The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum sits on the Columbia Point peninsula of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. It is housed in a striking I. M. Pei building, situated in dramatic isolation on a reshaped former landfill.
This brisk February Sunday in 2012, President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, is opening a ceremony by invoking one of her father's speeches. "Society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him," she quotes him as saying in a 1963 address at Amherst College, honoring Robert Frost. "The highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist, is to remain true to himself."
The occasion is the inaugural presentation of a new award for "Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence," given by PEN (Poets/Playwrights, Essayists/Editors, Novelists) New England. The award committee, chaired by journalist/novelist/ television executive Bill Flanagan, includes Bono, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, Paul Muldoon (poet and poetry editor at the New Yorker), Smokey Robinson, Salman Rushdie, and Paul Simon. The first recipients of the award are Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen.
The honorees are both dressed in their latter-day uniforms: Berry in a sailor's cap and windbreaker, Cohen in a dark suit with a gray shirt, topped by a fedora. In truth, the spotlight mostly stays squarely on eighty-five-year-old Berry. Paul Simon presents Berry's award — which the event program says "reflect[s] our passion for the intelligence, beauty and power of words" and celebrates these songwriters for "their creativity, originality and contribution to literature" — with a heartfelt, slightly rambling speech, reciting some of the rock and roll pioneer's most evocative lyrics, which Berry admitted at the time he couldn't hear.
Costello performs an impassioned, slowed-down version of Berry's "No Particular Place to Go," and Flanagan reads a congratulatory e-mail from Bob Dylan, who calls Berry "the Shakespeare of rock and roll" (adding, "Say hello to Mr. Leonard, Kafka of the blues"). Instead of making a speech, Berry straps on Costello's guitar and delivers a haphazard verse of "Johnny B. Goode." The whole thing winds up with Costello and surprise guest Keith Richards — perhaps Chuck Berry's greatest acolyte — swaggering through a glorious rendition of "The Promised Land," with the beaming Rolling Stone reeling off three lengthy, hard-driving guitar solos as his idol pumps his fist in the front row.
In contrast to all that firepower, the presentation to Cohen is quiet and modest. Shawn Colvin sings a delicate, slightly nervous version of "Come Healing," as Cohen leans forward in his seat and watches closely. At the end of the song, she knocks over her guitar when placing it back in its stand; Cohen graciously bends over and steadies the instrument before leaning in to give Colvin a kiss of gratitude.
Cohen's own speech is brief and characteristically humble. With Dorchester Bay and the Boston skyline gleaming through the windows behind the podium, the elegant seventy-seven-year-old talks for less than two minutes — exclusively about Chuck Berry. His bass voice scarcely above a murmur, he says that "Roll Over Beethoven" is "the only exclamation in our literature that rivals Walt Whitman declaring his 'barbaric yawp.' "He concludes with the thought that "all of us are just footnotes to the work of Chuck Berry."
Salman Rushdie's presentation to Cohen is a bit more expansive. "When we were kids, he taught us something about how it might be to be grown up," the novelist says. He quotes a few lines from Cohen's songs, and sums up his admiration by saying, "If I could write like that, I would."
Several times, Rushdie speaks of the song for which Cohen is now best known, calling it simply "the great 'Hallelujah.' " He describes the song as "something anthemic and hymnlike, but if you listen closely you hear the wit and jaundiced comedy." He gets a laugh from the audience when, with a grin, he notes Cohen's rhyme of "hallelujah" with "what's it to ya," alongside the lyric's "other rhymes equally non-sacred." Rushdie compares this "playfulness" with the work of poets W. H. Auden and James Fenton, and describes the song's "melancholy and exaltation, desire and loss."
When the hour-long ceremony is over, and the thousand or so audience members have filed out of the auditorium, perhaps Leonard Cohen allows himself a moment to smile and consider the irony. This song, which tormented him for years, only to wind up included on the lone album of his career that his record company refused to release, is now held up as "exemplify[ing] the highest standards of literary achievement." What's more, this turn of events is far from the most unlikely thing that has happened to "Hallelujah" along its almost three-decade-long journey.
"Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally," Kurt Cobain once sang in tribute to the only songwriter, many believe, who belongs in a class with Bob Dylan. But "Hallelujah," which first appeared on Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions, has already had one of the most remarkable afterlives in pop music history. The song has become one of the most loved, most performed, and most misunderstood compositions of its time. Salman Rushdie's description of the contrasts in the lyric holds true: Joyous and despondent, a celebration and a lament, a juxtaposition of dark Old Testament imagery with an irresistibly uplifting chorus, "Hallelujah" is an open-ended meditation on love and faith — and certainly not a song that would easily be pegged as an international anthem.
"Hallelujah," however, has been performed and recorded by hundreds of artists — from U2 to Justin Timberlake, from Bon Jovi to Celine Dion, from Willie Nelson to numerous contestants on American Idol. It has been sung by opera stars and punk bands. Decades after its creation, it became a Top Ten hit throughout Europe and Scandinavia. In 2008, different versions simultaneously held the Number One and Number Two positions on the UK singles chart, with Cohen's original climbing into the Top 40 at the same time. "Hallelujah" has been named to lists of the greatest Canadian songs of all time and the greatest Jewish songs of all time (though in writing about the song for America: The National Catholic Weekly website, one minister mused that the singer's melancholic worldview might indicate that he "has some Irish blood"). It plays every Saturday night on the Israeli Defense Forces' radio network. It made the list of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and, in a poll of songwriters by the British music magazine Q, was named one of the Top Ten Greatest Tracks of all time, alongside the likes of "Blowin' in the Wind," "Born to Run," and "Strawberry Fields Forever."
According to Bono, who has performed "Hallelujah" on his own and with U2, "it might be the most perfect song in the world."
From The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" by Alan Light. Copyright 2012 by Alan Light. Excerpted with permission of Atria Books.