Few songs become “standards” these days, but Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of them. Cohen’s biographer Sylvie Simmons estimated in 2012 that the song had been covered by more than 300 artists, a number likely much higher now. “Hallelujah” has been featured on television and film soundtracks from Shrek, to The X-Factor, to The Watchmen. It also has become a go-to for sombre occasions. In 2001, Jeff Buckley’s cover played repeatedly on VH1 over images of the September 11th attacks as a memorial. At the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, k.d. lang sang it to a global audience of three billion. More recently, the song was performed at U.S. President Joe Biden’s inaugural ceremonies for victims of COVID-19. In what must be its weirdest cover ever, Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live sang “Hallelujah” costumed as Hillary Clinton the weekend after her loss in the 2016 presidential election. Leonard Cohen himself had died that election night.
Apart from its beautiful melody, the appeal of “Hallelujah” lies in its hymnal qualities that don’t stray too far from the secular. Maclean’s praises the song as “pop music’s closest thing to a sacred text.” The song is also, if you pay attention, about sex and power. The lyrics describe a love-struck singer who aspires to be like King David, but finds himself conquered instead: “She tied you to a kitchen chair / She broke your throne, and she cut your hair /And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.” The song’s kinky logic turns pain into pleasure, a defeat into transcendence. One can make too much of the lyrics, but the use of “Hallelujah,” usually for public mourning, reinforces its message about turning a negative into a positive. This is undoubtedly consoling, but as a political performance—say when sung by a Hillary Clinton impersonator—it treats political failure as inevitable and even, because of the pleasure involved, righteous. “Hallelujah” has become an anthem for the failure of the liberal order.
That Cohen’s work makes frequent political references is clear from just a glance at his catalogue, with songs like “The Partisan” and “Democracy.” And Cohen has long served a semi-official state function in Canada, receiving every possible honour, it seems, from the Governor General’s Award, to the Order of Canada, to a place on postage stamps. But what has never been fully appreciated is how the politics of Cohen’s time shaped his sensibility. While demonstrating culturally liberal values, especially around sex, Cohen’s work is also steeped in the simmering violence and stern order of Cold War liberalism. In his poetry and song, freedom often manifests as violence visited upon another, especially in a complicated romance. And while violence tends towards chaos, Cohen found order in artistic, religious and political tradition. The welfare state of the Cold War era claimed to provide such order, balancing the contending forces of capital and labour at home, while Canadian foreign policy claimed to strike a balance in the bipolarity of global affairs, as a peacekeeper and as a mediator between the U.S. and the socialist world, especially Cuba and China. That the Cold War is key to Cohen’s art is obvious, too, in the famous transformation of his music in the late 1980s. In Cohen’s work of that period, the end of the Cold War appears as an apocalypse arising from the disintegration of the balance of forces that had hitherto structured the world.
Solidarity, For A While
Born in 1934, Leonard Cohen came of age at the height of the Cold War, the only son of a Jewish family in the wealthy Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount. The Cohens, who were in the clothing business, were among the most prominent Jewish families in the city. A great-great uncle had been Chief Rabbi of Montreal, and Cohen’s grandfather, Lyon, was a founding member of the Canadian Jewish Congress. The Cohens were a Zionist family, a political affiliation Leonard took seriously.
The Cohens were also Canadian patriots. Leonard’s father, Nathan, had been wounded serving in World War One, and suffered from poor health until his early death at the age of 52. Leonard was only nine years old when Nathan died. As Cohen told his biographer: “He was an army man, a patriarch, an Edwardian kind of gentleman […] I always loved the army. My father had intended to send me to the Kingston Military Academy, actually. And if he’d have lived, I would probably have been in the Canadian Army.”
