Hallelujah: Orgasm and Transcendence

the holy or the broken coverThe first time I heard Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” was in my now-brother-in-law, Nick’s, apartment, where at the time, my husband and I hung out frequently, drinking wine, listening to music, and shooting the breeze. Nick had just bought kick-ass new speakers and a high-end amp and preamp, and he wanted to show them off. He played us some classical music and jazz, demonstrating for us how the system was so faithful it could locate one musician relative to another in space. We were duly impressed, and begged for more.

He thought for a moment, then said, “Oh, you’d like this song.” He took out Buckley’s Grace CD (yes, those days) and cued up “Hallelujah.”

If you have never heard Jeff Buckley perform “Hallelujah,” it is time. Your best bet would be a really expensive stereo system, but if Nick isn’t in your neighborhood, you can listen to the original studio version on YouTube.

The song starts with Jeff Buckley exhaling—a half-desperate almost-sigh of release and relief. I think my heart stopped. Then the single haunting guitar notes floated out, wrapped themselves around some previously unknown part of my anatomy, and tugged out emotions I didn’t have names for. I didn’t weep or speak, just felt this expansive lightness in my chest, a sensation as new and brilliant as the first time I had an orgasm.

This is apparently not a unique experience, because “Hallelujah” has become a strange anthem, almost a hymn in our culture. I bring this up because I’ve been reading a book called The Holy or The Broken, by Alan Light. Light talks about how Leonard Cohen wrote “Hallelujah” and nothing much happened, and then Jeff Buckley produced his version, and all of a sudden crazy-amazing things happened, and the song broke out and became not just a mainstream hit but something embedded deep in the American consciousness.

The thing I found most interesting was that even if you separate out the vast differences in the ways they’re performed, the Cohen version and the Buckley version are not the same song. The lyrics are different.

Cohen’s verses, the ones he has performed, are quite spiritual. The Cohen version might be a hymn, the sort of thing you would rationally choose to play in the wake of 9/11 or after the Newtown school shooting, both times when “Hallelujah” was performed in the public eye. Light writes about how Cohen composed about ten million different verses, only a few of which he ever performed. The way Alan Light describes it, Cohen was almost plagued by this song, and he kept scribbling down versions of it, desperately trying to get it right. It was like he was channeling something but couldn’t quite hear it.

And then Buckley latched on and somehow all the pent-up meaning Cohen couldn’t quite grok came roaring down the pipe. Buckley’s verses are overtly sensual, a paean to sex and orgasm, a sad human love song. And yet despite having taken a much less lofty path, somehow Buckley managed to channel whatever Cohen was having so much trouble with. He managed to get across something transcendent and universal, something that was trying to speak through Cohen and having trouble. And it’s only since Buckley translated Cohen’s struggle (Light tells us) that the song has caught on and become such a universal expression of angst and loss and hope. It’s Buckley’s expression that became the hymn, not Cohen’s.

Transcendence is a strange thing, and even something as earthy as physical love can be the conduit for it. You can listen to the Leonard Cohen version of “Hallelujah” ten million times without getting half the buzz off it that the first ten seconds of the Jeff Buckley version gave me. And of course my opinion is not universally held. There are plenty of people who think that Leonard Cohen did it right and Jeff Buckley messed it up. But when I read about the song’s history, what had happened to it over time, I couldn’t help but think that somehow even though he was writing about orgasms, Jeff Buckley got at something more emotional and more fundamental than Cohen had been able to.

In fact, the way I choose to look at it is that “Hallelujah” was such a big thing trying to break through into the world and be born, that one man couldn’t do it on his own—Cohen tried, and he paved the way for Buckley, but it’s absolutely a collaboration. And it’s not just Cohen and Buckley who’ve done the work. It’s all the musicians who —despite the song’s overexposure—have been driven to express the sense it gives them of having access to something larger than themselves. And it’s all the people who have chosen at moments of great duress to make the song be a hymn. They’re all midwives of sorts, trying to guide the ineffable into this much more dark and concrete plane of existence.

Anyway, you should read Alan Light’s amazing book. You should listen to both the Leonard Cohen and the Jeff Buckley versions of “Hallelujah.” And all the other versions, too, the ones that reflect so many musicians’ deep need to use the song to shout their own grief and pain and joy.

Then when you’ve done that, you should look at the Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley lyrics, and you should think about why we as a culture publicly deride sex as small and dirty even as we admit at certain moments that earthy, broken, human, physical love stands in for shattering and reconstituting the soul in a way that nothing else can.

