"There's always room in rock 'n' roll for some stuff to start happening at a grassroots level, and the most interesting stuff seems to start there."
Column: off the record ... vol. 12-541
November 18, 2012
Like other U2 fans, I have to find a way to fill the empty space between the end of the last tour and the release of a new album. It can seem like an interminably long stretch especially if you (like me) are a little older and feeling like your time on this planet is winding down more quickly than you’d like. In a way, I want the band to just get on with it already and release something new, although I realize we'll just have to wait until they're good and ready. I must be getting more impatient as I age.
To help bide my time, fellow @U2er Scott Calhoun gave me a wonderful book to read, The Holy Or The Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, And The Unlikely Ascent Of The Song "Hallelujah," written by music journalist Alan Light. Scott had no idea that I've been using my U2-less time to develop an obsessive crush on Jeff Buckley and his music, and was thrilled to learn about this book.
As the title suggests, the book tracks the song and its creator, Leonard Cohen, through most of the history of modern music starting in the 1960s, as well as Jeff Buckley, whose discovery of John Cale's version of the song (found on the 1991 Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan and used in the first Shrek movie) helped to propel its popularity, and in turn, how the song brought new fans to Buckley's music long after his death at the tender age of 30 in 1997.
"Unlikely ascent" is an apt description of the song as it is pushed along its long, slow climb to ubiquity by way of serendipity, musical connections and luck. It's a minor miracle that the song is known at all, having been first recorded for an album that Cohen's record company refused to release. The consumption of music has evolved drastically since the song was written in 1984, and it's fascinating to follow the trajectory of an obscure song as it transforms into a worldwide phenomenon, covered by an exponentially growing number of artists. The rise of Cohen's popularity was no less arduous but he’s become the arbiter of cool, with a fan base that spans several generations and continents.
Bono is featured as one of many performers who are interviewed and is quoted extensively throughout, giving insight to his own solo version of the song for a second Leonard Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song, released in 1995. He was first introduced to the song by journalist Bill Flanagan (also interviewed in the book) in 1993, who was traveling with U2 during their Zoo TV tour while researching what would become the bible of U2 books, U2: At The End Of The World.
Several pages are devoted to Bono, his relationship with the song and his admiration for Cohen as a writer and a performer. During a film shown at Cohen’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, he said, "I've been humbled and humiliated as a fan of Leonard Cohen's, particularly by the song 'Hallelujah.'" Bono was also a fan of Buckley's, telling Mojo magazine that "Jeff Buckley was a pure drop in an ocean of noise," although he doesn't remember "being conscious of Buckley’s version of the song, though maybe that's why I did the whisper. If you can't take true flight and do his kind of Sufi singing, maybe stick to recitation."
He reveals to the author, "I wasn't sure why I agreed to do this interview, but then I remembered that I needed to apologize to the world — I didn't just let myself down, or my parents, I let the whole school down. The lyric explains it best. There's the holy and the broken hallelujah, and mine was definitely the broken one."
There's an interesting passage near the end of the book where the author says, "Bono was uncharacteristically vague" when discussing the addition of "Hallelujah" to the set list during the 360 tour, talking about how he has used the word "hallelujah" over the years to stabilize himself mid-performance. Bono says, "Onstage, you have all kinds of distracting thoughts, sometimes dark thoughts — some of the brightest moments of clarity I've ever had have been onstage, and I've also had some terrible times performing, so I've always used that word if it seems to fit in a place."
In this case, the place is just before "Where The Streets Have No Name," and is significant, Bono says, because the song "is one of those invitations where you say to the audience, 'Do you want to go someplace else? Shall we go there together?' I've even, in a way that some would find obnoxious, used the Psalms in that slot. So 'Hallelujah' is such a powerful thought there, such a great way in."
There is so much more to this book, not only from Bono but from the people who knew Cohen and Buckley years ago, to all the new artists who have their own versions of the song out in the world (Bono confidante Gavin Friday is one). Light is a thorough and knowledgeable tour guide through decades of popular culture and his easy style will compel you from start to finish. It'll be available from booksellers on Dec. 4 from Atria Books.
Bono, on behalf of your parents and the whole school, I'd like to say, apology accepted. I think we can safely say that you've redeemed yourself and taken true flight.
Happy Thanksgiving to our American friends, and to everyone else, have a great week!
(c) @U2/Maione, 2012