The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

10 of the Best Indoor and Outdoor Heaters on Amazon

Mr. Heater/Amazon
Mr. Heater/Amazon

With the colder months just around the corner, you might want to start thinking about investing in an indoor or outdoor heater. Indoor heaters not only provide a boost of heat for drafty spaces, but they can also be a money-saver, allowing you to actively control the heat based on the rooms you’re using. Outdoor heaters, meanwhile, can help you take advantage of cold-weather activities like camping or tailgating without having to call it quits because your extremities have gone numb. Check out this list of some of Amazon’s highest-rated indoor and outdoor heaters so you can spend less time shivering this winter and more time enjoying what the season has to offer.

Indoor Heaters

1. Lasko Ceramic Portable Heater; $20

Lasko/Amazon

This 1500-watt heater from Lasko may only be nine inches tall, but it can heat up to 300 square feet of space. With 11 temperature settings and three quiet settings—for high heat, low heat, and fan only—it’s a dynamic powerhouse that’ll keep you toasty all season long.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Alrocket Oscillating Space Heater; $25

Alrocket/Amazon

Alrocket’s oscillating space heater is an excellent addition to any desk or nightstand. Using energy-saving ceramic technology, this heater is made of fire-resistant material, and its special “tip-over” safety feature forces it to turn off if it falls over (making it a reliable choice for homes with kids or pets). It’s extremely quiet, too—at only 45 dB, it’s just a touch louder than a whisper. According to one reviewer, this an ideal option for a “very quiet but powerful” heater.

Buy it: Amazon

3. De’Longhi Oil-Filled Radiator Space Heather; $79

De’Longhi/Amazon

If you prefer a space heater with a more old-fashioned vibe, this radiator heater from De’Longhi gives you 2020 technology with a vintage feel. De’Longhi’s heater automatically turns itself on when the temperatures drops below 44°F, and it will also automatically turn itself off if it starts to overheat. Another smart safety feature? The oil system is permanently sealed, so you won’t have to worry about accidental spills.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Aikoper Ceramic Tower Heater; $70

Aikoper/Amazon

Whether your room needs a little extra warmth or its own heat source, Aikoper’s incredibly precise space heater has got you covered. With a range of 40-95°F, it adjusts by one-degree intervals, giving you the specific level of heat you want. It also has an option for running on an eight-hour timer, ensuring that it will only run when you need it.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Isiler Space Heater; $37

Isiler/Amazon

For a space heater that adds a fun pop of color to any room, check out this yellow unit from Isiler. Made from fire-resistant ceramic, Isiler’s heater can start warming up a space within seconds. It’s positioned on a triangular stand that creates an optimal angle for hot air to start circulating, rendering it so effective that, as one reviewer put it, “This heater needs to say ‘mighty’ in its description.”

Buy it: Amazon

Outdoor Heaters

6. Mr. Heater Portable Buddy; $104

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Make outdoor activities like camping and grilling last longer with Mr. Heater’s indoor/outdoor portable heater. This heater can connect to a propane tank or to a disposable cylinder, allowing you to keep it in one place or take it on the go. With such a versatile range of uses, this heater will—true to its name—become your best buddy when the temperature starts to drop.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiland Pyramid Patio Propane Heater; Various

Hiland/Amazon

The cold’s got nothing on this powerful outdoor heater. Hiland’s patio heater has a whopping 40,000 BTU output, which runs for eight to 10 hours on high heat. Simply open the heater’s bottom door to insert a propane tank, power it on, and sit back to let it warm up your backyard. The bright, contained flame from the propane doubles as an outdoor light.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Solo Stove Bonfire Pit; $345

Solo Stove/Amazon

This one is a slight cheat since it’s a bonfire pit and not a traditional outdoor heater, but the Solo Stove has a 4.7-star rating on Amazon for a reason. Everything about this portable fire pit is meticulously crafted to maximize airflow while it's lit, from its double-wall construction to its bottom air vents. These features all work together to help the logs burn more completely while emitting far less smoke than other pits. It’s the best choice for anyone who wants both warmth and ambiance on their patio.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Dr. Infrared Garage Shop Heater; $119

