I've heard the new movie Watchmen uses Leonard Cohen's original version of Hallelujah instead of one of the many covers out there (some glorious, some hideous). As a one who had declared myself a huge fan of Cohen I guess I should weigh in on these covers.
My first reaction to the huge and growing popular response to this song is somewhat unexpected, at least by me. And I am dismayed at it. Because now, this beautiful thing I had discovered and was known by only a few others and was special to us all has been appropriated into the huge crass marketplace of the unwashed. It has already become treadworn and tired through relentless repetition. Which is so sad for such a brilliant song.
The first time I ever heard it, or anything by Cohen was in the mid-90s while in bed with a randy co-worker who had coaxed me to her apartment with promises of desperate passion. She was playing some rather weird music in the background as we consummated our unfaithful (for her) relationship. I found out she was cheating when she answered the phone as it rang in mid-coitus... and she talked to her long-distance fiance. As the call stretched into minutes I started listening to the singer more closely and realized that it was some kind of odd genius coming out of those speakers. It was Cohen's live version of Hallelujah.
But Cohen's unusual lyrical mingling of sex and spirituality, which pervades his work, is always colored, for me, by the circumstances of our introduction. Cohen's alluring and sensual melodies settled across the dark room of that young girl's flat as I lay still, still, well, intimately connected to her, while she carried on a very intimate and passionate conversation with her half-a-world-away fiance. It was a strange experience, sharing this woman's bed as she cried and whispered "I love you" to someone else. Kinda chips away at one's belief in other people, doesn't it? Of course, I didn't leave either so I suppose that says a lot about me too, at least the younger me. Looking back, I can't think of a more fitting soundtrack for such an occasion than the bard of tortured love. It was the start of a long relationship - with Cohen. I don't remember her name.
As for the endless cover versions. The one most spoken of is Jeff Buckley's, but I prefer John Cale's to his. However, the top prize must go to k.d. lang, who wrenches unbelievable emotion from this performance at the Canadian Juno Awards in 2005.