Everyone has a special place in their heart for the late Leonard Cohen – from his 80-something contemporaries to middle-aged musos to teenage girls.
The last – quite unusual for an artiste of Cohen’s generation, especially one so apparently glum, uncommercial and downbeat – is largely thanks to his composition ‘Hallelujah’, which was what Alexandra Burke sang to win the X-Factor final in 2008. It was memorably covered for Generation X by the doomed Jeff Buckley in an angelic rendition on his 1994 album Grace. Oh and also it appears in a very sad moving scene in Shrek.
And it’s not even Cohen’s best song. Cohen himself thought little of it when it trickled out on his 1984 album, Various Positions. His career was going through a low patch: in fact his label, Columbia, didn’t even want to release the LP. Since then though the song has been covered 500 times by everyone from Dylan to Bono and John Cale, to the point where Cohen actually began pleading not to hear it done again.
Like a lot of Cohen’s work it’s simultaneously deep and very accessible, mystical and yet grounded. Its ascending melody and lilting waltz give it an uplifting feeling despite the apparently gloomy mood. (This is true of all Cohen: supposedly it’s music to slit your wrists by; except it’s not – it’s oddly affirmatory and so sad you can’t help feeling defiantly happy). And it’s the most famous pop hit ever written about how to write a pop hit.
‘Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord/That David played and it pleased the Lord’, it starts. Then Cohen proceeds to show you, the music following the chords. ‘The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift.’ Cohen has just done the pop equivalent of Penn and Teller showing how the girl is sawn in half. ‘See it’s easy when you know,’ he’s almost saying.
This self-deprecation is why he was such a well loved live performer: the Woody Allen of folk-tinged rock (or whatever you want to call Cohen’s indefinable genre). You hear it, for example, in that wonderfully deflating aside in the third line of ‘Hallelujah’. Having set up his song as one of Biblical significance, he suddenly turns to address his unimpressed audience: ‘But you don’t really care for music, do ya?’
Still not his best song, though. ‘Bird On A Wire’ and ‘Marianne’ are better, for a start. And Chelsea Hotel surely has the best rhyme: ‘Giving me head on an unmade bed’.
On my first trip to New York I actually chose to stay in the Chelsea Hotel – a pretty scuzzy place by the time I got there: the sheets were rough and probably synthetic, but perhaps that was part of the vibe – in honour of Cohen and in the hope that I too might receive fellatio from some Joni Mitchell figure.
Didn’t happen, though.
RIP Leonard. You were my man.