Dr. Infrared/Amazon

You’ll be able to use your garage or basement workshop all season long with this durable heater from Dr. Infrared. It’s unique in that it includes a built-in fan to keep warm air flowing—something that’s especially handy if you need to work without wearing gloves. The fan is overlaid with heat and finger-protectant grills, keeping you safe while it’s powered on.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Mr. Heater 540 Degree Tank Top; $86

Mr. Heater/Amazon

Mr. Heater’s clever propane tank top automatically connects to its fuel source, saving you from having to bring any extra attachments with you on the road. With three heat settings that can get up to 45,000 BTU, the top can rotate 360 degrees to give you the perfect angle of heat you need to stay cozy. According to a reviewer, for a no-fuss outdoor heater, “This baby is super easy to light, comes fully assembled … and man, does it put out the heat.”

Buy it: Amazon

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14 Facts About The Rocky Horror Picture Show for Its 45th Anniversary

Tim Curry, Nell Campbell, and Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Tim Curry, Nell Campbell, and Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Many movies can claim the title “cult classic,” but few have ever embodied that term quite like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. First written as a small stage production by an out-of-work actor who wanted to pay homage to the B movies he loved, the film version flopped at the box office when it premiered in 1975. Then, as midnight showings continued, its following grew, and grew, and grew.

People don’t just watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they live it—complete with costumes, props, and very vulgar audience participation. Since its release in 1975, it has remained the quintessential cult classic. So, to celebrate more than four decades of Absolute Pleasure, here are some facts about the film.

1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show began as a way to keep an unemployed actor busy.

What would eventually become The Rocky Horror Show, and later The Rocky Horror Picture Show, began as a way for Richard O’Brien “to spend winter evenings” when he wasn’t working as an actor. O’Brien poured his love of science fiction and horror films into the initial Rocky Horror songs, and eventually he showed the material to director Jim Sharman while they were working on a play together. Sharman took a liking to it, and convinced London’s Royal Court theater to give him a few weeks in the venue’s tiny Upstairs theater to stage a production. It played for only a few dozen people a night, but eventually grew a following. Not bad for something that started as the equivalent “doing the crossword puzzle” for O’Brien.

2. Richard O’brien originally wanted to play the role of Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Meat Loaf in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

As the production took shape, O’Brien knew he wanted to co-star as the motorcycle-riding Eddie, a role that ultimately went to Meat Loaf. Sharman, though, saw O’Brien in the role of the mysterious handyman, Riff Raff, and O’Brien respected and trusted his director enough that he agreed.

3. Columbia and Magenta were originally one character in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

As the stage play began casting, Sharman was hoping his friend, pop star Marianne Faithfull, would play Frank N. Furter’s female counterpart, but Little Nell had already been cast in the production. So Sharman and O’Brien reworked the role into two parts: Magenta and Columbia. When the time came to cast Magenta, Faithfull was already off on a tour of India, so Patricia Quinn was cast. Quinn took the role, despite having almost no lines, just so she could sing the lead song: “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” which she called “the best song I’ve ever heard.”

4. Little Nell was cast in The Rocky Horror Picture Show for her tap dancing skills alone.

“Little Nell” Campbell had a rather interesting audition for the role of Columbia. At the time the stage production was getting underway, she was working as a soda jerk in London. Jim Sharman heard that she would perform tap dances while serving ice cream, and took some collaborators to see her. She danced for them, and won the role.

5. The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr. Frank N. Furter originally had a German accent.

Tim Curry, Richard O'Brien, and Patricia Quinn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Taking a cue from the character’s name, Tim Curry began the stage production of The Rocky Horror Show by playing Frank N. Furter as German. Then, one day, he heard a woman on a bus speaking with a particularly posh accent and decided, “Yes, he should sound like the Queen.”

6. “Science Fiction/Double Feature” had a different singer for the film.

