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.”

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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10 Chance Meetings That Changed the World

John Lennon (left) and Paul McCartney (right) from The Beatles.
John Lennon (left) and Paul McCartney (right) from The Beatles.
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some call it fate. Others call it destiny. And some just brush it off as coincidence. But however you view it, life has a funny way of bringing people together at just the right place and time. Check out some of the most random historical encounters we could find—meetings that, had they not happened, would have resulted in a very different world today.

1. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Elizabeth Cady Stanton with Susan B. Anthony.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (left) and Susan B. Anthony (right).
Wikimedia//Public Domain

The suffrage movement would have looked very different had Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony not met on a street corner in 1851. Although both Stanton and Anthony were fierce abolitionists, Stanton got involved in suffrage earlier. She launched the First Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 as a reaction to being denied a seat at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention because she was a woman. Similarly, Anthony, who was born into a family of abolitionists, turned her sights toward suffrage after being unable to speak at a temperance convention. Still, their meeting was entirely coincidental.

After Anthony traveled to Seneca Falls, New York—where Stanton lived—for an antislavery meeting, she and her friend Amelia Bloomer ran into Stanton on the street. Bloomer, a mutual friend of both, introduced them, and the two formed a near-immediate friendship. Because Stanton was a busy wife and mother, she needed someone to be the voice of the suffrage movement and to deliver her speeches on the road. That person became Susan B. Anthony. Together, this powerful duo would go on to launch a suffrage newspaper called The Revolution, found the National American Women Suffrage Association, and more—all because they happened to go for a walk at the same time.

2. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda Fitzgerald.
F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You would think that the most iconic couple of the 1920s would have met in a speakeasy, or, at the very least, been introduced by some famous author friends. But instead, the couple that embodied the Roaring Twenties met in a pretty ordinary way: At a dance. In July 1918, 21-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald, then a soldier, was stationed at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama, awaiting orders to fight overseas in World War I. Sick of having only his fellow soldiers for company, he decided to attend a nearby country club dance to blow off some steam. It was there he met Zelda Sayre for the first time.

Zelda was already the crown jewel of Montgomery society by that point and wasn’t initially interested in Fitzgerald, an aspiring writer. Still, Fitzgerald pursued the fiercely independent Zelda for two years, and finally convinced her to marry him after his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was picked up by Scribner in 1920. Though their marriage was famously tumultuous, they did inspire each other's work. F. Scott would even wind up lifting lines from Zelda's personal diary and including them in The Great Gatsby

3. Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Google founders Sergey Brin (left) and Larry Page (right).
Michael Nagle/Getty Images News

College tours aren’t normally life-changing—but in the case of Google’s founders, a walk around Stanford ended up changing the course of their careers (and had a pretty big impact on the rest of us). In 1995, Sergey Brin, then a second-year grad student in computer science, volunteered to be a tour guide for prospective students who had just been admitted to the school. By pure chance, Larry Page, an engineering major from the University of Michigan, ended up in his group.

Although the pair didn’t exactly start off as friends (they clashed during the tour and found each other “obnoxious”) it was a meaningful first impression. Several months later, when Page’s dissertation on the World Wide Web turned into a much bigger project involving a prototype search engine, he needed help building the system—which was originally named BackRub but, thankfully, was renamed to Google. The person he chose for the job? Someone who he had come to respect: his former tour guide.

4. Bob Woodward and Mark Felt (a.k.a. Deep Throat)

It turned out to be a simple package that helped turn Bob Woodward from a run-of-the-mill journalist into one of the men responsible for uncovering the most infamous scandal in presidential history. In 1970, Woodward was a lieutenant in his final year of Naval service, and one of his regular duties was to work as a courier delivering packages to the White House. One night, after spending a considerable amount of time in a waiting room for someone to come sign for a package, an older man came out to meet him. Woodward struck up a conversation with the man, and eventually learned that he was Mark Felt, an assistant director of the FBI.

Woodward, eager to advance in his career, asked for Felt’s phone number so that they could stay in touch. He reached out often while he transitioned from a military man to a journalist, with Felt acting as mentor and occasional anonymous source for Woodward's stories. Eventually, Felt would feed Woodward and his partner, Carl Bernstein, the information that helped uncover the Watergate scandal, which would lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974.

5. Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison

An engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, was the largest abolitionist publication of its time—and Frederick Douglass just so happened to be a loyal reader. When Douglass heard that Garrison was going to give a speech at an antislavery convention in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1841, he decided to attend. But while he was there, a friend coaxed the shy Douglass to give a speech on his life story as a runaway slave in front of the attendees, which he reluctantly agreed to. Garrison, deeply moved by the unexpected speech, realized that Douglass not only had an incredible story—but a talent for speaking, as well.

Douglass's unlikely speech turned into another one two days later at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s convention in Nantucket, and Garrison took it upon himself to land Douglass a gig as a lecturer at the Society. He soon became Douglass’s mentor, introducing him to other influential abolitionists and later helping him to get his book published. Although the pair eventually became estranged due to differing interpretations of the Constitution, their early partnership helped Douglass ascend to national recognition, eventually leading to his fateful meeting with Abraham Lincoln in the White House. Not an honor often afforded to former slaves, Douglass spoke with the president about the unfair treatment of black soldiers fighting in the Civil War, leading to a sometimes strained but always respectful relationship between the two until Lincoln's death.

6. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

A photograph of Steve Jobs (left) and Steve Wozniak (right), the co-founders of Apple Computer Inc. xz
Steve Jobs (left) and Steve Wozniak (right), the co-founders of Apple Computer, Inc.
Tom Munnecke, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

iPhones, Macbooks, Apple watches, and more possibly wouldn’t exist if it wasn't for ... Bill Fernandez?

Fernandez was a mutual friend of Steve Jobs—whom he'd known since they attended Cupertino Junior High School—and Steve Wozniak, who lived on Fernandez's block. He thought they'd naturally hit it off.

Jobs was visiting Fernandez one day in 1971, and as they took a walk around the block, Fernandez saw Wozniak outside washing his car. He introduced the pair, and pretty soon, Jobs and Wozniak were fast friends themselves.

Jobs and Wozniak began hanging out and eventually started working on projects together. The first was blue boxes for phone phreakers (devices that people used to “hack” phones and make free calls). They quickly moved on to more respectable work, though, after joining the Homebrew Computer Club, a Silicon Valley-based club for computer hobbyists looking to make their own machines. From there, Wozniak built the Apple I in 1976—his first computer kit—and had Jobs help with the marketing. Soon after, the pair would work on the Apple II and formed Apple Computer, Inc. Fernandez would be one of the company's first employees.

7. John Lennon and Paul McCartney

A photograph of John Lennon and Paul McCartney at London Airport in 1968.
John Lennon (left) and Paul McCartney (right) at London Airport in 1968.
Stroud/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 6, 1957, a 15-year-old McCartney attended the annual Woolton Parish Church Garden Fete—not because he was a particularly active member of the church community, but because he hoped to find a girl there. With no girls to be found, he decided to listen to the music instead.

A high school band called The Quarrymen had just managed to squeeze themselves onto the schedule of events that day, and McCartney was immediately impressed by their sound. Once the set was over, McCartney had a mutual friend introduce him to the lead singer, John Lennon, so he could show off his stuff. After seeing McCartney’s (very impressive) guitar skills, Lennon invited him to join the band. And half of the Beatles was born.

8. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison

A photograph of Thomas Edison (right) and Henry Ford (left) examining Edison's incandescent lightbulb.
Henry Ford (left) and Thomas Edison (right).
Henry Guttmann Collection, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Edison was Henry Ford’s personal hero, but he never dreamed that they would become great friends. That all changed in 1896, however, when Ford attended the convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies in Brooklyn, New York. Edison was making his rounds at the event, and, much to Ford’s delight, had a brief conversation with him about his recently invented quadricycle, the first automobile Ford ever designed. (Ford was working at one of Edison's subsidiary companies at this time and had idolized the inventor since he was a boy.)

According to legend, Edison, fascinated by Ford's ingenuity, told him: “You have the thing. Keep at it.” Twelve years later, Ford—who would single out the chance meeting as an important inspiration for his career—introduced the Model T, and he and Edison eventually formed a deep friendship that would last the rest of their lives.

9. Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward

A photograph of The Duke of Windsor with Wallis Simpson their wedding day at Château de Condé in France.
Wallis Simpson with the Duke of Windsor on their wedding day at Château de Condé in France.
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Who knew that a weekend getaway would cause one of the most scandalous relationships in Great Britain’s history? Wallis Simpson, an American expat who came to England in the 1920s, was a social climber eager to rub elbows with only the most elite of British society. Previously married to a navy pilot, she and her second husband, Ernest Simpson, rose quickly through the ranks of the upper crust, and in 1931, they were invited to an exclusive hunting weekend at their friend Lady Thelma Furness’s home.

Lady Furness, who was Prince Edward VIII’s mistress at the time, could never have imagined that introducing Wallis and Prince Edward would doom her own relationship—and all because he and Wallis had a dull conversation about central heating. When Wallis allegedly called him out for essentially being a bore (a social crime of the highest degree), the prince was so enchanted by her feisty cheek that he (eventually) deemed it worthy of abdicating a throne for.

10. Sacagawea and Lewis & Clark

Sacagawea with Lewis and Clark.
Sacagawea acted as a guide for Lewis and Clark.
Edgar Samuel Paxson, Wikimedia//Public Domain

Sacagawea is well-known as explorer Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s translator during their Corps of Discovery Expedition, which explored the new Louisana Purchase, but the story of how she actually came to join the expedition is even more incredible. A member of the Shoshone tribe, she was kidnapped by a rival tribe, the Hidatsa, when she was a teenager and was brought to their settlement in South Dakota. She was then sold to a French-Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, who already lived with the Hidatsa. She was made to become one of his two wives and soon became pregnant with his child (polygamy was a Hidatsa tradition Charbonneau readily adopted, according to History.com).

By the time Lewis and Clark reached Hidatsa territory in November 1804 and began building their own settlement after establishing friendly contact with the tribe, Sacagawea was six months pregnant. Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea and Charbonneau during their stay and immediately recognized her value as a travel companion—she could speak both Hidatsa and Shoshone, and they could use her language skills to purchase much-needed horses from the Shoshone for the expedition. (She would translate Shoshone into Hidatsa and communicate that to Charbonneau, who would translate the Hidatsa into French and communicate that to a French- and English-speaking member of the Corps.) They waited for Sacagawea to give birth before continuing on their journey, and in 1805, the Corps of Discovery—which now included Sacagawea, Charbonneau, and their newborn son—departed. With Sacagawea's help, they would make it to the Pacific Coast and back with maps, specimens, and important information about the Louisiana Purchase.