How Genius Happens: The untold story of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

How Genius Happens: The untold story of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

As Jeff Buckley quietly drowned in a Memphis tributary in 1997, he could not have known that this tragic accident would lead to immortality. If not for him, then for the mostly unknown song that he had covered: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

The song itself is almost universally recognized as a preeminent example of modern songwriting. Seemingly every artist has covered it (I shamelessly prefer the Rufus Wainwright version (here)).

Yet if Buckley hadn’t waded, fully clothed, into that slack water channel—wearing cowboy boots and singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”—you might not even know the song.

And that’s another tragedy.

TWO TYPES OF GENIUS

This is but one revelation in the latest installment of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. The episode is entitled “Hallelujah,” and it explores two ways that genius happens (download here).

The first form of genius is what we typically think of when we use the word. It can be seen in artists like Picasso, Melville, and Bob Dylan. These preternatural talents produce their masterpieces in quick bursts of confident and superhuman giftedness. Gladwell calls these Conceptual Innovators.

The second form of genius is what Gladwell calls Experimental Innovators. And these are very different. They spend years tinkering and dismantling their own work, never fully satisfied with it. Cezanne was like this. Many of his greatest paintings went unsigned, because he was not ready to admit that they were done. In other cases, he required a hundred sittings for a single portrait.

Leonard Cohen is like that.

THE BAFFLED KING COMPOSING

Cohen worked obsessively on Hallelujah for five years—FIVE YEARS—writing upwards of sixty verses. That’s insane. And if you’ve heard his “finished” version, you know—it’s terrible. It sounds like a Baptist choir got drunk and then sang background for a sad Neil Diamond. It’s offensive.

Ironically, the first person to take note of the song was Bob Dylan (who knows a thing or two about making terrible versions of his own music). Over lunch, Dylan asked Cohen how long it took to write it. Cohen lied and said two years. Then he asked Dylan how long it took to write one of his favorites (“I and I”). Dylan told the truth: about fifteen minutes.

Picasso, meet Cezanne. Cezanne, try not to choke him.

NOT A VICTORY MARCH

Then a series of unlikely events takes place. Here are the cliff-notes:

  • Cohen’s album and the song are rejected, because: sad Neil Diamond.
  • Cohen keeps tinkering… Now the choir is gone and the latest version sounds like he’s channeling a Jewish Barry White (here). It’s still awful.
  • Then, John Kale, of The Velvet Underground, hears the latest iteration. He likes it, and asks Cohen for the lyrics. Cohen faxes fifteen pages!
  • Kale then chooses three verses, mostly those with biblical imagery. He changes the entire feel of the song, and covers it. No one buys it.
  • No one, that is, except a woman named Janine, in Brooklyn—for whom Jeff Buckley cat-sits. That’s right: cat-sits.
  • Buckley performs the song at a dive bar. A record exec is there, and he immediately signs him.
  • Buckley’s 1994 version of Hallelujah is inspired. It is “the famous one.” But almost no one pays attention.
  • Then, in 1997, Buckley drowns in Memphis. And in the aftermath of tragedy, as often happens, people take notice.

From the swirling waters of the Mississippi, a daimon (Greek for “genius”) rises.

NO SECRET CHORD

So what’s the point?

For Gladwell, one lesson is that genius comes in more than just one form. There is Dylan, bleeding brilliance in the time it takes to nuke a hot pocket. But there is also Cohen (and Cezanne), for whom genius, to quote W.B. Yeats, “comes dropping slow,” and through endless edits and reiterations.

For these folks, there is no “secret chord” to please the ear upon first listen. Instead, there is a long slog. And in such cases, time is a key ingredient.

But that’s not the only lesson here.

I USED TO LIVE ALONE BEFORE I KNEW YOU

My takeaway involves how much help Cohen needed all along the way. In short, he needed to be rescued from his own conception of what the song should be.

To be sure, Cohen is a genius. And the brilliant words are his. But he was also terrible at separating the good bits from the bad. And he lacked an ear for how the song should sound. John Kale fixed that. Then Jeff Buckley brought his voice, his artistry, and his good looks. (Picture Jesus, but with better fashion sense.) Still, even this may not have been enough. In the end, it took a tragedy as well.

So, in the end, Cohen’s work needed not just TIME, but HELP as well.

And neither of those words are usually associated with “genius.”

We like to picture our geniuses like Dylan or Picasso. Solitary. Effortlessly churning brilliance at breakneck speed, as if tapped into a spiritual force beyond themselves.

Which is what “genius” meant originally.

For the ancients, it was not that someone WAS a genius (for life). Rather, it was that they HAD a genius (occasionally). In such rare moments, a spirit (daimon) inhabited them, and their work became transcendent.[1]

On this older definition, see this excellent TED Talk by Liz Gilbert (here).

But solitude and speed is NOT how “Hallelujah” happened.

And as someone who wrangles words for a living, that encourages me.

THE MAJOR LIFT

Personally, I take heart in knowing that even Leonard Cohen needed lots of TIME and lots of HELP to “make the mummies dance” in Hallelujah.

Even after years of work, this brilliant song was still sub-par.

But that was not the end.

Because writing is rewriting. Genius loves company. And good work takes time. Sometimes, it is a long and frustrating slog.

Yet in the Christian tradition especially, it is encouraging to know that even broken hallelujahs can be made beautiful.[2]

Buckley and Cohen

 


 

[1] The Old Testament has a related, though less pagan, version of this theme when speaking of Bezalel and Oholiab as artists filled with the divine Ruach (Exod. 31).

[2] For more on this fascinating story, see Alan Light, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” (New York: Astria, 2012).