While the battle against communism wasn’t a total war (with notable exceptions such as Korea and later, Vietnam) Canadian society was rife with paranoia about secret communists and fifth columnists supposedly militating to undermine the nation from within. The first high-profile event of the global Cold War took place in Canada in 1945, when Cohen was 12. Igor Gouzenko, a clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, defected with documents detailing Soviet spy activities in North America, resulting in the legally dubious detention and conviction of several Canadians, including a federally elected communist parliamentarian from Montreal, Fred Rose. The head of the National Film Board, John Grierson, who had dutifully produced wartime propaganda, was dismissed along with many of his colleagues, and numerous others in the civil service, whose careers and reputations were destroyed. The Canadian purge, carefully orchestrated by the federal administration, was not the high-profile spectacle it was in the US, but the McCarthy hearings were widely watched by Canadians on television, and Hoover’s infamous FBI surveillance found a Canadian equivalent in RCMP domestic spy operations.
As a teen in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cohen could not escape this public discourse, and he was anything but a sheltered youth. His devoted mother, Masha, a Russian Jew who had immigrated from Lithuania in 1927, allowed him to wander the streets of Montreal, sometimes all night. These included the neighbourhoods that had elected Rose. In a 1997 poem, Cohen relates a memory of attending a meeting of the Communist Party of Canada. After following a girl inside the meeting hall, the poet discovered that “they said nasty shit / about my family / and how we got our money.” Apparently, this scion of a successful family business didn’t embrace the CPC’s eat-the-rich rhetoric.
However, Cohen showed himself open to other leftist influences, especially in literature and music. At the age of 16, Cohen picked up a copy of the Selected Poems of Frederico Garcia Lorca outside of a Montreal bookshop, and as Simmons writes, “it made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.” Lorca had supported the anti-facist Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War and became a martyr for the international left when he was murdered by Franco’s soldiers in 1936. Reading Lorca’s work, Cohen says, “You felt that you were this aching creature in the midst of an aching cosmos, and the ache was okay. Not only was it okay, but it was the way that you embraced the sun and the moon.” From the murdered leftist poet, Cohen inherited the atmosphere of desire and loss that would characterize his own work. Lorca’s country also bequeathed Cohen the soulful foundation for his songs. Around the same time, Cohen took lessons from a flamenco guitarist he met by a tennis court in Westmount—the six simple chords he learned formed the basis for much of his subsequent music.
Cohen has other musical roots that were even more explicitly leftist. At a summer camp in Saint Marguerite, Quebec, an American counsellor who happened to be a socialist introduced Cohen to The People’s Songbook, a collection of folk, union, and strike songs. In an interview decades later, Cohen recalled the songbook with enthusiasm. “The socialists at that time were the only people who were playing guitar and singing folk songs. They felt that they had an ideological obligation to learn the songs and repeat them[…] I went through that book many, many times during that summer.” In his seventies, Cohen could quote at length the lyrics to the union song, “Solidarity Forever.” The devotion The People’s Songbook elicited from performers and audiences appealed to Cohen, and he would seek to attain that reverential tone in his own work.
The circle of Montreal writers that first welcomed Cohen were also leftists. His lifelong friend and mentor Irving Layton, a star Canadian poet before Cohen himself became one, had dabbled in communism. Other older Montreal poets Cohen socialized with were F.R. Scott, legal scholar and a founding member of the CCF, as well as A.M. Klein, the Canadian poet perhaps most recognized outside of Canada in the early 1950s, who ran for parliament as a member of the CCF. But by the time of Cohen’s maturity, the CCF itself had embraced Cold War anti-communism through its militantly pro-NATO leader M.J. Coldwell, and its electoral fortunes were waning. In Cohen’s lifetime, the old left in Canada was on the decline.
Outside of his social circle, the 1960s New Left, in Montreal embodied by Quebec independence movements, had far less appeal to Cohen. This wasn’t a surprising attitude from an anglophone from Westmount, where some violent separatists were blowing up mailboxes. Cohen criticized them in a 1964 poem “Disguises,” where with a heavy dose of irony he laments “I am sorry the conspirators must go […] They loved me because / I told them their little beards / made them dead- ringers for Lenin. / The bombs went off in Westmount / and now they are ashamed.”
