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.
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.
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.
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?