Hallelujah: What's That Song About?

The Beauty of Transformative Pain

Leonard once made a special point in an interview to note that the central image of Western civilization is a man nailed to a cross, and only something as intense as crucifixion acts as an appropriate starting point to discuss Cohen's most famous song. No, not crucifixion in some over-arching, vicarious-atonement religious paradigm, personal Crucifixion - the sentiment one might feel while being gassed to death at Auschwitz... 

Yes, the historical landscape often gets reflected in Cohen's poetics, translating into the interior landscape of the soul, and nowhere is that truer than in his signature anthem. While many poets and songwriters speak of broken hearts and tears, few trod the ground that Leonard does, exposing the kinds of internal vulnerabilities that earn one a clinical diagnosis. In the case of Hallelujah, we also hear of the other side of this pain:: the side that leads to the discovery of one's own divinity.


Cohen admirers are beginning to speak up about Cohen's work being so much more than his virally-downloaded hit, but let's not forget that the song itself may be asking something of the listener - something that does not come easy to everyone, especially those of us born into the denial-in-the-name-of-positivity culture of American mass-marketing. Granted, the song rings out like a glorious hymn of ecstasy; but let's look at exactly what is being celebrated.


I 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.
— LC

Usually, the only ones who use religion as a weapon are holier-than-thou conservatives, but here, Leonard flips the script, as if directing the power of his spiritual lineage (his last name is Cohen, the priestly class) towards the hubris-filled zealots themselves. So he has the right to his own version of spiritual trash-talk. You may honor the psalms of King David, but I am King David, so listen up. This is how Dave played music to please God, and it's exactly how I play it, and we enter this sacred ground in "baffled" confusion. But you say you don't find God in this rock-and-roll, do ya? Perhaps, it's a lover as well as an enemy (is there any difference?) being addressed, and as he tries to penetrate the blind spots in her awareness, he invokes the ancient Psalmist tradition of holy uncertainty to drive home his contemporary serenade.

Either way, the ethos was captured quite accurately in recent national coverage, when Kate McKinnon, dressed as Hilary Clinton, played the song on Saturday Night Live's cold open following Trump's electoral victory. In regards to public personalities, politics notwithstanding, there is arguably no greater contrast than between the Donald's portended braggadocio and the self-effacing suffering displayed in Cohen's raw liturgies. McKinnon no doubt earned a special place in the hearts of Cohenites - as Leonard's die-hard fans are often called - when she gave this gift to the nation. If Tupac conjured Thug Mansion as his afterlife villa, then Leonard Cohen has erected The Tower of Song somewhere in the bosom of Abraham. If Leonard is a hundred floor below Hank Williams (to paraphrase the actual Tower of Song song) then surely McKinnon can have a place in the tower's lobby, playing piano and welcoming guests. "I'm not giving up and neither should you," she said in closing, on the surface addressing disappointed liberals fearful of a Trump presidency; but really, in the context of Leonard Cohen and the difficult territory of wounded hearts, a battle-cry to push on through, especially now, can apply to anything and everything.

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 the kitchen chair,

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah...
— LC


Arguably the most difficult passage of the song, any listener can gather, at the least, that having your throat broken probably hurts a good deal. This is a "hallelujah" that comes with a price. Maybe it's not something to even celebrate. Sure, there's the hair-cutting biblical reference to Samson's source of strength, and the "she" could certainly be a feminine personification of a temperamental muse or a domesticating maternal spirit, masochistically binding the patriarch to the same room (the kitchen chair) where his sexism once relegated his wife.

But maybe...maybe it's just some dude who lives in an apartment. He sees a hot girl on the roof, and he wants to score. He does, eventually, get her, but not until she has first stripped him of his power and voice. Romantic love is hard, and sometimes any glory has to be taken from us by force.


Now maybe there’s a god above

As for me, all I really learned from love

Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya-

But it’s not a complaint that you’re here tonight

It’s not the laughter of someone who claims to have seen the light

It’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah....

...baby, I’ve been here before

I know this room and I’ve walked this floor

I used to live alone before I knew you-

I’ve seen your flag on the Marble Arch

But love is not some kind of victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah....
— LC



Well, after all the lofty praise, apparently all Cohen knows about love is how to out-game and out-manipulate the girl he's chasing at the moment. Oops. What a disappointment. Of course, I'm sure the girl herself was even more disappointed. After all that...., she thinks....this is the Leonard Cohen? Well, at least he tells her it's not a complaint. He kind of wants her to stay. Just don't pretend he is some kind of saint in the throes of celestial illumination. It's not like that.

So what is it like?

He continues....


There was a time you let me know

What’s really going on below

But now you never show it to me, do ya-

I remember when I moved in you

And the holy dove she was moving too

And every breath that she drew was hallelujah...
— LC


So maybe it's further down the line now. Years have passed. Years since the initial chase, years since the initial breaking of ego pride, and years after the Psalmist first began his endeavor into sacred music and erotic communion. He looks back and remembers....the sex, that was the magic, and maybe that's all the magic we have left now. There isn't that deep connection "below" of emotional vulnerability anymore. Layers of illusion peel away, what was once gratification turns to mere physicality, and the "hallelujah" that they once knew - or could have known - may not be the "hallelujah" left now. But, even still, let's just let ourselves go in this nothingness and air-grasping echo, let's just let ourselves go and embrace it anyway.

And if anyone has a problem that we're making our personal lives into a bible verse - well, tough.

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 ya?

There’s a blaze of light in every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy-or the broken-Hallelujah!

— LC

Maybe he is taking religious words out of their typical religious context, but he is also reminding us of why the slap-in-the-face moralizing of "Thou Shall Not Take The Lord's Name In Vain," is myopic. Leonard in his smoky studio apartment is not Moses on Sinai, and he doesn't pretend to be. Very few, save some of the ancient prophets, even know the holy name of God, and if one is to take Kabbalah as the meditation-upon-words that it can be, the blaze of light burns eternal whether we know what we're talking about or not. And make no mistake - this hymn is straight out of the Zohar, and, in a sense,  a retribution for and revisioning of the Bathsheba tale. 

Or The New Testament, for that matter: legalistic Pharisees become speechless in the face of the "good news" pouring through Leonard's song. Oh, yes! The broken, ugly hallelujah is the one we really experience in this world, wished for or not. The gems of wisdom remain buried in the lotus of suffering, (to mix some Cohen-Zen with Cohen-Judaism), waiting to unmask themselves through the scars of human folly.


I’ve done 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 ya-

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
— LC


   And at this point perhaps there are no words or interpretations left to do the song any more justice, especially when you've listened to it in real-time. So let's just close with the singer's own quote about it:


"The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say "Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah!"[i] -Leonard Cohen, 1985.


[i] http://cohencentric.com/2015/10/28/he-always-seems-wise-lou-reed-on-leonard-cohen/

Clint Sabom is an award-winning writer and former aspirant monk. He works as a Spiritual Director at Contemplative Light. His new book, Preparation For Great Light is available on Amazon.

Contemplative Light also has a new eCourse out, Contemplative Practice: 5 Ways To Get Closer To God.


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