Day 117: A song by a male singer you think does not have a very good voice.
“Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen
I originally wrote most of this post on a plane. (A plane that was delayed over 45 minutes once we were boarded and on the tarmac.) And the problem with planes is that you don’t have Internet access. Well, this plane did, but to get it you had to pay handsomely for it. So, like I said, I didn’t have Internet access. Which meant that my means of fact checking was not available to me. And this led to some problems. Which I will point out as we go along.
Some time ago I was summarily scolded in a comment that Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” was the best cover song. Ever. Bar none. There was even a mic drop. Virtual, yes, but a mic drop nonetheless.
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She’s wrong, but I will say that “Hallelujah” is a beautiful, heart-wrenching song. One that the late Mr. Buckley can do justice to. Many others have recorded it as well, and most of the versions I’ve heard are pretty respectable.
The original is not.
What you may not know is that the song was actually written by Leonard Cohen. Now Cohen is undoubtedly a good songwriter. A classic songwriter. The problem is he just doesn’t have a voice. Even on the recording of “Hallelujah” he basically recites the lyrics rather than sings them. And yet, even without the benefit of the voice (and the help of backup singers) you can tell it’s a powerful song. (And that’s why I chose it as the title song, rather than some others I’m about to get to.)
Buckley has the ability, in my opinion (and obviously others’), to take this song to a higher level. The level of a hymn. A hymn that will make you cry your freakin’ eyes out. Cohen’s version, while powerful, simply doesn’t pack the same emotional punch. And in my opinion that’s all attributable to his voice.
But honestly, it could be worse. Much, much worse.
Remember that hit Rod Stewart had a (long) while back called “Downtown Train”? Tom Waits wrote that one (but for some reason on the plane I had a brain fart and thought it was Leonard Cohen). Listen to the two versions and you might not know it was same song:
See? I’m not much of a Rod Stewart fan but I know that when he sings the song it has a nice melody. It’s a pleasant listen. The vocal of the Leonard Cohen version more resembles the growl of a tone-deaf, drunken hobo that just smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes.
And then ate the other half of the pack.
While they were lit.
It makes me wonder how he ever got a recording contract. Well, I know actually. As I’ve said before, it was the songs, not the singer. Cohen and Waits and Bob Dylan all fall into the class. (I think I used that example before. No matter.)
Lou Reed was another example of a good writer, questionable singer (although in the singing arena, he lands closer to the Cohen side than the Waits side). Of course, there was his classic “Walk On The Wild Side” (truly groundbreaking for the time) and the somewhat lesser-known “Sweet Jane” while he was with the Velvet Underground. (And actually a couple of songs from the mid-80s that I really like.) But it was actually his later hit “Dirty Blvd” that we used to joke about. Toward the end of the song he talks about a boy named Pedro who dreams of killing his father (with good reason, actually) and then “fly away.” To drive home the point, Reed repeats “I’m gonna fly” a couple of times, and then, with one final, miraculous push, repeats it one last time and actually hits a note! I’m fairly certain it was the only note of his career.
It’s one more than Tom Waits ever had.