About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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32 Responses to Hallelujah: Orgasm and Transcendence

  1. Shari Slade says:

    I don’t know if I can formulate an intelligent reply to so much awesome. I’ll try.

    1) Hallelujah (the Buckley version) is a song that I listen to on full volume in my car with the windows rolled up…so I can be encapsulated. *shivers*

    2) I hard-core love cover songs. Good ones, anyway. Re-imaginings, new arrangements. I collect them. I’m intrigued by how two different artists can take the same material and kill me in totally different ways. I think this love is tied to my romance genre love. Really good romance novels are like excellent cover songs. You’ve heard it before, you can hear the familiar…but it’s also something new, a revelation. *shivers again*

    • Amber Lin says:

      I will just +1 this comment. Love this song and everything about it. Love covers in general. So covers of THIS song are basically orgasmic. Well, let’s face it this song is about sex anyway. Shhh yes it is.

    • Serena Bell says:

      I actually had a similar thought at some point when I was writing or posting this, that I think my obsession with covers of Hallelujah stems from the same source as my love of romance (I sort of touched on this in my post on form, but didn’t explicitly talk about covers). I do think when something is both familiar and new, the potential for revelation is extremely high.

      I try to listen to Hallelujah infrequently so every time feels like a revelation, but when I get to it, I want it exactly the way you described, SWAMPING me.

  2. Mary Ann Rivers says:

    Yes. It’s all about the cover.

    Not necessarily the cover of this song, though I agree with you, utterly. More that the act of covering is a transcendent and creative act that illustrates a transitive property in music where a good song is continuously transferred from one musician to the next but equal only in the very act of covering the song, but perhaps not equal in transcendence for the audience.

    In other words, when a musician chooses a song to cover, that choice is a deeply creative act suffused with the expressive needs of that musician, but not of the original composer. The result may or may not be transcendent, but it will always be transfiguring. Here, the argument for that choice on Buckley’s part, which is such a beautiful argument, is that Buckley heard what Cohen was trying to say but couldn’t, or could say, but not in a song. Or not this song. Cohen kept to the language of angels, Buckley was more interested in why the angels are here at all.


    Which is why, a good cover can be more transcendent that an original song. I have been to a lot of concerts. So many. I’ve been the audience, and I’ve been on stage. There is a way that an audience’s exposure to an original song, performed by the band/musician that made it, is a very qualified reception. We sit in the audience, or dance, or mosh, but we also filter. If it’s the first time we’ve heard the song, we bring up our interior judge. If we’ve only heard it recorded, we are ready to compare the song to its existence in the studio. If we heard it years ago at a concert notable for how well we were made love to in some dark corner of the venue, our nostalgia may overwhelm everything else. We filter, we *produce* the song.

    But when the band, the musician, plays the opening chords, at that same concert, of a cover–all of that stills inside of us. There is this arrested and instant recognition that the performer is sharing something with us far deeper than even the original songs he or she played previously. More personal. This is a song above ego, one that was chosen for how it spoke to the performer, and as an audience we are required to do nothing but bear witness to the choice and what this song said to this musician. It is extraordinarily intimate. This performer is telling us something about how they fell in love.

    More, we share something with the performer, because the song will be familiar. We don’t have to consider the merits of it as a song, we only need to engage with this performance, this recording, these moments of its expression. In fact, one of the most significant ways a cover can fail is to be too faithful to the original song. To be transcendent, the song must, it *must* transfigure.

    And a song never belongs to the musician, anyway. It belongs to the listener. We don’t say, “listen, they’re playing that song about that musician’s romance with the actress.” We say, “they’re playing *our* song.” Ours. It’s not Cohen’s song with Buckley plays it, but it’s not Buckley’s either.

    It’s ours. It’s what Shari said, an opportunity to encapsulate yourself in a moment that makes you shiver. It’s what you said, the reason we are here, at all–the reason the angels are.

    This is a beautiful post, Serena. Gorgeous. I wish you could meet my husband, all of his creative work is concerned with cover projects–musical and literary. You guys would talk all night and your husband and I could man the stereo.


    • Serena Bell says:

      Oh, I like this idea of a get-together where the stereo goes full-time. Perhaps it can be arranged.

