One Song at a Time – Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Café, La Trobe St, Melbourne. Lunchtime June 2010

AT first I thought the voice was coming through the speakers of the large, neat café, trying to be heard above the burble of lunch orders and the boiling, bubbling and steaming of the baristas at work.

Then I wondered if a busker, carried away mid-song, had strayed in to take advantage of the acoustics of the church-like high ceilings.

I looked up from my salad but just saw the usual lunch-time scene. The pretty young waitresses behind the baine-marie and the sandwich bar.  The barista blokes in their black tops. Office-workers counting the minutes. Some sport – baseball – playing silently on a television.

And still the voice sang.  A man in a suit paused mid-sandwich, looked about, distracted.

My hot chocolate arrived, set down on the little yellow table by one of the waitresses. She had a small tattoo on the back of her neck. A butterfly maybe.

I nodded thanks and looked straight ahead towards the café’s La Trobe Street entrance, and heard the voice climbing into the chorus.

One of the baristas was singing while serving. Singing about David and a secret chord. ‘It goes like this/The fourth, the fifth/The minor fall, the major lift’. Singing while whipping up a flat white.

Like so many, I have loved the song for a long time, without necessarily grasping all its meanings. But familiarity can breed contempt if you’re not careful. The things you love may become the things you loathe.

The song has apparently been performed by almost 200 artists in various languages, including numerous television dramas and movies: The West Wing, The O.C, House, Shrek…(Did Leonard Cohen ever envision the song in a movie about a green ogre whose best mate is a jive-talking donkey?)

And now here it is again, at lunchtime on a Friday. Sung by a barista. I watch him while I sip my hot chocolate. He is in profile, almost in silhouette, and his neck stretches as he reaches for notes (while his hands reach for cups and coffee and levers).

I am annoyed that I am annoyed, for it is just a man singing. And I usually like moments of unexpected music. Paul Kelly on the muzak in a supermarket. An old Goanna song on a radio in an office, pre the i-Pod era.  ‘Long Way to The Top’ blaring in my car radio as I turn on the ignition after paying the mechanic.

I like such surprises, such spontaneity in such a measured, regulated world.

So why did the barista’s singing irritate me?  There might have been some jealousy. I can’t sing to save myself, not that the barista’s singing was up there with Jeff Buckley. Or k.d.lang.

Maybe it was just the intrusiveness of it all. The morning had been busy and now I just wanted to eat my spinach and couscous salad, drink my hot chocolate and let the mind float. No emails. No phonecalls. No uploads. No downloads. No reloads. Just sit. And eat. And be.

SOME songs need fresh air. They need to be able to breathe again. They need to be able to float away into space and not come into our orbit for a good while.

And when they do come back – on the radio in an office, on the muzak in a supermarket, even sung by a barista in a café – they can come back without us having lost the magic and the wonder of first hearing them, first cherishing them, first holding onto them for dear life.

Eventually the barista was summoned from the coffee machine. I couldn’t see him but I could hear him, perhaps now in the kitchen.

I finished my salad, swallowed the last of my hot drink. I gently pushed my chair back and headed outside. Hallelujah.


 Car radio, 14 August 2012

I am driving down the freeway listening to the classical music station ABC Classic FM.

I don’t know anything about classical music but I know I need to broaden my horizons.  It’s the midday one-hour interview program in which each day a guestshares their life stories and a selection of music that means the most to them.’

I tune in about half-way through the program to hear the last three selections of the guest.

First up is Dawn Mantra by Ross Edwards, featuring the Sydney Children’s Choir. Then there is a piece of electronica, Light Through The Veins by John Hopkins.

Jessica Irvine introduces her final selection, saying: “I’ll be walking down the aisle in December to this song, to an arrangement by a string quartet, because it is actually a very sort of classical piece.”

And then Jeff Buckley starts singing Hallelujah.

I’m keeping my eye on the traffic but I’m thinking,  Has the guest listened to the words of the song? Will the wedding party and guests be arching their eyebrows at lyrics such as:

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

I don’t know much about Hallelujah but I don’t think it’s really a wedding song.

Leonard Cohen, Live in London, 2009

More stories from One Song at a Time

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