The world is bleak.
There has been little of the past few years of my life that has lent itself to hope and optimism, and the one thing I had hope and optimism about backfired spectacularly. This reinforced what I had always been told about myself, both by actual people and what my unending internal monologue created by my lovely constant companions Anxiety and Depression have reiterated daily since childhood. So I was already down for the count earlier this year when the world lost several of my heroes in a short period of time. It just got worse from there, and the events of November 2016 has sapped all energy from my life. The revolutionary spirit that saw the world as a force of good in spite of all the crap that is my own personal life ceased to exist as I saw the most powerful nation on earth vote for a modern fascist, and the past few weeks of swastikas, white nationalism, vicious beatings, and a thin-skinned despot-to-be whining about double chins in photographs.
I fear for my daughters. I fear for my friends.
I usually turn to music in times of doubt and distress. I love the Taylor Swift internet quote “People haven’t always been there for me. Music always has.” From the days of sitting at my grandmother’s piano trying to play the Great American Songbook to being dragged in front of the congregation to play Beethoven during communion, music was a safe place for me. I made up for a lack of natural talent with faith in song. Naturally, because of church, and my parents deep faith, I grew up appreciating spiritual and religious music. It could be Mendelssohn’s Reformation, or Schubert’s Ave Maria, that turns my head. But typically it’s something like Cat Stevens’ reworking of “Morning Has Broken”, or Billy Bragg’s version of “Jerusalem”, that makes me feel at ease with the world. Secular hymns, they are called. Written by secular artists to speak to spirituality. They make up a lot of my daily listening, and my Sunday’s are usually joined by Coltrane’s masterwork A Love Supreme, the four-part tonal prayer of a troubled soul trying to come to terms with himself.
My parents exerted some control of my childhood listening, naturally. There was Sesame Street records and Disney records, and a much missed copy of the Irish Rover’s Children of the Unicorn album that I am still looking to replace. But my mother’s pop music still made its way into my life. She would sing as she prepared dinner, usually Herman’s Hermits songs, sometimes show tunes. Every once in a while she’d turn and maniacally start singing parts of “They’re Coming to take Me Away” by Napoleon XIV and freak me out. She would grab my hand and start waltzing as she did her best Marnie Nixon impression on “Shall We Dance” (from The King And I). My dad was the classical music person, who brought me Tchaikovsky and Bach and an appreciation of orchestras. But I was always drawn to the forbidden. I liked Led Zeppelin from the moment I heard “Kashmir” on the radio. Their first mistake was giving me that radio. It allowed me to listen to everything from new wave to heavy metal with just a turn of the dial. My friend Larissa has a copy of Like A Virgin given to her and I memorized that album. I’m sure you can all imagine my father’s horror when he heard me singing that particular Madonna song. The more my parents fought me on what I listened to, the more I went searching. Eventually the grunge era would come, my mother would become ill, and suddenly I was allowed EVERYTHING. My love for R.E.M. would be my entrance point to so many artists that I would never have heard of before 1991. And my Velvet Underground obsession is what led me to “Hallelujah”.
For all of Lou Reed’s genius, I have always been a John Cale fangirl. Maybe it’s the avant-garde viola and orchestral bent to the music he produces. A friend of mine lent me a copy of I’m Your Fan, the Leonard Cohen tribute album produced by a French magazine. He knew I was a huge fan of a lot of the artists (R.E.M., Nick Cave, the Pixies, Lloyd Cole, name them, they’re on it), but he also knew that I was obsessed with Cale’s Paris 1919 album. He told me that Cale had covered a Cohen song that was pretty good. He admitted he had picked the record out of the Zellers discount bin, which gave me some pause since usually the Lloydminster Zellers discount bin was filled with crappy country music no one wanted and Zamfir tapes. It was 1993, and the best known songs on the cassette at the time were radio staple “Bird on the Wire” and “First We Take Manhattan”, which was only a couple of years old at the time and made famous by Jennifer Warnes on radio. The album is fantastic, the pinnacle of lone artist tribute albums that the nineties produced at a fast clip. But at the end, was Cale’s stark piano and voice cover of “Hallelujah”. I was mesmerised by it from the very first listen. I would have chalked it up to it being Cale covering a beautiful song that no one seemed to know. Then the following year, something changed the course of this song.
