17 March 2014
4 deaths. 6 days. 4 people I love feeling direct pain from their losses. My Dad (and my Aunt) took the brunt of it. Two of the losses were their Aunt and Uncle – the last siblings of my grandfather and the last of that generation to go. The 1st loss, though, belonged to my Dad’s best friend. His daughter passed away unexpectedly from complications of pneumonia – she was only sixty-two. The next day, New Years Day, a dear friend lost her sister. While this was a little more expected – she had been ill for years with Multiple System Atrophy – nonetheless it was a hard loss for my friend and her large family. My great Aunt and Uncle each passed away in the 4 days that followed. All four of these people had children, siblings, and two of them had parents who survived them. What a shitty way for my people to start the New Year.
In the weeks, now two months, since those six days an acquaintance of mine died and another dear friend, the “Thelma” to my “Louise” (check some blog I wrote in early 2009 for that story) lost her Dad as did a friend from elementary school. I have to say, it’s been a rather odd way to start the year. I can’t say I’m directly affected by these losses, though. I barely remember my Great Aunt and Uncle only having met them at some far-away family reunion in Illinois. But my Dad is feeling the burden of now being the oldest generation all the while watching his best friend navigate the waters of loosing another child. My pain rests with the people I love going through all of this – wanting to do more, and be more, to be the shoulder they cry on and to be able to share what wisdom I’ve gained from having experienced numerous losses. All I can do is say “I love you, I’m here if you need me…” as I’ve said to my three friends, and my father (his best friend I’m not in touch with but he has passed on my condolences and love.)
To really cap it all off we almost lost my Dad last month. My family came within hours of dealing with loosing our last parent, brother, uncle, grandfather. Now my Aunt, his sister, is staring down the barrel of cancer yet again. Her prognosis is unknown but the treatment is simple. She will take bone strengthening pills and tamoxifen for six months. We hope this means she can avoid radiation as the tamoxifen will hopefully kill the cancer. This is good news mixed in with the unexpected bad news. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been scared to loose her. She’s been like a mother to me since my Mom died. She didn’t like my mother – that’s ok – the point is she’s been the supportive and loving voice I’ve needed in the years since my mother passed away. She always knows what to say and never judges. She cries when I cry and rejoices in the good news. She’s also really been present for my Dad. They live less than a mile apart and are there for each other. Loosing her would devastate us all on too many levels to count. To say nothing of my cousins loosing their last remaining parent.
Which all leads me to “Hallelujah”. A strange song to pick, no doubt, considering all that I’ve just mentioned. But yet, not really. A song, that at its core, is about broken faith and broken relationships; the ups and downs we all face as we navigate God, Love and Faith. Whilst I don’t believe in either God or Love at the moment - I’m wholly agnostic as I was raised to be so in a family of Catholics (my Great Uncle was even a Monsignor in Chicago) and Russian Orthodox people; and as for the Love part, just like the character in the song, I’ve never been very good at it. I do, however, believe we all need to be good to one another in the most whole and most pure sense and having faith in the unknown – which really means our inner selves - is a good thing to carry with you.
Unlike the character in the song – I’m not tortured, I’m not beleaguered and despite the many existential crisis I’ve experienced in my life, I do maintain a level of optimism and Anne Frankian belief that at the very core of it all we humans are good and well intentioned. If you listen to the song it’s very clearly about sadomasochism – both physical and spiritual and it’s a cry for help. Our main character is torn between love of self, love of God, and love of the other person in the relationship. ‘Hallelujah, Hellelujah’ is sung in relief, distress and in a spare, moment, joy. Depending on where the character is in the song in the midst of their process it can be heaven, or it can be hell. In many ways it’s a common theme. But in no way is this a love song.
For some reason, just like that James Blunt song “You’re Beautiful” about a coked up encounter on a subway with an ex-girlfriend (that clearly didn’t end well), that got played at nearly every wedding known to man for several years, “Hallelujah” has been grossly misinterpreted. It has also, in recent years, become grossly over-used in public forums such as telethons, for relief of all kinds, and as the closing number at many, too many, a star-studded concert.
I guess it’s just more fun NOT to listen to lyrics and just go along with a groove and a peppy chorus irrespective of what the song is REALLY about. Which, as a songwriter, I can tell you morphs throughout the years for me. Meaning I might write a song about one thing – then a couple of years later as I’ve experienced more life the meaning changes or life has imitated art and somehow I find new meaning. But no matter what, the basis for the inspiration for the song never wavers. Whatever it was that fueled my desire to put an experience into words and a melody, will always and forever stay the same. It’s just basic gardening – here is the seed, here is the water, the rest is up to the forces of nature. However, words are up for interpretation and thus the overall meaning of a song can be many things and is ever-evolving. So yes, I get it, these are MY interpretations of these songs. This is not lost on me.
