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REACHING FOR THE SKY JUST TO SURRENDER

A Musician's Meditations on the Late Leonard Cohen


Musicians, artists, writers, producers, actors, creators, and dreamers: all too often in this game of ours the urge to quit is something we have to wrestle with - a question demanding an answer that feels like an inevitable surrender.  It’s understandable really. We sacrifice so much in order to do what we do and usually with very little (if any) financial success. Our victories have to be measured by the satisfaction of creation, hearing about the impact of our work on someone’s life, or from the simple love of the craft.

I am not immune to thoughts of “slowing down” or even giving it up completely. This road has cost me my health, my money, jobs, loves, much of my sanity, friendships and even some family. The desire to pack it all in can be overwhelming when you cut your chest open and put your heart and soul into something only to have it harshly critiqued, ridiculed, or worse completely ignored.  And the soul raping experience of losing yourself in the moment, eyes closed, feeling every word, bleeding into every chord, killing yourself to make a meaningful connection with your audience only to open your eyes and find people staring into that irresistible hypnotic glow of a cell phone. Trust me friends, that will make you question yourself and what you’re doing with your life.

Why keep going? Love? Sometimes it feels less like love and more like addiction. I have no idea who I am without it. It defines me in so many ways and regardless of how hard I try to walk away and find another path, I am continually sucked back in again and again. And so I continue to feed this beast. It devours my time, my family and friend’s time, my mental space, money, and more and more sacrifices with every passing year.

When Leonard Cohen passed I was touched by an outpouring from friends and family expressing sympathies and some thanking me for introducing his work to them. My newsfeed immediately filled expressions of sadness and loss. Almost every single one mentioned “Hallelujah” the song for which he is best known. One friend even sent me a recording of his cover version of the song. In the days that followed I watched countless cover versions of that song from unknown artists with a guitar or a couple sitting at a piano to full blown orchestral versions complete with choirs and stained glass. More moving than the music at times was watching people’s reactions to the power of lyric and verse when in the hands of a true master. And that song, Leonard Cohen’s swan song, languished in total obscurity and anonymity for decades.

Cohen spoke of laboring on “Hallelujah” for years. He composed 80 verses for the song and struggled in earnest to chisel it down to a form he was satisfied with. During one especially tortured writing session in a hotel he threw himself down amidst the papers and scrawling, and banged his head on the floor in frustration over not being able to serve the song in a manner befitting its potential majesty.  He eventually settled on a version that was included on the “Various Positions” album. The President of Columbia Records at the time, Walter Yetnikoff, called Cohen into his New York office and explained, "Look, Leonard; we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good.” Columbia refused to release the album in the United States.

Ask yourself this, “Have I put that much effort into my art?” “Have I suffered to that extent for my craft?” Imagine, if you can the soul crushing disappointment of sitting across the desk from a suit that obviously just doesn’t “get it” and there is nothing you can do about it. For most of us being signed to a label like Columbia is an unimaginable achievement that if ever realized would leave us no choice but to firmly believe we’d “made” it. Now ask yourself “Would I keep going?” “Would I continue to create in the face of such rejection?”

The album was eventually released but only in Europe on an independent label in Dec 1984. It reached the top ten in Spain and Scandinavia and barely even charted in the U.K. That seemed to be the disappointing fate for “Various Positions” and for “Hallelujah”. Until John Cale of Velvet Underground fame contacted Cohen asking permission to cover the song.  Cohen sent Cale all 80 verses with a note that read “Here. Maybe you can make something out of this.”

Cale was the first to release a cover of the song in 1991 which then inspired Jeff Buckley to release his version in 1994, a full decade after the original’s humble release. Another decade later, in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine listed Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

Since 1991 “Hallelujah” has been covered and released by over 300 artists in many different languages, it’s been the subject of a BBC documentary and has been included in multiple movies and television programs all around the world.  Alexandra Burke’s version is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest selling download in UK history.  36 years after his label refused to release it in America it was streamed more than 3.8 million times in the U.S. in one week alone, the week following the news of his death on November 10.

This weekend I’ll be somewhere, cold, tired, loading gear then unloading gear.  I’ll play my songs again. Maybe the crowd will respond, maybe not. Maybe I’ll make a real connection and maybe they’ll give me just a little something back, maybe not. On the drive home fingers will ache, ears will ring and my conscience will sting from playing “Brown Eyed Girl” with enthusiasm. Then doubts will show up uninvited, like old friends, and plop down beside and make sure I’m not alone on the long ride home. Questions will crawl to the surface of my conscious like worms after the rain, squirming around in my head, eating holes in my faith and asking “Is it really worth it?”

I have no delusions of writing something as timeless and ethereal as “Hallelujah” but I’m not giving up just yet. I can’t because who knows? Maybe someday, years from now…decades from now, someone will find a little inspiration or value in one of our songs. Maybe they’ll create a version that inspires others…and maybe then it’ll make a meaningful connection and truly touch people…even if they are just listening to it while staring into their phones.

For us it simply cannot be all about sales or downloads or streams, or even recognition. Because ultimately the creation was created. The labor was completed and the work was done and that’s all any of us have any real say in anyway. So even if no one else on Earth had ever heard it, Leonard Cohen would still be the man that wrote “Hallelujah” and that should be more than enough for any of us.

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