Before it was used in every sad movie montage ever, before it was an anthem for cancer survivors and natural disaster recovery, “Hallelujah” was just a song — a weird, sexy song.
Canadian folk singer Leonard Cohen’s original version had about 80 different verses, according to author Alan Light, with one explicitly referring to sadomasochism. When crooner Jeff Buckley recorded the song’s most famous version in 1994, he interpreted the tune as “a hallelujah to the orgasm.”
In this light, it’s odd that more than 300 acts have covered Cohen’s sexually charged tune since 1984, turning the song into one the world’s best-known sentimental ballads.
“It’s now been clearly established that you can mix and match the lyrics to pick the verses depending on what you mean, if you don’t feel like ‘she tied me to a kitchen chair’ is the right verse for a church service,” said Light, the former editor of both VIBE and Spin whose new book “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’” tracks the history of the tune.
“Even if the specifics of the lyrics don’t match the situation, it’s about overcoming, surviving obstacles or pain or heartbreak — the things that life throws at you.”
And that mood, if not the specifics of the lyrics, are what make the song universal.
Light will be reading from his book on March 10 at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights, with a live performance of “Hallelujah” for good measure by the Guggenheim Grotto, an Irish folk-pop group.
It’s a more special reading than most — the church is the site of a famous performance of “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley at a tribute concert for his father.
Light assumes that this is the version he will hear — but with so many versions around, he isn’t sure.
“I should probably ask,” he said. “Or I should just be pleasantly surprised.”
Alan Light reading “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’ ” at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity [157 Montague St between Henry and Clinton streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 875–6960, www.stannh