      I agree that covers that are too faithful don’t do the trick. I feel that way about Rufus Wainwright’s Hallelujah. It’s not different enough from Buckley’s to rip me out of my complacency. I’m kind of a fan of the one where the Norwegian quartet takes it on, actually … http://youtube.com/watch?v=T2NEU6Xf7lM And actually my husband did studio keys for a singer and he did this weird ethereal high organ thing that kind of blew me away, but the track never saw the light of day (at least I don’t think so).

      I’m totally enthralled by what you said about how we resonate more at a deeper level to a cover choice made in a concert, because it’s more personal, more intimate, beyond ego. Yes. And yet I’m also often very disappointed by those choices, because–as you say–you have to do something really spectacular with the choice, too–and that doesn’t always happen. I saw a singer I *really* liked the other night and she did a beautiful, incredibly faithful Joni Mitchell cover, but I didn’t feel like it added anything to what Joni had done. And so … yeah. Just, blah.

  3. Matt Rivers says:

    So, I am the oft-mentioned Shakespeare scholar who lurks adjacent to and in the periphery of Mary Ann Rivers. I am finally speaking up because covers are my thang, and because the original post is a lovely negotiation of two versions of a song that really do, at times, appear to be two different songs while somehow also being two different ways to ask the same question.

    Three things:

    First — you helped me realize something about genius when I realized that, contrary to what our expectations might be, the Cohen version (about solo spiritual transcendence) features a choir while the Buckley (about, um, transcendence in pairs) features a solo chorus. Inversion can be formulaic, perhaps, but when it works… sweet jujubee does it work.

    Second — I wouldn’t be a crusty scholar of the sixteenth century if I didn’t point out the early modern obsession with a connection between sex and death, one that casts a long, puritanical shadow over us to this day. While, of course, I understood some of the ways in which the Buckley/Cohen dichotomy was about parallel kinds of transcendence, your post helped me realize that humans engage in both kinds of (ahem) study largely in response to some under-the-surface sense of mortality. While I think the sixteenth century linked sex and death in a way that is unhealthy, both of these covers manage to beat the reaper back with very different kinds of humanity while, at the same time, never really outrunning him/it. What is missing from other covers, I think, is that combination of desperation and vitality, the sound of the breath at the beginning of the Buckley. In other words, your post helped me realize that the two versions work so well together (or complete each other as you suggest) because they both understand that the two kinds of transcendence they are describing are not in opposition with each other, but with human brevity.

    3 — I played the Buckley cover for Mary Ann early (like first three days early) in our relationship. I made her sit on a crappy green rocking chair in the middle of my crappy apartment and listen in silence to the song over much worse speakers than it deserved. While I am not sure, in the days and years that have followed and the countless times that it and other covers have been used in movies and on television, that she’s ever loved the song proper as much as I do, I think she did that afternoon.

    Anyway: great post. Good enough, in fact, to bring the lurker to the surface. Thanks.

    • Serena Bell says:

      Matt, I’m so honored to have you unlurk and weigh in! Thanks, too, for pointing out the sex-death connection, which I guess must have been working for me under the surface but which I had sort of somehow forgotten about temporarily. Because it makes MORE sense to me, actually, thinking about that connection, that the song has become such a hymn. If the orgasm version of Hallelujah is about death and resurrection, then even if people don’t explicitly make that connection mentally, it has to be coming across somehow in the music.

  4. Ruthie Knox says:

    I thought I didn’t know this song, but then I listened to it and realized I know Patty Griffin’s cover. Which seems fitting, both because of what we’re saying about covers today and because, for ME, the Griffin cover is a much more appropriate version. I prefer female vocalists. I love Patty Griffin. I love covers by female vocalists of songs by male vocalists that do nothing for me. And so I’ll cherish the Griffin version, like I cherish every cover that recreates a song in a voice and register that resonates inside me.

    Beautiful post. And look, you flushed out Matt! All you had to do was get (even) geeky(er) about music and sex and romance. :-)

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Upon further investigation, I seem to have made up the Patty Griffin version. So whose version do I know? I’m not sure! I recognized the song, though, and in my head it had a female singer. No idea.

      I do know the Bob Dylan version. Because I know the Bob Dylan version of everything. It’s necessary in my household.

  5. Shelley Ann Clark says:

    So, this morning at 6:00 I thought I had nothing to add to this discussion other than, “Damn and hell, Serena, what a great post.”

    But in a very meta move, I’ve been inspired both by the original post and the comments to start thinking about art and expression as collaborative processes.