All that being said, “Hallelujah” is one of the most beautiful and haunting tunes ever written. All the more reason to put this out to the universe: PLEASE, for the love of whomever you believe in, STOP COVERING “HALLELUJAH”! Enough is enough, Kate Voegel, Blake, or Gavin DeGraw, Marcy Playground, or even Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, or Willie Nelson…. oh god, I’m getting ill just thinking about how many people have covered this song – over 300 to date. So please, please, STOP!
Why? Because no one will ever do it better than Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley or kd lang. No one should ever bother to try……
Take the original (above) – sung by the songwriter with all the intention with which it was written. All the nuance of every word Leonard Cohen put to paper is in each breath and each lilting note. He was nearly 50 when he wrote this song. A man who, at that age, had certainly seen his share of relationship ups and downs as well as fatherhood (in fact, his son Adam fronts the awesome band Low Millions). Since he’s the only one who knows what the song is really about he’s the only one who can sing it with the most honesty. This waltz-like gospel tune evokes a southern 80’s bible-belt hot afternoon. You can almost feel the heat and smell the sin. Cohen’s voice is like 50 grit sandpaper on a shiny piece of glass – but yet you can’t stop listening. His emotional tennis game is long into its fifth match and the struggle to finish is even greater than he expected. This is a man who is facing the down side of life whilst still being young enough to cry about it and experience its affects without being cynical. You definitely feel what he’s going through.
Then you have Jeff Buckley, whose version I admit, is the first I’d heard of the song. This was back in 1994 when he recorded it for his first album. He was such a tortured soul facing an unbearable paternal legacy that you can feel the pain in every syllable and note. It’s almost as if it was written for him and him alone to sing. The angst in his 20-something year old delivery is hard to ignore – here is a young man who has lived a difficult and haunted life gifted with the talents of his late father (whom he only met a handful of times about 3 months before he died) but also gifted with the demons that led his father down the road of abandonment and addiction. Yet, at such a young age, he had not experienced relationships the way Cohen had. What Jeff Buckley was battling were internally raging waters (forgive the pun), that were all consuming, weighted and too much for a young man to bear. He was a bright star on the rise blessed with talent and a name and all the expectations that came with it. How do you live up to the worlds idea of a man you barely knew? This can’t have been easy and no doubt added to his heartbreak of never really knowing his father. All of this pain is very clearly heard in his version.
Forgive me – but I happened upon these next words from a blog I wrote in November 2006 where I talk about kd lang’s 49th Parallel CD (which is TOTALLY awesome on so many levels):
“As we meander our way through our trip you can't help but be struck by the oft - covered Leonard Cohen tune "Hallelujah". What makes this version different than the rest is not only the piano work that resonates throughout the whole CD - reminding me of a George Winston work of art - but there's a happiness to this version that's not apparent on either the Jeff Buckley or J.J. Cale versions. What Ms. lang shows us is a less pained side of the tune that gets illuminated by her heavenly voice and a string accompaniment that elevate her ever higher into the Canadian night sky.”
I still feel that way about the song. Her version is angelic, deeply resonating, and by-golly a more positive take on the tune than her predecessors. She comes from a small corner of happiness – without making it into the sappy sick love song others have butchered this tune into being. It’s not a happy song – but I’m not troubled by her approach. I’m moved. Why? Because, lets be honest, this woman may not write songs I particularly like – but she can make a phone book sound sexy, hot and as deep as an Alaskan mountain well. So yeah – I can listen to this version over and over, all the while soaring into the cold Canadian sky…..
So maybe that’s the trick? Two out of these three versions were sung by Canadians. I’m not saying I want to hear Corey Hart, or Bryan Adams take a stab at it, or even Neil Young (though come to think of it…) but maybe there’s something to be said for growing up in the midst of a harsh Canadian winter, surrounded by cold, unfriendly people, who have to struggle to survive. Or maybe, as I suggest, these will forever be the best versions of this song and shame on anyone who thinks they can do better!
If you really need a “Hallelujah” fix other than the aforementioned check out these two songs: “Hallelujah In The City” by the incomparable Joan Osborne and “Hallelujah’’ by one of the best songwriters of our generation, Patty Larkin.
So, “Hallelujah, hallelujah…” to the indomitable spirits of those I love who are handling loss, fighting for life and just doing their best to keep their shit together during these trying times. You all know how I feel about you and I’m here…
Thanks for tuning in….until next time…Cheers!