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Leonard Cohen’s career had reached a low point when he wrote “Hallelujah.” It was 1984, and he had been out of the spotlight for quite a long time. His 1977 LP, Death of a Ladies’ Man, a collaboration with Phil Spector, was a commercial and critical disappointment, and his next album Recent Songs fared no better. When Cohen submitted the songs for his subsequent LP, Various Positions, to Columbia, label execs didn’t hear “Hallelujah,” the opening song of Side Two, as anything special. They didn’t even want to release the album, though it eventually came out in Europe in 1984 and America the following year.
It took a few years for “Hallelujah” to emerge as a classic. Bob Dylan was one of the first to recognize its brilliance, playing it at a couple of shows in
1988. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale tackled it on the piano for a 1991 Cohen tribute disc, and three years later, Jeff Buckley took inspiration from that rendition and covered it on his 1994 album, Grace. It was that version that eventually created a huge cult around the song, and it’s since been covered by everybody from Bono to Bon Jovi. It’s far and away Leonard Cohen’s most famous composition, even though many people don’t even realize that he wrote it.
Alan Light dove deep into the history of the song for his new book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’ by Alan Light. Here is an excerpt.