Jeff Buckley’s Grace happened. I had grabbed it, from all places, the Lloydminster public library. I put it on, listened to it once. I remember hearing his version of “Hallelujah” and thinking “Pretty, but way too sad.” It’s not as if Cale’s version was all sunshine and rainbows, but it had an air of detachment to it,, while Buckley’s version seemed to drown in its own sorrow. I was way more into R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People record to speak for my state of mind at the time, with some Pearl Jam and Nirvana thrown in to anger my parents. I didn’t listen to Grace again for about a decade. By this time the myth of “Hallelujah” was beginning to develop. Cale’s version was in Shrek, and Rufus Wainwright had recorded the version on the soundtrack. k.d. lang’s version was just starting to be passed around after she released Hymns of the 49th Parallel. It hadn’t reached mass hysteria level, but it was starting to be everywhere. I had lost my bootleg copy of the Cohen tribute record and it was hard finding the song anywhere not involving an ogre. So I went and got myself a copy of Grace. It’s astonishing what time can do to what you hear on a record. I sat in the middle of my living room and cried. Jeff Buckley was gone by this point. My mother had passed as well, and my mother’s mother was incredibly ill herself. I had gone through so much hell and I was still trying to find a way out. I had three little kids, no job, no money, no husband, no hope. And it broke me.
“Hallelujah” continues to break me to this day.
The past few years has seen the song come back to me again and again. I can’t stop listening to it. But it’s always the Cale, Buckley, and lang versions. The Wainwright version is lovely, but it’s my kid’s version. It means something else. lang’s version evokes tremendous pride- it was the song she sang at the 2005 Juno’s that brought her back to everyone’s minds after years in exile. It’s the song she performed at the 2010 Olympics so effectively. Buckley’s version is the one I listen to when all is lost, and I have nothing to hold on to so I cling to it. Cale’s is the one I listen to every day, as part of my mornings, as I prepare myself for the cruelty of the universe. It’s wake up, prayers, Urban Decay’s Naked Pallette in Smoky with John Cale, and then straightening iron.
The song leaves itself to so many different takes. I’ve heard it overblown, a cappella, countrified, Celtic-ized, divalicious, and nordical. lang’s version has an orchestra. Cale’s a piano. Buckley’s an acoustic guitar. But there is one version I have never really liked.
And it’s the one that appears on Various Positions.
Cohen is a singular talent when it comes to lyrics. But as a musician, he keeps things simple. It’s the producers who ruin things for him, and Various Positions production is by John Lissauer. Cohen’s version is ruined by tinny 80s synthesizers and choirs and a bizarre mid tempo construct. Everything about Cohen’s original seems so wrong. The song’s simple melodic beauty was lost in the unnecessary frills of production. Which is probably why it didn’t impact the way “Dance Me To the End of Love” from the same album has (though again, I prefer another artist’s moody version to the weird mid tempo original).
The song in its original construct is still lyrically clever- Cohen’s mapping out of the chord progressions is witty (subdominant, dominant, C major). And of course, it pulls from faith. It’s not a coincidence that the song begins with King David, the warrior of the Old Testament who also was a flawed writer of Psalms made great by faith. It’s also not a coincidence that the sexier parts of the Bible, like the Samson and Delilah story, and David’s seduction of Bathsheba, appear in the second verse. He challenges the third commandment in another verse. And if all eighty verses that supposedly exist were ever published, we would probably find more references. This is not unusual in Cohen’s writing and if there is anything that could be considered a motif in his lyrics it is the ruminations on faith.
Cohen’s spiritual references are not bringing me comfort, though. It’s easy for me to go around singing lines from “Anthem” under my breath as I listen to the news or read the internet or wake up alone. But it’s getting harder and harder to believe them. And as for listening to “Hallelujah”? It’s been damn near impossible, regardless of the version. I cannot for the life of me find any silver lining. I put my faith in song, in history, in the idea that humanity will always win out over tyranny, in love. It’s becoming clearer to me though that the most pertinent known verse of “Hallelujah” is the one that closes the original Cohen version.
“I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah”
My instinct is to run, to bury myself away from the world under books and records and to sit among the trees alone with little contact with anyone. I’ve done it before. It’s not pretty. The difference between now and then is the fact that I have this silly little place to write. So on my stronger days I’ll probably appear here or at Noise and write something pithy. I have year-end lists to put together after all. But right now I’m trying to find the reason to not give up those thin threads of hope I am desperately holding on to. I need to find a centre. So if it appears I have disappeared, I have. For a while at least.
Wish me luck.