Cohen’s first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956 when he was 22 and still a student at McGill University. It was heralded by reviewers and some of Cohen’s own professors as the work of a great talent. To better understand Cohen’s literary style and how it relates to his politics, it is helpful to consider the criticism of Northrop Frye, a University of Toronto English Professor and author of the 1957 book The Anatomy of Criticism, the era’s most influential work of Anglo-American literary criticism. Frye was pleased with the young Cohen’s work, writing a promotional blurb for Cohen’s second book, The Spice-Box of Earth, in 1961. In a similar vein to the psychoanalysis of Carl Jung and the anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss, Frye’s “archetypal” or “mythological” approach intended to show that literature consisted of a set of basic myths that could be read throughout history and across cultures, for example, in folk tales and religious stories. Cohen certainly cultivates an intentionally mythological style, beginning with the title of his first book: Let Us Compare Mythologies. In Cohen’s work, people, objects, and situations are usually described without individuating details, and appear instead as types, or archetypes: man, woman, war, house. We see this in a lyric from one of his most famous songs, the 1967 “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”: “In city and in forest, they smiled like me and you.” Here the lovers are portrayed as figures of time immemorial.
Archetypal literature highlights universal, trans-historical experiences. Its weakness is that it can depict as inevitable or natural what is changeable or politically contested. Detractors point to archetypal criticism as part of a conservative mid-century culture that had been traumatized by world wars and a Cold War and that was desperate for stability. As Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton writes of Frye’s work, “It is worth asking what kind of history we have been living through for this theory to be even remotely convincing.” In some cases, archetypal criticism was a rebuttal of more politically engaged theories of art that had been influential in the interwar period, such as social realism and some avant gardes. Cohen’s work bespoke a Cold War liberal’s desire for order in an unpredictable world. In a television interview with Pierre Burton—an exchange immortalized in the 1964 NFB documentary Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen—the young poet described his poetry as an attempt to stay in “a state of grace,” which is “a kind of balance with which you ride the chaos around you.”
The War Poet
As his metaphor suggests, surviving the chaos, for Cohen, meant launching headlong into it. His earliest books fit his personal life into a mythological frame that often described violence. In the poem “Letter,” from his first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, he writes “I know that outside a war is raging / that you issue orders. /that babies are smothered and generals beheaded.” Here the archetypal images of war make sense—rather melodramatically—of a troubled romance. “And I write this only to rob you / that when one morning my head / hangs dripping with the other generals / from your house gate / that all this was anticipated […]” Because this relationship is part of an archetypal story, the poet already knows it will end badly. This lends the affair a sombre inevitability, but also provides a cognitive security. In his 1964 book, Flowers for Hitler, Cohen mines images of the Holocaust to articulate a domestic problem. In “The Failure of a Secular Life,” he writes, “The pain monger came home / from a hard day’s torture,” to face his unhappy wife, where “He watched her real-life Dachau.”
Cohen’s fascination with literary violence spilled over into real life in 1961, when he visited Cuba on the eve of the Bay of Pigs, the CIA-backed invasion of the island meant to overthrow the socialist government of Fidel Castro. Cohen said he was motivated by “a deep interest in violence. I was very interested in what it really meant for men to carry arms and kill other men. And how attracted I was exactly to that process.” A picture shows him posing with two Cuban soldiers, wearing a beard and beret, looking like Che Guevara.
Cohen spent time wandering Havana and enjoying the night life. His presence there, however, was looked on with suspicion. The Canadian embassy contacted him, telling him that his mother was worried about him and wanted him to come home. In Cohen’s biography, Simmons relates a story in which Cohen was detained by Cuban soldiers at the airport when trying to catch a departing flight, and only escaped when his guard, armed with a machine gun, was called away on an emergency, allowing Cohen to sneak out of the interrogation room and onto a plane.
This brush with violence was the occasion for one of his poems, “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns his Thoughts Homeward.” It begins with the exhortation “to let us govern Canada” and proceeds mostly as a series of funny one-liners. “Let us smelt pig iron in our backyards,” he exhorts, apparently in reference to Chinese industrial development. Then later, “Let us unite / church and state,” as if now a Christian conservative. These playful suggestions, coming one after the other, cancel each other in such a way that a balance emerges. “Let us have two governor generals at the same time,” a joke because this would change little, the Governor General already enjoying no real power. The poem ends with the invocation: “Let us maintain a stony silence / on the Saint Lawrence Seaway.” In the midst of Cuban troubles, Cohen urges his own country to be anything but revolutionary. Reading this poem to a live audience, Cohen introduced it by suggesting he was “fighting on both sides.” In some ways this accurately reflects official Canadian policy towards Cuba, as Prime Minister Diefenbaker, while an anti-communist, maintained more robust economic and political relations with Cuba than the US would have liked.
