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Leonard Cohen’s ‘sense of revenge’ over the rejection of Hallelujah

Music mogul Walter Yetnikoff refused to release the Canadian troubadour’s new album in 1984, but it would go on to yield many fan favourites including one track that has been covered more than 300 times

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Impact: Although 'Various Positions' was a commercial failure for Leonard Cohen, other musicians latched on to the album in the 1990s. Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns via Getty

Impact: Although 'Various Positions' was a commercial failure for Leonard Cohen, other musicians latched on to the album in the 1990s. Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns via Getty

Jeff Buckley made Hallelujah his own to such a degree that most of the many covers that appeared afterwards are much closer in spirit to his version than Cohen’s

Jeff Buckley made Hallelujah his own to such a degree that most of the many covers that appeared afterwards are much closer in spirit to his version than Cohen’s

Alexandra Burke, who won The X Factor in 2008 and went on to have the UK's biggest selling single of the year with Hallelujah

Alexandra Burke, who won The X Factor in 2008 and went on to have the UK's biggest selling single of the year with Hallelujah

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Impact: Although 'Various Positions' was a commercial failure for Leonard Cohen, other musicians latched on to the album in the 1990s. Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns via Getty

The word ‘legendary’ is bandied about far too often in the music business, but Walter Yetnikoff truly matched the description. He was one of the most important record company big-wigs of all time and in his role as president of Columbia Records between 1971 and 1990, he oversaw the release of huge albums from Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.

He was a master of dealing with both great artists and fragile egos and he became renowned for his unerring ability to make the right decision.

But in the autumn of 1984, Yetnikoff’s judgment seemed to abandon him. Leonard Cohen had just made his first album in five years and Yetnikoff did not like what he heard. The then contemporary sound — with synthesisers and studio effects to the fore — was not, he felt, what Leonard Cohen fans wanted to hear.

Cohen was summoned to Yetnikoff’s office in New York. “Look, Leonard,” the mogul reportedly told him. “We know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

Much to Cohen’s shock and dismay, Yetnikoff decided Various Positions was not commercially viable and refused to release it in the US. It was eventually brought out in February 1985 by a small label, Passport Records, a few months after it had been released in other parts of the world.

It’s worth remembering that Cohen’s stock was at a low ebb in the mid-1980s. His 1977 album Death of a Ladies’ Man, which had been produced by Phil Spector, fared poorly, and there was little love for his 1979 album, Recent Songs, which featured Jennifer Warnes on backing vocals. Her singing is all over Various Positions too.

Even still, Yetnikoff’s decision seems ludicrous. The opening track, Dance Me to the End of Love, would become Cohen’s perpetual concert opener, while If It Be Your Will is a haunting fan-favourite, that sounded spine-tinglingly special during his great 2008 show at Dublin’s Royal Hospital Kilmainham. (It was his first concert in this country in 22 years.)

But it’s another song — the centrepiece of the album — that makes the decision not to release the album more baffling still. Hallelujah was quite unlike any song he had penned before and, in time, it would become emblematic of Cohen’s greatness as a songwriter.

It has been covered more than 300 times since it was first released and is rivalled only by one of Cohen’s earliest compositions, Suzanne, as his most defining song. It has been endlessly written about, not least by the Rolling Stone journalist Alan Light, who devoted an entire book to it — The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah.

It is also the subject of a forthcoming feature-length documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song which is released on July 1. The version of the song that appears on Various Positions is written in a 6/8 time signature, which evokes both gospel music and traditional waltz. Written in the key of C major, the chord progression matches the song’s lyrics — “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift” — F, G, A minor, F.

Cohen often spent years honing his songs and Hallelujah seems to have presented an especially onerous challenge. He is said to have written in the region of 80 draft verses and during one writing session in New York, he was reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, banging his head on the ground.

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The song contains several biblical references, most notably lyrics evoking the stories of Samson and Delilah from the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible (“she cut your hair”) as well as that of King David and Bathsheba (“you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you”).

