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The Enduring Legacy Of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'


We learned yesterday of the death of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. He was 82 years old. He's now known best for the song "Hallelujah."


LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) Now I've heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord.

SHAPIRO: It took more than a decade for the song to find its audience. Alan Light wrote the book "The Holy Or The Broken" about the unlikely ascent of "Hallelujah," a song Cohen released as his career seemed to be winding down.

ALAN LIGHT: Through the '70s and into the '80s, it was a bit of a gradual decline in interests. And by the time it was 1984 and he recorded the "Various Positions" record, which included "Hallelujah," he turned it in to Columbia Records and they rejected the album.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Hallelujah.

LIGHT: Came out on a very small indie label to virtually no attention and no acclaim. He had written 40, 50, 70 verses for this song. And he just couldn't figure out exactly what the song was. John Cale from The Velvet Underground saw Leonard perform and saw him do one of these versions of "Hallelujah" and thought that might be an interesting song to do.

So he asked Leonard, can you send me over the lyrics so I get it right? And apparently they sent him pages and pages of lyrics. And Leonard just sort of said, see what you like in here and you figure it out.


JOHN CALE: (Singing) Maybe there's a God above. All I ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.

LIGHT: A couple years later, a kid named Jeff Buckley is house sitting for a friend in Brooklyn and sees this Leonard tribute record on the shelves and puts it on. And here's John Cale's version of "Hallelujah." And he starts to work it into his own show.


JEFF BUCKLEY: (Singing) But remember when I moved in you and the holy dove was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah.

LIGHT: After Jeff died in 1997, his recording of "Hallelujah" sort of became his own elegy.


BUCKLEY: (Singing) Hallelujah.

LIGHT: September 11 comes and Jeff Buckley's recording of "Hallelujah" really became sort of an anthem in the aftermath, emotional shorthand for melancholy and for sadness.

SHAPIRO: That's writer Alan Light. Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" has been covered by at least 300 different artists. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.