Cohen cut an odd figure in the counterculture of the late 1960s. His recording career kicked off in 1967 with the release of The Songs of Leonard Cohen. At 32 years of age, Cohen was noticeably older than the burgeoning crop of folk singers. Like many of them, he was against the Vietnam War, but he took a different tact to voice this message in his 1969 song “Story of Isaac.” It relates the biblical tale of Isaac and his father, Abraham, who was to sacrifice his son to God. As the grisly moment approaches, however, the song takes up the voice of God to command Abraham to stop: “You who build these altars now / To sacrifice these children / You must not do it anymore.” Far from addressing the ethics of violence, the song simply commands in the voice of God, a traditional authority. This isn’t exactly the vibe of the New Left or the rest of the counterculture. Indeed, the point of the biblical story is to demonstrate that Abraham was willing to do anything, including murder his own son, when commanded by the right authority.
Cohen found himself so commanded in 1973, when at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, he left his family and flew to Israel where he joined the war effort. He described this political commitment in mythical terms: “I will go and stop Egypt’s bullet. Trumpets and a curtain of razor blades.” Unlike in Cuba, however, Cohen wasn’t fighting on both sides. “I’ve never disguised the fact that I’m Jewish and in any crisis in Israel I would be there,” he said in 1974. “I am committed to the survival of the Jewish people.” He travelled across the conflict zone singing for soldiers, sometimes only a dozen at a time, by the light of flashlights. He found this invigorating. “War is wonderful,” he said in a magazine interview in 1973. “They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best. It’s so economical in terms of gesture and motion, every single gesture is precise, every effort is at its maximum. Nobody goofs off.” Afterwards, he went to Ethiopia, which was also on the brink of war, and stayed in a hotel where he wrote several of the songs that would appear on his 1974 album, New Skin for an Old Ceremony. In the appropriately titled “There Is a War” he sings, “There is a war / Between the rich and the poor / Between the man and the woman[…]/”There is a war between the left and right / Between the black and white / Between the odd and even.” In Cohen’s stark archetypal style, war is simply a universal truth, as reliable as math.
Gloomy and disturbing, Cohen was experiencing a crisis at the same time the world was. He was in the process of separating from Suzanne Elrod, the mother of his two children. The atmosphere of the mid-to-late 70s had darkened, too. Economic problems had taken root in what, just a few years before, had been the age of affluence. The same Yom Kippur War Cohen participated in spurred the first OPEC oil embargo, helping escalate an inflationary crisis that would ravage the economy throughout the decade. In the face of declining profits, the state-managed détente between labour and capital was crumbling. The liberatory aspirations of the counterculture had, in some cases, become the excuse for crassness and even predatory behaviour. We see this in Cohen’s 1977 album, Death of A Lady’s Man, produced by Phil Spector—who eventually went to jail for murder. It sounds unhinged, with songs such as “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard On.” It was a commercial and critical failure, a low for Cohen.
Everyone Knows the (Cold) War is Over
In the late 70s, Cohen began to frequent Mount Baldy, a Zen Buddhist Centre near Los Angeles. Cumulatively, Cohen would spend many years of his life there, and he was eventually ordained a Buddhist monk. In personal service to his master Roshi, Cohen seemed to take comfort in obeying a spiritual authority. Cohen’s work became less ambiguous, and more prayer-like. “Hallelujah” was first recorded in this period and appears on the 1984 album, Various Positions, along with another beautiful hymnal number, “If It Be Your Will.” But his American label, CBS, looked poorly on the record’s prospects, declining to release it in the U.S. and leaving an independent label to do so. While the album fared well in many European markets (as Cohen’s music usually did), “Hallelujah” would lie fallow for some years to come.