As previously mentioned, Patricia Quinn took the Magenta role just so she could sing “Science Fiction/Double Feature” on the stage, but when it came time to film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it was decided that O’Brien should sing the song instead. Quinn wasn’t happy, but she did get a small consolation: The iconic lips that sing the song in the opening credits are hers.

7. The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s director agreed to a smaller budget in order to keep the original cast.

According to Sharman, 20th Century Fox offered him “a reasonable budget” if he would cast “currently fashionable rock stars” in the lead roles for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sharman lobbied instead to keep the original stage cast (with some exceptions, like the addition of Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon), and instead got a “modest budget” and a very tight shooting schedule. Sharman now calls the decision “crucial” to the film’s cult success.

8. Much of The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s look was inspired by an actual rotting mansion.

While preparing to shoot the film, set designer Brian Thomson kept hearing about “the old house” near Bray Studios outside of London. When he finally got to see the house, a 19th-century mansion called Oakley Court, he realized it was exactly what they needed for the film, in part because its owners had essentially left it to rot (they wanted to demolish it, but it was designated as a historic site).

“The minute we saw it, we realized that this gave us the basis for the whole look of the movie,” Thomson said.

Because of its proximity to Bray Studios, the house has also appeared in a number of other films, including several from the legendary Hammer Studios line of horror movies. It has since been restored, and is now a hotel.

9. A large portion of The Rocky Horror Picture Showwas supposed to be in black and white.

While conceiving of the film’s overall look, Sharman, Thomson, and company originally decided that the film’s opening act should be shot entirely in black and white, and that the first color in the movie should be Frank N. Furter’s red lips when he appeared on the elevator. The idea was that Brad and Janet were living in a bland world, and when they met Furter they would be shown something much more colorful. Ultimately, the studio rejected the idea.

10. The reveal of Eddie’s body genuinely shocked the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

For the iconic dinner party scene, in which Furter reveals that his guests have been dining on Eddie, Sharman elected to tell only Tim Curry—who had to pull away the tablecloth to reveal Eddie’s corpse—what the surprise of the scene was. He wanted the rest of the cast to be genuinely shocked.

11. A cardboard model was used to make the house fly in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

For the climactic scene in which Riff Raff and Magenta launch Furter’s house back to Transylvania, Thomson originally began constructing an elaborate model of the house. In the end, though, there wasn’t enough time or money to produce a full-scale model for the moment, so a cardboard cutout of the house was used. As Thomson later pointed out, you can still actually see the real house in the background of the shot.

12. The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s famous audience participation was inspired, in part, by boredom.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a flop when it was originally released in 1975, but as midnight showings continued it developed a rabid cult following with a penchant for shouting at the screen as the film played. Brian Thomson first witnessed this phenomenon at New York’s Waverly Theater in 1977, and when he asked what was going on, this was the reply:

“We thought it was pretty boring, and we thought if we yelled back [it would be more fun].”

13. Tim Curry was once kicked out of a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for being an “impostor.”

As the film’s cult following grew, Tim Curry was living in New York, just down the street from the Waverly Theater, so he often witnessed fans going to midnight showings in costume. Intrigued, he called the theater, told them who he was, and asked if he could attend. The theater initially didn’t believe him, until he actually showed up one night. “Finally I showed up, and they sort of believed me and took me in,” Curry later told NPR.

While fans were delighted by Curry’s presence, the theater staff still wasn’t convinced, and an usher grabbed him, called him an “impostor,” and threw him out. Curry then took out his passport to prove he was the real deal, but declined to go back into the theater after the staff apologized.

14. Princess Diana was a major The Rocky Horror Picture Show fan.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has many famous fans (Meat Loaf and Tim Curry actually met Elvis Presley at a Los Angeles performance of the stage production), but perhaps none more impressive than Diana, Princess of Wales. Once, while doing a theater performance in Austria, Curry was informed that the Princess wanted to meet him. When they met, she told him that the film “quite completed my education,” apparently flashing a “wicked smile” as she did so.

Additional Source:
The Rocky Horror Double Feature Video Show

This story has been updated for 2020.