Not only was this under the radar, it was completely absent from the radar," Light says. "It was as if this song had never happened."

In 1994, a cover by the late Jeff Buckley helped save "Hallelujah" from musical obscurity. Buckley's version turned one man's lament into another artist's ode to love. Light says the ambiguity of the song's lyrics makes it easy for musicians to make the tune their own.

The song really hit the mainstream when a version by John Cale was in a scene from the hit animated film Shrek. Even since, Light says "Hallelujah" is a go-to emotional trigger in TV shows and movies.

Now, I haven't read the book, but this offers a somewhat tilted view of things. Cale's version precedes Buckley's by three years — it was released on the 1991 tribute I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen — and so the argument could be made that Cale, not Buckley, "helped save" the song from "musical obscurity." Cale was in a little band called the Velvet Underground, after all, and I'm Your Fan came out on a major label at a time when R.E.M. ("First We Take Manhattan") was one of the biggest bands in the world. It depends on one's definition of "the radar," I suppose.

I have said before that Cohen's version is still the best, and I haven't heard anything to change my mind.

I'm sure there are better lip-syncers out there, though.

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