But there’s a strong carnal fixation in the song too — hardly a surprise as Cohen had written frankly about sex before. The double entendre of the album title, Various Positions, won’t have been lost on many.

Both Hallelujah and Various Positions were, largely, well received by the critics. One of America’s more cerebral rock hacks, Robert Christgau, quipped: “If you’re sick of hearing him whisper in your ear that to be a roué is a religious calling, so be it. Me, I think this is a better advertisement for middle-aged sex than Dynasty.”

But the album was a commercial failure, selling only modestly in Britain and elsewhere. Cohen would enjoy much greater sales with his next album, I’m Your Man, in 1988.

But Hallelujah was making an impact. Other musicians sensed just how unusual it was, structurally and lyrically, and with the dawn of the 1990s, a new breed of songwriter would latch on to it.

Jeff Buckley’s extraordinary rendition would not just signal his own remarkable talent, but shine a spotlight on Cohen’s singular composition. Buckley thoroughly reinvented the song and delivered it with a passion that was at odds with its creator’s laconic approach.

It was a central part of the appeal of the only album Buckley released in his life time, 1994’s Grace. Ironically, it was on the very label, Columbia, that had rejected the song a decade before.

Buckley made the song his own to such a degree that most of the many covers that appeared afterwards are much closer in spirit to his version than Cohen’s. And when he died of accidental drowning in 1997, at 30, the song almost became more his than its actual writer.

The late 90s, early 2000s was a fertile period for singer-songwriters — often earnest young men clutching a beat-up guitar — and I lost count of the amount of times that one of them would perform Hallelujah in the style of Buckley in venues like Whelan’s.

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Jeff Buckley made Hallelujah his own to such a degree that most of the many covers that appeared afterwards are much closer in spirit to his version than Cohen’s

Jeff Buckley made Hallelujah his own to such a degree that most of the many covers that appeared afterwards are much closer in spirit to his version than Cohen’s

Jeff Buckley made Hallelujah his own to such a degree that most of the many covers that appeared afterwards are much closer in spirit to his version than Cohen’s

Damien Rice was among those to take the song to his heart and he played it regularly. Cohen has had a greater impact on his career than most Irish troubadours and he was perhaps an ideal choice of support act during those great shows in Kilmainham.

After a lengthy time away from Ireland — and from touring generally — Cohen made up for lost time and returned here frequently. Hallelujah always got an airing — and to a uniformly rapturous reception.

The X Factor was an unexpected place for Hallelujah to end up, but it proved to be a huge hit for Alexandra Burke in 2008. Not only did the song become a Christmas number one in the UK but it was also Britain’s biggest-selling single that year.

Cohen was asked by Canadian radio in 2009 how he felt about The X Factor connection. “I was happy that the song was being used,” he said of its inclusion in the hugely popular, if critically derided, TV show. “Of course, there was certain ironic and amusing sidebars because the record that it came from, which was called Various Positions, that record Sony wouldn’t put out. They didn’t think it was good enough... So there was a mild sense of revenge that arose in my heart.”

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Alexandra Burke, who won The X Factor in 2008 and went on to have the UK's biggest selling single of the year with Hallelujah

Alexandra Burke, who won The X Factor in 2008 and went on to have the UK's biggest selling single of the year with Hallelujah

Alexandra Burke, who won The X Factor in 2008 and went on to have the UK's biggest selling single of the year with Hallelujah

But ever mindful of how ubiquity can curdle even the best art, he went on to say that the song tends to be overused now. “I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said, ‘Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way…

“I think the song came out in 1983 or 84, and the only person who seemed to recognise the song was Dylan. He was doing it in concert. Nobody else recognised the song until quite a long time later.”

Walter Yetnikoff, who died last year, eventually came to realise just how special the song — and album — that he had passed up had been. And when, in 1990, Columbia, which is owned by Sony, issued Cohen’s catalogue on compact disc, Various Positions was — no surprise — among them.


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