One an observant, mystically inclined Jew, born to wealthy, pedigreed parents outside Montreal, a poet by training and temperament, handsome, charismatic and refined, who drifts down to New York City in his early 30s to shore up a wobbly career by throwing himself into songwriting.
The other from rural Alabama, the son of uncultured, unmoneyed teenage parents whose loud and bitter fighting drives the pudgy and awkward boy to his room, where he teaches himself electric guitar in order to drown out the noise and his own rage and sorrow.
One born in 1934, full of questions, indignation and ardor for a God he doubts as a profession of faith, even as so much of his music probes the places God may be hiding.
The other born 35 years later, seeking escape from the dark gods of domestic hell and hoping he’s found it in rock & roll, only to be felled by its all-too-common underbelly: a wretched excess of drink. And then: redemption (as an endless work-in-progress) in the love of a good woman and the music and life they still make together today.
Both of these men brought now into our living rooms via recent documentaries that demonstrate their shared, intense passion for the craft of writing, the collaboration that weaves its way into every facet of putting those words to music, and the sheer, unadulterated joy that so often waits patiently at the bottom of such an enterprise, concealed by the thrashings of doubt and frustration that dog most every creative effort until it bursts to the surface yet again—jubilant, warm and whole.
Leonard Cohen died in 2016 at age 82, but like the half-solemn, half-trickster that he was, he simply refuses to go away. His vast trove of creative work—poetry, fiction, music, and film—dates back to 1956, and it has continued posthumously with two more albums (one released just 17 days before his death, the other in 2019); a volume of poetry, notebooks and drawings in 2018; a novel and stories in 2022.
And also last year, the critically acclaimed and compulsively watchable Netflix documentary in which he commands the screen: “HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song.”
The “HALLELUJAH,” of course, is his now iconic song that was a long time coming to the nearly universal recognition it now enjoys. The song underscores the intensity with which Cohen approached his artistic vision(s) and readied himself for the trials and joys he found there. Cohen reportedly took five years to write the song, ultimately producing what he suggested was some 150 or more different versions (many of those with only minor word changes, though a few substantially altered).
Directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine use the song as a kind of fulcrum on which their film revolves. The overt religious connotation of the word “hallelujah” (from the Hebrew “hallel” (meaning “praise”) and “jah,” meaning “God”) weaves through Cohen’s sense of the world and his work in it as a divine mission of questioning, discovery, and creation. That makes the film much more a biopic than a mere history of the song, as fascinating (and downright fun) as that history is.
Cohen included it as the fifth track in his 1984 album, “Various Positions,” which led off with another song that became a classic in its own, though far less iconic way: “Dance Me to the End of Time.”
The album was produced on a contract with Columbia Records, but its CEO Walter Yetnikoff, quite a character himself (his 2004 autobiography was entitled, “Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess”), hated it. (Amazing, yes?)
He thought the album and “Hallelujah” in particular had no chance of commercial success, so he refused to release it.
Cohen was devastated and took only minor solace when a small label took on the rights the following year, where the song languished for the better part of a decade even though the likes of Bob Dylan admired and played it occasionally in concerts.
It remained for John Cale (founder of the rock group Velvet Underground) to light a smallish fire under the song in a 1991 Cohen tribute album, followed by a more widely acclaimed version by Jeff Buckley in 1994 that amped up the song’s poetic/spiritualized sexual allusions:
And I remember when I moved in youAnd the holy dove she was moving too And every single breath we drew was Hallelujah
Buckley, a ravishing but tragic figure in the James Dean mold, sang it, he said, “not (as) homage to a worshipped person, idol or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm.” He died in Memphis at age 30 while working on just his second album, taking an impromptu, fully clothed nighttime swim in the Mississippi River and being caught up in a passing ship’s’s wake. No alcohol or drugs were found in his system.
Finally, in what can only be appreciated as a kind of cosmic joke with Cohen getting the last laugh, the director of the 2001 animation “Shrek” loved the song and convinced her producers to go along with it to accompany a fissure and continued longing in the romantic relationship between Shrek and Princess Fiona. One hitch only: she felt compelled to “cut the naughty bits” in a bow to it being a family entertainment.
That sent millions of people scurrying in those pre-You Tube days to record shops to inquire about the song, and it was game-on from there. The Buckley and Cale versions both spiked in popularity, along with a Rufus Wainwright version that was released on the film’s soundtrack. (For reasons related to Wainwright being gay, Cale’s version was featured in the movie.)
One of the film’s hilarious bits shows a subsequent compendium of freakishly overwrought versions in various “Got Talent” shows from around the world, which, following on the song’s earlier Shrek-ization, finally had Cohen pleading in an interview, “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.”
Somewhere in the heavens where holy doves flutter and glide, Walter Yetnikoff is still cursing his lousy judgment, as you will too if you fail to see this thoroughly engrossing film homage to one of the great creative (and complicated) spiritual seekers of our time.
