Dylan sings “Hallelujah” and the Praises of Leonard Cohen

“As far as I know,” said Bob Dylan about Leonard Cohen,
“no one else comes close to this in modern music.
His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres.”

Of all the songwriters of our time that Bob Dylan has admired, few ever received as much reverence as Leonard Cohen. His love for the songs of Petty, Simon, Lennon, McCartney, Zevon and others is all well-documented. But he and Leonard had a bond for decades, one built on mutual respect for the work, which grew more enduring as the years went by.

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Following Leonard’s death in 2016, Dylan sang his praises, and his songs, with more devotion than he sang the songs of anyone except his first hero, Woody Guthrie.

Leonard also had great reverence, and true astonishment, at the level of Dylan’s songwriting, the staggering profusion of great songs Dylan wrote through the decades, and the profound  impact Dylan’s work had on songwriting itself.

But unlike Lennon and Simon and countless great songwriters who acknowledge that Dylan’s impact expanded their own songwriting immensely, Leonard would have been Leonard no matter what. As  the poet Allen Ginsberg, a friend to both, said, “Dylan blew everybody’s mind when he emerged. Everyone except Leonard Cohen, that is.”

Dylan seemed to understand this, and admire Leonard for his greatness, but also his tireless diligence. The oft-told story is that they ran into each other and expressed appreciation for great songs each had recently written.  Bob asked Leonard how long it took to write “Hallelujah.” Leonard said ten years. 

Then Leonard asked Bob how long “I and I” took to write. Dylan said, “Fifteen minutes,” 

Leonard was probably humored by that. But the work for him, he said many times, was tough and only got tougher. “Hallelujah” was not his only song on which he devoted a full decade. He said “Anthem” also took a decade.

Yet even after all those years of hard labor in his tower of song, still, he said, he felt no real ownership of the song. Just gratitude for being its instrument.

“I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us,” Leonard said. “You don’t write the songs anyhow. So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this.”

Over the years, Dylan’s received much more worldwide reverence for his work than Leonard, and is probably the most influential songwriter of his time. Leonard’s status gradually expanded over the years. By 2016, his last year here, he was acknowledged as one of the great masters of songwriting. But as he said, it wasn’t always that way.

But the estimation of his importance gradually shifted, partially because of Dylan. During Leonard’s lifetime and also after, Dylan has been one of his most stalwart champions, 

When Leonard released “Hallelujah” in 1984 on his album Various Positions, the album hardly any fanfare, and nobody seemed to notice.

That is until Dylan spoke about it. When he was asked about Various Positions, Bob said, “These are more than songs. These are prayers.”

Those words, reflecting the holy if broken hallelujah which echoes through Leonard’s entire songbook, brought multitudes to Leonard’s music. Though prior to that he was loved and revered by the precious few who cherished his work, his status had yet to expand to what it became in later years. Part of that expansion was due to “Hallelujah.” 

It is the rare song of modern times that has become a standard – by which we mean a song which has been recorded countless times – though it was never a hit for Leonard. It is a standard not for commercial power inherent in it, but because it is a brilliant and great song. As Dylan explained, its music is very powerful, poignant and beautiful. The words, expressing the most poignant merger ever expressed in song of the sacred and profane. A romantic, tender-hearted, “fully employed”  genius. It didn’t come quickly. He said in our interview that although he told Bob that “Hallelujah” took ten years, in fact it took much longer.

Leonard spoke of his own need, almost obsession, to work and rework his lines for a long time, like polishing gems. But he respected that Dylan’s method was different, and expressed it with ancient symbology, that of the  “unhewn stone” on which ancient Jews erected their altar, as opposed to that which is slick and smooth.

“Dylan has a lot of lines that have the feel of unhewn stone,” Leonard said. “It’s inspired but not polished. That is not to say he doesn’t have lyrics of great polish. That kind of genius can manifest all the forms and all the styles.”

Leonard’s final public event was held at the beautiful Canadian consulate in Los Angeles, an elegant home with immense grounds lit on this night by candles illuminating Leonard’s lyrics on his final album, You Want It Darker.  

Some of his friends were there, and also collaborators. Only certain members of the press were invited, including many from different countries. It was October 13, 2016, the 75th birthday of Paul Simon, and the same day we learned that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

This was momentous, a serious acknowledgment that the songs of certain songwriters could be considered as important as the greatest literature. Of course, fans of Dylan and Leonard already knew this, but it was a big cultural shift. /

Throughout the night, one comment kept popping up among the friends and press assembled there: “If they gave that award to any songwriter, it should have been Leonard.”

Later that night, Leonard appeared, walking down the aisle with a cane and a smile. Everyone stood up, and gave him one of those most heartwarming standing ovations ever.

Before taking questions, he thanked us for being there. “Some of you came from around the world. Others drove across Los Angeles, which can take just as long.”  

One of the first questions he was asked was about his feelings about the news that Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize. 

With hardly a second’s hesitation, he said,  “To me, giving that award to Dylan is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.” 

Though many laughed at this precise and generous metaphor, most of the foreign press was completely baffled by it, as it simply did not translate. Afterwards they crowded around, asking intently for an explanation of this one sentence. “Pin award to mountain? ” We did our best to explain, but most likely failed.

After Leonard’s death, Dylan extolled Leonard’s greatness with great love and focus As someone who understands better than most humans what a song is, as opposed to a poem,  Dylan  pushed back against the prevalent pattern of memorializing Leonard as a poet, and not a songwriter. Leonard did write books of poems, as well as two novels. But his life was dedicated, with vast devotional intensity, to being a songwriter.  

Yet because of Leonard’s  prodigiously ingenious way with words, like Dylan, he’s often celebrated not as songwriter, but as a poet. As if being a poet in modern times is a higher calling in some way.  Yet as we know, in these times, it’s the songwriters who have have the greatest impact on our culture, much more so than poets. Dylan identified Leonard’s genius not as a poet = a writer of words – but as songwriter of both words and music.

“When people talk about Leonard,” Dylan said, “they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres.”

Leonard, like Dylan, was so celebrated through the decades for his expansive poetic brilliance with words that the full measure of his genius was often missed. Songs, as we know, are not created to be read on the page, like a poem, but to be heard. And to be sung. It is the crucial merger of language with melody – music ancient and modern – that distinguished Leonard’s work, and instilled his songs with timeless grace.

It’s true Leonard forever joked about his own limitations as a musician (“Every guitarist has chops,” he said. “Me, I only have one chop. But it’s a good one.”) Yet he composed music of great grace and power, as simple and elegant as his words. “Hallelujah” would never have become a standard if not for that ingenious ascending melody, which matches the words impeccably, and goes straight to the heart.

Dylan performed a beautifully charged, bluesy and loving rendition of “Hallelujah” on the road often. “That song has resonance for me,” Dylan said to David Remnick of The New Yorker. “There again, it’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time.”

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