As the Cold War wound down, Cohen’s music was utterly transformed. The 1988 album I’m Your Man was a remarkable departure from his previous work. Cohen’s production had shifted from guitar to synthesizers, and his voice had deepened several octaves. This was evident from the first track and single “Everybody Knows.” In the opening verse he sings, “Everybody knows the war is over / everybody knows the good guys lost.” It’s hard not to think he’s referring to the Cold War, among others. Already with eight years of Reaganomics behind them, “Everybody knows the fight is fixed / The poor stay poor and the rich get rich.” Another of the album’s unforgettable tracks, “First We Take Manhattan/then we take Berlin” similarly evokes an event of world historic proportions—the coming fall of the Berlin Wall.
I’m Your Man was the biggest commercial success of his career to that point, leading into his 1992 album, The Future, which would surpass it. On this album, the track “Democracy” is a sweeping catalogue of social ills, a jeremiad against American life. “From the fires of the homeless / From the ashes of the gay / Democracy is coming to the USA.” Here, the invocation of “democracy” contradicts its propagandistic use in these triumphal years of the early post-Cold War period. This kind of “democracy” is chaos, as the former Soviet bloc was finding out.
On these albums, Cohen describes a world at the end, an apocalypse. This resonated for many reasons. The late 80s and early 90s was indeed the end of a world structured by the oppositional forces of American capitalism and Soviet communism. With the close of the Cold War, we had reached “the end of history” as Francis Fukuyama called it in 1992, the same year The Future was released. Shock therapy, the opening of the former Soviet bloc to markets, would cause the worst decline in life expectancy recorded in peacetime. Neoliberal policies were already cannibalizing the welfare state and would eventually lead to declines in life expectancy in the US, too. For Cohen, raised in the Cold War liberal state, this reorganization of society heralded the violence and chaos it once suppressed. For this aging poet of archetypes, the biblical myth of apocalypse now explained the world.
The After life of “Hallelujah”
After completing the tour for The Future, Cohen disappeared from public view again, spending most of the 90s at Mt. Baldy. Cohen would finally release a new album in 2001, but perhaps more importantly, that year “Halleljuah” would begin its remarkable run. Referring to the attacks of September 11, television producer Bill Flanagan wrote that “Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ in all its incarnations became an anthem that month.” k.d. lang recorded the song in 2004, while Jeff Buckley’s 1993 version was re-released in 2007. Then in early 2008, American Idol contestant Jason Castro performed a short rendition of the song on primetime television. Soon after, Buckley’s version reached number one on the digital charts and was certified platinum. Later in 2008, Alexandra Burke performed the song on another talent show, the British X-Factor, and it became the top-selling UK single of the year. For a time, three versions of “Hallelujah,” were in the UK Top 40, Burke’s at number one, Buckley’s at number two, and Cohen’s at number thirty-six.
The proliferation of prime time talent shows needing a catchy standard certainly fuelled the song’s rise. But it may also have been the profusion of disasters. The crescendo in public interest came at an epochal moment. The market crash that became the Great Financial Crisis roiled throughout 2008, throwing people out of work and out of their homes, and miring a generation in economic precarity. This was, in retrospect, the cracking of the neoliberal consensus that had ruled since the early nineties. It would eventually lead to Occupy Wall Street, Syriza, Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Brexit and Donald Trump. However, its most immediate political manifestation was to aid the populist upsurge that led to the election of Barack Obama, a candidate who knew how to speak in biblical tones to a secular crowd, much like “Hallelujah” does. It may be hard to understand now, but Obama’s election felt for many like a miracle, a truly transcendent event.
Ironically, it was Cohen’s own financial troubles—his bank accounts had been raided by his manager—that led him to resuming touring in 2008, initiating the final, triumphal stage of his remarkable career. Many continue to take comfort in “Hallelujah” and its powerful affirmation of life. Speaking about the song, Cohen explained, “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend […] and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’” It is precisely this power that makes the song so politically useful as a call to faith in the reigning order, even in the face of obvious failures—whether these be the failure to run the economy or to stop a deadly virus. With these manifestly material disasters, the liberal order relies more on faith than it used to.