Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley, and Human Achievement as Collaboration

Whatever I thought I was going to write is now gone. As I sit here, the song “Hallelujah”–the Jeff Buckley version–is playing. Even over the hisses and whizzes of the espresso machine, the pseudo-intellectual coffee house conversations, the laughs of studying undergrads, this song just breathes me into itself.

I usually cry when I hear it.

One time, I was on the Amtrak from Montreal to New York to visit my family, sometime after my sister had passed away. My iTunes library shuffled onto it, and though I was embarrassed by the tears rolling down my face as the waters of Lake Champlain rolled by outside the window, I couldn’t turn it off.

"Light on the Lake" by Rob Friesel on Flickr

“Light on the Lake” by Rob Friesel on Flickr

Buckley’s “Hallelujah” is a cover. Leonard Cohen’s original version is a sort of campy, gospel number. Most other covers work from Buckley’s take on it (or really, the stripped down cover by John Cale that inspired Buckley). There are some great versions, no doubt (KD Lang, Rufus Wainwright, Jim Gallo of the Loyola College Chimes back when I was a member of the women’s a cappella group, the Belles). But for me, and most people, Buckley is it.

Embed from Getty Images

The story of the song draws me to it. Though Cohen’s original version was not quite right when he first wrote it, the beauty of the work, and certainly the lyrical brilliance, was there under the layers of schmaltz. Cohen composed a riddle to which he didn’t know the answer, and it took the contributions of other musicians to puzzle it out.

There are few truly original ideas out there–almost all work riffs off something else. We often think of great human achievement, and art especially, as concocted by tormented geniuses working in isolation. But most work, in some way, is the result of collaboration–even if it comes across time and space. Does that somehow diminish the achievement? I don’t think so.

In my opinion, it’s in Buckley’s performance that “Hallelujah” truly becomes itself–what it was meant to be. There’s something about the honesty of Buckley’s voice–the breaks at just the right points, the crescendos and near whispers–and the guitar, simultaneously velvety and spare. It’s a performance so full of emotion that you don’t even have to know what you’re feeling–it just comes. Ecstasy, torment, contempt, even–the pull of his voice exposes it all.

Montreal

There’s an added layer of sadness when I listen to Buckley’s “Hallelujah.” It’s the lost promise, the “would have been” that will never be, all that was taken away by Jeff Buckley’s accidental drowning. He was just 30 years old. But I do feel grateful for what he left us.

You should really just listen for yourself. I dare you not to cry.

(though I really love the original studio version, this live version is pretty incredible, too)

Is there a particular song or piece of art that consistently moves you? What do you think about the idea of all achievement as collaboration?

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8 responses to “Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley, and Human Achievement as Collaboration

  1. I absolutely love that song and quite agree that Buckley captures it best. I always find it so raw and emotional even if I’m not sure why that is

  2. Ahh, I love that song, too!

    Even though I don’t need more ways of showing the world I have an unhealthy obsession with Lost, I have to post this piece of music from the soundtrack. I think Michael Giacchino is amazing. I cannot listen to this track without getting goosebumps. It’s incredibly beautiful and moving, even for a non-Lost loving listener. But, for those who did watch the show it pulls together the emotion of the entire series. It plays during the premier episode of the last season, when we see the alternate reality of the plane landing at LAX. After 5 years of building intense relationships among the characters, we see a world in which they never met. This music is a variation of some of the main themes played during the most emotional scenes these people experienced together. Now, it’s given a twist that adds a different type of sadness and feeling as we watch each person leave the plane alone, with no more than passing glances at one another. It conjures up the idea of the different paths our lives can take and how coincidence can play such an important role in who we become. Or really, that everything is coincidence!

    This year is me and Kieran’s 10 year anniversary, and I always think of all the things that had to happen for us to meet. If just one thing had changed everything would be different. It’s even more intense to think about now that we have Sally. In another life, we could have missed each other by just a few hours or minutes and who knows who or where we’d be now! It’s overwhelming to think of the ripples created by just one moment in time and how they last infinitely. Everything Sally will do, everything her children will do, and on and on and on was set into motion in a matter of seconds and just one tiny change would mean a whole different world.

    That’s what this music conjures up for me!

    • Thanks for sharing that piece, Erin! I think composing for film and TV is such an awesome art form that we don’t appreciate enough! The right music can do so much.

      This is definitely awesome. I like your take on it and how it makes you feel and reflect on your own life. Great music definitely speaks to us in a personal way like that, no matter what it was originally referencing.

  3. So, one of my favorite Jimi Hendrix songs is “All Along the Watchtower.” Bring this up and someone with a high opinion of their 1960s music knowledge will inevitably point out that it was actually written by Bob Dylan. Ok, fine–but Hendrix made it his song. The guy owned it–turned it inside out and made it into what it could be. Reinvention, I think, takes just as much creativity as invention, if not more–you have to overcome the prejudice inherent in knowing the original.

    And Ralph Vaughn Williams’ pieces make me cry. I am a dork.

    • That’s a great example and I totally agree! Yes, reinvention is definitely a challenge–working with and against what already exists…

      And yeah, Ralph Vaughn Williams is breathtaking.

      Thanks for commenting!

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