Hallelujah! And Other Cohenalia

I’ve been thinking a lot about Leonard Cohen recently.

To some extent that’s not surprising. I’ve seen a TV documentary and a film about him in recent weeks, read Sylvie Simmons’s magisterial biography, and almost everywhere I’ve been I’ve heard that song, never mind the film (of which more presently).

Along the way we saw this guy, Stewart D’Arrietta, and his show at the Edinburgh Fringe, My Leonard Cohen: Up Close and Personal. It was a pretty good tribute, although his gruff voice might be better suited to the other show he was doing, Tom Waits. All the same, excellent musically and some good vignettes in between songs which told you a bit about the Life of Lenny.

Also at the Fringe, you may recall, this year we saw the Soweto Gospel Choir (full rave review elsewhere on this blog) who, amongst some fantastic African music, also sang a deeply moving version of, yes you’ve guessed it, ‘Hallelujah.’

‘Hallelujah’ featured in Stewart D’Arrietta’s show, of course, and although I wasn’t there, Mrs F heard that song for a third time in one Fringe at Greyfriars Church, where she volunteers, sung by the Barnsley Youth Choir.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sylvie Simmons’s biography of the man. ‘Thorough’ was the word that sprang to mind, although as luck would have it she finished it just a couple of years before her subject passed away – there’s probably an updated edition now.

One of the things these kind of biographies of creative types always get judged on is the balance of life story versus musical critique. For me at least, she got this about right, in that there were brief descriptions of the major songs and how they got written, without her launching into major analyses of what Lenny had in mind when he wrote a line like ‘I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch.’ I’ve certainly glanced at books on Dylan that attempt line by line interpretation, and quickly put them back on the shelf on the basis that that way lies madness. I’m sure Cohenology is probably a burgeoning strain of academia, especially now the poor chap’s no longer here to tell them it’s all bunk.

What struck me most about the book, as well as the film, was just how likeable a person Leonard was. I mean, even the many women he signally failed to stay faithful to had nary a bad word to say about him! Despite – or perhaps because of – his battles with depression, his deep, life long quest for spiritual understanding, his reputation for writing songs that were, well, let’s face it, not always the cheeriest, he comes across as a witty, patient man who deflected the daftest of journalistic probing with a deftness that other Famous Songwriters with a capital F might take heed of.

Then there’s the film. It’s an intertwined biography of both Cohen and his best known song, yes, ‘Hallelujah,’ and does, in my view, a pretty good job of both.

One thing that occurred to me, a couple of days after, was that although the focus is understandably on the words, with so many alternative verses that one can attempt the sacred or profane when covering it, or as Lenny himself did latterly, a mixture of both, it’s a really lovely melody, a proper earworm. Which is good, because boy, do you hear a lot of versions of it in the film, and some of them, frankly, aren’t the best. Although I might seek out the Brandi Carlile version.

But it’s a good film. If you like Leonard Cohen, or you like the song, you should go and see it.

There’s another reason why I’ve been thinking a lot about Leonard Cohen: he was the last well known figure I really felt for when he went, and although I suspect, like Dylan, he can be a bad influence on my own songwriting, I’ve been working for a while now on a cover of one of his songs. Not that one  though!

I can’t remember when I had the idea of covering ‘Anthem,’ but early on I hit on using a field recording I’d done, years ago, of my Dad’s grandfather clock, setting the bpm for the recording at 60, of course. Come to think of it, given that I’ve just turned 60 myself, I guess it’s a good time to release it.

The grandfather clock, incidentally, was built by an Alexander Ferguson – who may or may not be an ancestor, although my Dad was pretty convinced he was – around 1780. My Dad bought it in a saleroom about 200 years later. Apparently Alexander (also my grandfather’s name) got his start in Edinburgh’s High Street, before setting up in Fife. The clock is his cheaper, farmer’s version, rather than the posh versions he did for the landed gentry. It’s currently in my mother-in-law’s house, awaiting a bit of restoration.

Also in the recording is a bit of kantele, a Finnish folk harp which I built from a kit with a lot of assistance of my now late father in law, Alastair (although his proper name was Alexander) Wright. So both my own Dad and Alison’s are a part of the recording.


Finally, the church bells you hear at the end of the track were recorded, on my phone, from our apartment opposite the church in Caceres, in the Extremadura region of Spain, a few years ago. I remember working through siesta time on the final proofs of my second edition of the common good book there, trying to forget about what was an increasingly stressful work situation back home. I’m in a much better place now, but the bells still serve to remind me that there’s a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.

Speaking of Spain, I’m writing this last part at siesta time in Cadiz, so the next couple of blogs will catch up with where we’ve been so far, as part of my continuing series on Spain. At one time I thought I might make a book out of it, but now I’m not so sure: it sounds like a lot of effort that I’d far rather put into music. I used to be a writer, but I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd…




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