Cannibalism is about more than meat. Nutritionally, the human body is nothing special, and except in a few recorded cases of desperation there is almost always easier food to be had. No, when people eat other people, it is because they believe that something greater than protein and calories is being transmitted—that the cannibal gets some of his victim’s soul, his strength. And while we may recoil at the thought of that unnatural act, there is a certain primitive logic at work: consume the other to elevate yourself.
While we’ve largely grown out of cannibalism as a species and have relegated it to the embarrassing scrapbook of human history (“Oh that? We were going through a phase”), there is a self-consuming practice toward which we show a generous tolerance: the cover song. Like cannibalism, it’s not about raw material—it’s easy and expected for a songwriter to churn out their own songs, no need to pilfer the past. Rather, it serves a more symbolic function, allowing artists to showcase their chops, display their tastes, and create a context for their own work. For example, let’s say Songwriter X decides to cover “Like a Rolling Stone.” This is what our reaction might be to this decision: “Ooh, X is playing this great song, look how she memorized all those verses. It is so cool that she likes Dylan, who is himself inimitably cool. Dylan is respectable and serious, so X must also be respectable and serious. I think I like X.”
This may be a tad cynical, but there’s no doubt that picking a cover is a way that artists get to select their peers and speak to their audience. When my own band was trying to pick a cover to learn, it was a more complicated process than amending the Constitution. Is this song cool? Is it too cool? Will it alienate our audience? Will anyone recognize it? We eventually settled on “Game of Pricks” by Guided by Voices, mostly because it was short, fast, and easy to play with our meaty fingers. Our enthusiasm was genuine, but let’s get real here for a second: part of us picked a cool band so that, God help us, we could be cool by association.
Which brings us to Leonard Cohen. Poor, put-upon Leonard Cohen. His songs possess all the qualities that make them catnip for the cred-seeker—they are literate, tuneful, and have weathered the past half-century remarkably well. They have personality, but not so much personality that they can’t be easily appropriated. Most importantly, they are songs that matter, containing the proper mix of somber sexuality and scripture to ensure they are taken seriously. I say all this as a fan, though I have to confess that my favorite LC song has always been “So Long, Marianne,” the only song of his whose melody I can actually remember.
This makes Leonard Cohen a lot like the girl you knew in middle school who got way too hot, way too fast. It’s not her fault, but you can bet her beauty is only going to make her life harder—by the time she reaches middle age there’s no doubt she will have been exposed to the worst that men have to offer, and you hope she made it through the wolf pack without too many emotional scars. Cohen’s oeuvre has been similarly lusted over, sometimes with love and respect, other times with a hungry lack of imagination. His catalogue spans more than twenty albums recorded over forty years, released to varying degrees of critical success and public interest. However, with his original audience aging and the spotlight long ceded to younger song-smiths, Cohen’s place in contemporary music seems inextricably tied to a single song: “Hallelujah.”
“Hallelujah” is an unlikely contender for most famous Leonard Cohen song. It was first heard in 1985’s Various Positions, long after his popularity had peaked (his first best-of collection had been released a full eight years earlier). While not a bad album, it does little to separate itself from Cohen’s other mid-career releases, and “Hallelujah” is unremarkable even when compared to its neighbors on the record. There is a spark of real beauty there, to be sure, but Cohen does his best to smother it in synthesized strings, gaudy gospel singers, and his ever-staid monotone. When it comes to the musical crimes of the eighties, none are truly innocent, but “Hallelujah” wears its age like a Waffle House line cook.
Below the questionable keyboards, however, is a melody. And below the melody are the words. And these words, a fusing of the sacred and the secular, are surely what spurred John Cale—Cohen’s contemporary, both an avant-noise provocateur and classically-trained violist with a taste for the baroque—to record his own version of the song. Released in 1991, Cale strips away the ornamentation and, with only piano and vocals, delivers the song reverentially, as a hymn. I rarely count stodginess a virtue, but Cale’s stately rendition gives Cohen’s musings about King David, sex, and transcendence the gravitas they deserve. Apparently I’m not the only one to think so—only three years later the song earned another classic recording with Jeff Buckley’s reading. Whereas Cale’s “Hallelujah” is cool and cerebral, Buckley’s is all sex and sweat, a primal howl of longing that skyrockets straight to the heavens.
Cale and Buckley are the two pillars upon which the church of “Hallelujah” stand, with Cohen skulking like a ghost somewhere in the narthex. After Buckley’s release of the song in 1994, new versions of the song started to trickle out, slowly at first. Rufus Wainwright recorded a Cale-like version, k.d. lang recorded a Buckley-esque version. The trickle became a stream. “Hallelujah” was heard scoring an animated monster movie. It played mournfully over the closing scenes of The O.C., as Ryan finally drove away from Marissa. Willie Nelson covered it. Sheryl Crow covered it. The stream became a river. “Hallelujah” became a mainstay of reality show singing competitions. Neil Diamond covered it. Bon Jovi covered it. The dam broke, and the song became as ubiquitous as air.
Legend has it that the Cumaean Sibyl was granted eternal life when she outwitted the lustful god Apollo. Her mistake, however, was in failing to ask for eternal youth to match her longevity. Her life remained, but she withered slowly, until all that was left of her was a pile of dust. How many times can you hear a song before it loses its meaning? “Hallelujah” has been sung so many times that it’s impossible to hear it as the musings of a man—instead, it’s become a shorthand for meaning, a way for movie producers to punch up their tragedy with a little pre-agreed upon solemnity. Covering “Hallelujah” is a way of signaling that you are a singer of substance, that regardless of your own work you have deep, important feelings (et tu, Bon Jovi?). But when you can’t listen to a Leonard Cohen song without thinking of the dude who built a huge hit by comparing his tour bus to a giant metallic horse, what’s left to do but slink off into the sunset and grump in silence?
“Yesterday,” by the Beatles, has been covered more than 1600 times. I grew up in a Beatles-loving household, and that song was as fixed and permanent in my worldview as the earth, Jesus, and Star Wars. By the time I was twelve my entire family could be singing along with the oldies station and I wouldn’t hear a thing—after all, do you feel the rotation of the earth? But something incredible happened when I was twenty years old. I was listening to the radio on my way to class, and for the first time in my life, I truly heard “Yesterday”—and it was gorgeous. The lilting melody, the gently circular structure, Paul McCartney’s heartbroken tenor. It had ceased being empty ritual and had come alive right in front of me.
The truth is, great art is a lot more like the phoenix than it is the Sibyl of Cumae. Yes, we’ve witnessed the grisly killing of “Hallelujah” more than once. And yes, it will be slaughtered again, likely by some fifteen year old with an acoustic guitar and an overactive Youtube account. But the truly beautiful stuff can’t be damaged beyond repair. Eventually “Hallelujah” will cease belonging to anyone, even Leonard Cohen. It’ll be heard by some guy or girl with an ear for something remarkable, and they’ll take it into themselves. And it will be more than just cool, and it will be more than just material. Until then, we as music lovers have one job—never let Bon Jovi get near this song again.