Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was a complex, nearly indecipherable musical riddle that flummoxed even its composer. Originally released as a funereal synth-laden dirge on 1984’s Various Positions, he spent years tinkering with the track during live performances in a relentless pursuit to unlock its full melodic potential. Ultimately, it was John Cale who provided the key.
The iconoclastic Velvet Underground co-founder, producer and innovative writer/arranger crafted an elegiac version of “Hallelujah” that vaulted the song into a rarefied strata of modern standards. Now he speaks to PEOPLE about the song’s long journey.
First included on an obscure Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan, commissioned by the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles in 1991, it’s perhaps best known for the stark version that appeared the following year on Cale’s live collection, Fragments of a Rainy Season. Something of a precursor to the “unplugged” performance concept that exploded in the first half of the 1990s, the album was a stripped down career retrospective reaching back to Cale’s early collaborations with his Velvet Underground bandmate Lou Reed.
Last fall, the album was recently given a deluxe reissue, complete with bonus tracks and outtakes from throughout the extensive European tour. “Hallelujah” received a bewitching video directed by Abby Portner, invoking elements from Shakespeare’s MacBeth to portray the song’s crumbling grandeur.
Cale first heard the track while attending one of Cohen’s concerts at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 1990. “I was really an admirer of his poetry,” he tells PEOPLE. “It never let you down. There’s a timelessness to it.” The song stayed in his mind, he didn’t decide to record it until Les Inrockuptibles asked him to contribute to I’m Your Fan several months later. In the pre-digital days, there was really only one way to learn the tune at short notice: “I called Leonard and asked him to send me the lyrics.”
Famously, there were a lot. “Fifteen verses,” Cale confirms. “It was a long roll of fax paper. And then I choose whichever ones were really me. Some of them were religious, and coming out of my mouth would have been a little difficult to believe. I choose the cheeky ones.”
After recording the song for I’m Your Fan, he toyed with a variety of arrangements on his 1992 tour documented on Fragments of a Rainy Season. “There were a lot of different venues and a lot of different kinds of performances. And as it turned out the ones that were best were the ones that were done on a real piano, not an electric piano. Every time we got a real Steinway things went up a couple notches.”
Cale’s version of “Hallelujah” immediately struck a chord, inspiring a host of artists to offer their own take. A young Jeff Buckley added a hauntingly intimate version to Grace, his sole release before drowning in the Mississippi at age 30. His death added an extra dose of pathos to the intensely gripping song, and within a decade the number of cover versions had swelled to 300. According to Cale, Cohen grew weary of his creation’s popularity. “He said, ‘I don’t want to hear any more new versions of “Hallelujah”! Let’s put an embargo on that!'”
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The song reached its apex in 2001, when Cale’s recording was included in the blockbuster animated film, Shrek, exposing “Hallelujah” to a new generation of musicians and fans. “That was a big surprise to me, seeing it there was a perfect slot for it.”
Still a mainstay in his set, he admits that the song has taken on a life of its own. “You travel a lot and you play different venues and you find different things about songs and they recreate themselves, really.”