No one song dominates director Sam Jones’s 98-minute documentary released last month on HBO, “Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed.” Though it ostensibly follows the creation of rootsy/southern/country/rocker Isbell’s 2020 album, “Reunion,” it, even more than the Cohen film, is a biographical sketch of a figure seemingly gifted with talent to burn and the determination to explore it—only to be brought up short by the demons of a troubled upbringing and various other roadblocks that fate always seems to toss idly into the path of human happiness.
An only child who bore the brunt of his child-parents’ unpreparedness, Isbell suffered through a mostly miserable early life, leavened only by the exhilaration of learning to play music. One ray of fortune that did shine on him was to be born near Muscle Shoals, a famed music recording venue for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and the Allman Brothers, among many others.
Hanging around and onto musicians as much as possible, Isbell stumbled into a sit-in gig at a house concert at age 22 when the guitarist for the well-established band Drive-By Truckers failed to show up. Bowled over by the kid’s skills, the band invited him on, and within a few weeks he had written two songs (“Decoration Day” and “Outfit”) that became signature pieces for the group. Two representative stanzas from the then 22-year-old, in a song about a deadly family feud:
It’s Decoration Day
And I’ve got a family in Mobile Bay
And they’ve never seen my daddy’s grave
But that don’t bother me, it ain’t marked anyway
‘Cause I got dead brothers in Lauderdale South
And I got dead brothers in East Tennessee
My Daddy got shot right in front of his house
He had no one to fall on but me
What followed in short order was a marriage to the woman who became the band’s bass player the next year, and six years of an intense musical flowering wrapped around way too many emptying whisky bottles and snorted lines. Then a divorce from both his wife and the band, who had to reluctantly show him the door after his substance abuse became too much even for their own hardly abstemious ways.
Isbell has written music and talked to countless interviewers about his addiction over the years. And it remains an ever-relevant subject in his marriage to violinist Amanda Shires, a serious musical talent and force in her own right who was instrumental in getting Isbell into rehab in 2012.
Shires knows her way around her husband’s dark side, and the film reveals her as the band member most willing and equipped to take him on creatively and in most every other way if the situation dictates.
The film leaves one with the distinct impression that poetic thinking and allusions pour forth from Isbell in a continual shower, partly gift, partly burden—especially as recording dates near and he becomes an even more focused (and fussy) creative collaborator.
“Running With Our Eyes Closed” is perhaps at its best when it lets the cameras roll during these part wondrous, part tense prep sessions. We see band members pause to make suggestions, report when something just doesn’t feel right about a chord progression, or, in Shires’s case, expresses her distaste for the sound of 12-string guitars (Isbell loves his).
She also protests when Isbell suggests her violin accompaniment is too loud (“It’s acoustic!”, she retorts). Putting her master’s in creative writing degree to use, she challenges Isbell on the issue of…wait for it…using the present or past participle. (The exchange reveals Isbell is no slouch himself in tending carefully to every facet of his writing.)
We should note here that Shires required him to be sober for a year before consenting to marry him in 2013. And in this film, we see Isbell bid goodnight to a fellow band member after a long day’s work, and when the latter says something about Isbell “going home,” Isbell somewhat sheepishly reveals he’ll be spending the night at “the Omni” hotel, the implication clear that all is not golden every day in the Shires-Isbell union.
That said, it also says plenty about their relational bond that they allowed the uncommon access that they did to the daily grind of music and family life, with the usual struggles and frustrations and occasional testy exchanges that dog most every intimate relationship.
“ Lock me up tight in these shackles I wear,” Isbell sang in his 2013 hit, “Stockholm.” The song likely alludes to the Stockholm syndrome, in which prisoners fall in love with their captors. In Isbell’s case, though, his captivity unleashes a greater freedom than he had ever known—to be comfortable in his own skin, to lay his burdens down, willing and wanting to be seen in both life and song as the same person, a man in full.
“Hearing a song that really moves you is as if you accidentally stumbled on somebody’s diary and it was exactly like yours,” he explains near the end of the film in describing his essentially confessional approach to songwriting. “You would say, ‘Oh my god, there’s one person who had the same feelings that I did.’ And all of us are kind of walking around thinking, ‘Man, am I weird? Am I the only one who feels this way?’ And then when somebody reaches in and says, ‘No no, I’m with you,’ that’s it. That’s all it is.”
Click here for a link to Jason Isbell’s, “If We Were Vampires,” No. 4 in this blog’s series of “Brilliant Songs.”
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Guitar strings by Роман Карчмитович https://www.flickr.com/photos/devil-chrono/
Confetti abstract by Jason Leung, San Francisco Bay Area https://unsplash.com/@ninjason
Leonard Cohen portrait by gaët https://www.flickr.com/photos/gaetan-grivel/
Jason Isbell and Amanada Shires by WFUV Radio, New York City https://www.flickr.com/photos/wfuv/
Sound board and mic by Morten F., Oslo, Norway https://www.flickr.com/photos/glimt1916/