As fans mourn the loss of singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, who died at age 82, many are listening to versions of his hit, Hallelujah. The earnest tune is famously covered by Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Willie Nelson, a contestant on every singing competition and many others.
But how did Cohen’s slow, emotional song become so prevalent? On the podcast Revisionist History‘s episode “Hallelujah,” host Malcolm Gladwell details the song’s unusual journey to fame, with music writer Alan Light.
It all started with an agonizing songwriting process. Cohen, a meticulous songwriter, spent years “banging his head on the floor, because he couldn’t solve this song,” says Light, who wrote a book about Cohen called The Holy or the Broken.
It ultimately took Cohen five years to write Hallelujah, but many more to find an audience for the song.
In 1984, CBS Records passed on Cohen’s album that had the original Hallelujah,but independent label Passport Records released Hallelujah “and it barely makes a ripple,” says Gladwell, because that iteration of the song “was kind of turgid.”
Then, Cohen revised the song: He made it longer, darker and changes up the first few verses.
Musician John Cale heard Cohen perform the updated song at a live performance in New York. Cale liked the tune, and decided to make his own version of Hallelujah with some new lyrics.
“Cale is really the one who cracks the code of Hallelujah, according to Alan Light,” Gladwell said. Cale’s version of the song, which sounds more like the popular version we know today, appears on a 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album called I’m Your Fan.
Of the small number of audiophiles who purchased I’m Your Fan, one of them was a woman who lived in Brooklyn. Why’s that important to know? Because a young singer named Jeff Buckley used to house-sit at that woman’s apartment.
Yes, that Jeff Buckley.
Buckley stayed at the apartment and checked out the I’m Your Fan album, which includes Cale’s cover of Hallelujah. Buckley went on to craft his own version of the song, and then performed it at a bar in the East Village.
At the bar, an executive from Columbia Records happened to be in the audience, heard the song, signed the singer, and had Buckley record his version of Hallelujah for a 1994 studio album.