    If Jeff Buckley is able to get at something that Leonard Cohen didn’t quite achieve, but Buckley couldn’t have done it himself without Cohen’s original song. . .doesn’t that say something about the way we create and express emotion? I think about this a lot in terms of writing– I think there’s this idea of the writer as a lone person who thinks up grand ideas and writes them all down in a tower somewhere, locked away from other people until the creative magic is all done.

    The reality, though, is that we’re all inspired and influenced by other artists, from the writers we’ve read as kids to the much more concrete process of, say, having an agent or an editor or a really good critique group that helps us do out best work. I can’t tell you the number of times a critique partner has found the heart of my work when I’ve been floundering, or that I’ve done the same for one, and it makes me wonder just how effective any of us can be if we tried to function in a vacuum.

    I’ve thought for a while now that all forms of art are collaborative, when it comes down to it. I’m sure that there are very smart people who will disagree with that assessment, but this post, and my reaction to it (seeing the discussion build from one comment to the next, and only really generating ideas after several layers have been built up from the original) make me think that some level of collaboration is at least necessary for me as a writer.

    (And hi, Matt! I feel like I know you!)

  6. Edie Danford says:

    Wow. Great topic and lovely post. I lurve you so much, wonkomancers!

    I heard Alan Light being interviewed about this book on the radio (interview happened right after the Newtown tragedy and centered on the fact that the song is now used so often as a touchstone for grief) and I was fascinated by Light’s admission that he no longer likes the song. Which made me think about the inherent dangers of writing about and researching something you love too damn much…getting too close to a holy thing and polluting it. But that’s kind of a whole other topic.

    Anyway, I think it’s awesome to explore why this song touches so many people and I love the theories espoused here about why Jeff Buckley’s translation works so well. I’m never particularly eloquent or succinct (!) about expressing why I love stuff, but I will say I love JB’s version best partly because it’s the first version I ever heard (and so it has that lovely “first time” quality), but probably I love it most because his voice hits me in ways that are achingly complex but so completely simple and those layers are so cool to explore. Angst and bliss and sacred and profane and raw and refined and on and on. Also, I’ve always loved my music with a huge wallop of sex and that dude’s voice really smacks me up side the body. And it’s impossible for me to think about him without pondering death and angels and fragility and strength and humanity wishing so, so, so hard for changes we can’t make.

    I love that you mention the exhale at the beginning the song because, man, I LOVE that small, staggeringly eloquent sound. I’ve discussed this sound with my husband a lot (okay, usually after imbibing alcohol-type things) because it reminds me of another small, eloquent noise that Robert Plant makes at the beginning of Whole Lotta Love. Much different song and, okay, a fairly different noise, but (despite what dh says) I think it’s worth comparing the two because Robert Plant was one of Jeff Buckley’s idols (I can’t listen to Grace without hearing this influence) and it makes me wonder if the sound was on purpose, an homage, or accidental or what…

    Not that it matters one damn bit. Oh, sounds! How I love you! Yes, I will use you to beat the reaper back…

    Sigh. Could go on and on as usual. Thanks again for the thoughts and inspiration!!

  7. Well. Well. This is a topic on which I have OPINIONS.

    In fact I have a whole scene about this song and the various versions of it in “Art of the Lie.” The heroine argues, as I will here, that the definitive version is not in fact Buckley’s, but k.d. lang’s…but you have to see her perform it to understand why.

    I think Leonard Cohen might agree. In fact, Cohen was in the audience when k.d. lang sang this at his 2006 induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. When the song was done, his partner Anjani Thomas says, they looked at each other and said, “Well, I think we can lay that song to rest now! It’s really been done to its ultimate blissful state of perfection.” I believe it, too. You can see by his reaction afterward that he’s deeply moved. And Ms. Thomas looks like she’s ready to jump k.d. lang. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYiMJ2bC65A

    I think the difference here is that when you watch lang sing this, you can really believe she’s been through some serious damn life experiences. Highs and lows. Transcendent sex. Genuine, deep, emotional agony. And this song becomes her perfect delivery method for all that emotion. The lady so clearly knows what the hell she is singing about, and it pains her and she keeps singing anyway because she has to, which makes it beautiful and perfect and like she’s wearing her soul on the outside for all to see.

  8. Ruthie Knox says:

    Now I’m obsessed with the lyrics to this song. They’re really beautiful. And sexy. And transcendent. And WONKED.

  9. I love all of this! The many ideas on covers and how somehow copying something so often makes something greater than what you started with. And of course all the great links. A couple I’d never heard before – and I’d forgotten about lang’s performance. I’ll add mine. The only version of “Hallelujah” that I own is by Damien Rice. Not this version but it’s the only one youtube seems to know. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEKCsSlK3jg

  10. Lila says:

    I was shocked – SHOCKED – when I first heard Rufus Wainwright’s cover in Shrek, since I thought of Buckley’s version (which Wainwright was paying tribute to, so essentially same verses) as such a darkly sexual song. (Also in agreement with Serena – not a fan of this version because it’s too close to what it’s covering.) And even though I was familiar with Cohen’s version, that was the first time I realized what a dynamic song it was, not just because of the millions of verses. Wainwright’s seems more innocent, more about pure and hopeless love, probably because of context but also because the lyrics have that genius (or maybe just troublesome for Cohen) sacred/profane ambiguity that makes you question your assumptions.

    Anyways, Buckley’s was definitive for me until k.d. lang too, and blessedly her version has been getting a lot of play here in Cda recently since she was inducted into our music hall of fame this past weekend. Heaven. (That and her cover of Jane Sibbery’s The Valley – wowzers.)

  11. Jackie Horne says:

    Thanks, Serena, for introducing me to another version of this amazing song. I’ve long gloried in K. D. Lang’s version — got to see her perform it live last summer at the Lowell Festival — chills and fear and soaring joy combined. I’ve always felt that the song was about the transcendence (glory and pain) of love and especially of sex and orgasm. That this is an essential component of the song becomes clear when you realize there is verse that Cohen wrote (and Buckley sings) that isn’t in her version:

    there was a time when you let me know
    What’s really going on below
    But now you never show that to me, do you?
    But remember when I moved in you
    And the holy dove was moving too
    And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

    I get why she would want to omit them: not only the overtly male heterosexual POV, but lyrics that your typical pop music station would likely censor. And it also leaves the song more open, more mysterious, to leave this verse out.

    But now that I’ve seen and heard them, I really really want to hear Lang’s take on them…

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      But that verse is not in the version Cohen recorded for Various Positions, either. I don’t think (I need to *cough* double-check the CD lyrics booklet *cough* Sometimes it pays to be OLD).

  12. Serena Bell says:

    I’m loving all these comments so much, and of course loving how they’ve become their own meta-commentary on collaboration and amplification. :-)

    After Del posted the suggestion, I listened to k.d. lang in a spirit of great unwillingness, because of course I didn’t want to believe that anyone would unseat Jeff Buckley, but ultimately she broke my throne and cut my hair and I was pretty much just sitting in front of the computer, frozen. She’s AMAZING. Instead of writing today I’ll just watch that performance over and over. And as per Jackie, I do find her omission of the overt sex stanza really interesting. The heterosexual male POV problem makes sense, but I also couldn’t help feeling when I was reading Light’s book that Buckley had cheated a little by pushing things over the edge into the explicitly sexual, like Cohen had been reaching for something a little more ambiguously spiritual, and Buckley took the easy way out. I wonder how deliberate lang’s decision was, or whether she just adopted Cohen’s lyrics because he was the influence she was celebrating?

    By the way, I’m disappointed that no one has yet brought up the version of Hallelujah played on water-filled glasses.
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=pTSh8j0xwpU I’m not sure about *transcendence,* but you can’t beat it for sheer technical difficulty.

    • There’s a glass-harmonica guy who comes to Dickens on the Strand in Galveston every year. That shit is freakin’ amazing. I wouldn’t want to listen to it every day but it’s sooooooo cool once in awhile.

  13. willaful says:

    I don’t think your history is right here. John Cale’s cover in “Shrek” popularized the song. I’ve never heard this version before and have to come down on the Cohen side. I hear it as an emotional/spiritual song — I know a kid who used it in his Bar Mitzvah — and I get far more emotion from Cohen’s version. Of course, I happen to love Cohen.

  14. pamelia says:

    Put me down in the minority. I think Cohen’s original recording of the song is the absolute best because it manages to collapse the sacred and profane and be about love and sex and faith and god and sin and so much. I think the Buckley version strips away too many of the layers of meaning by making the song “just” about sex and love. I’ve always been a little disappointed with that version and found it kind of heavy-handed whereas every time I hear Cohen’s version I get goosebumps and feel like I’m so very close to some big understanding about life, the universe and everything.
    To me though the ultimate Cohen song is “Suzanne”.