The Lost Ark Of The Cohenites: The Unpublished Verses Of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

OK, the quest for the unpublished verses of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah probably wouldn’t tempt Steven Spielberg into a remake of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, but access to the unused drafts of Hallelujah is a predominant item on Cohenite Wish Lists.

The Background: In a 2008 interview, Leonard reported he had written “about 80 verses” before refining Hallelujah to the four verses released on Various Positions in 1984 and performed on the 1985 tour. Three new verses were listed in Stranger Music (1993) and performed during the 1988 and 1993 tours (they were also released on the 1994 Cohen Live album).

The only advice I have for young songwriters is that if you stick with a song long enough, it will yield. But long enough is not any fixed duration, it’s not a week or two, it’s not a month or two, it’s not necessarily even a year or two. If a song is to yield you might have to stay with it for years and years. Hallelujah was at least five years. I have about 80 verses. I just took verses out of the many that established some sort of coherence. The trouble that I find is that I have to finish the verse before I can discard it. So that lengthens the process considerably.’I filled two notebooks with the song, and I remember being on the floor of the Royalton Hotel, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, “I can’t finish this song.’1

The unused verses have never been published.

The Cale Confusion

Some fans have speculated that the missing verses might be obtained via John Cale, a hope at least partially based on the belief that Leonard faxed him a copy of all the verses of Hallelujah. In at least three different interviews over the years, however, Cale has specifically described receiving only 15 verses. The earliest of these interviews (The Observer – London: October 14, 2001) is representative (bolding mine):

After I saw him perform at the Beacon I asked if I could have the lyrics to “Hallelujah”. When I got home one night there were fax paper rolls everywhere because Leonard had insisted on supplying all 15 verses. Nobody recognises my version but I always save that song until the end of the set. He and I were chasing after the same woman in London for a time. I called him one morning and she answered – and that was that. It didn’t matter that Cindy was my wife.

Waiting For The Miracle

While the missing Hallelujah verses remains an active topic in the fan community, the issue is not if those verses will be discovered but when they will be made accessible.

This post appeared September 21, 2018 on The Official Leonard Cohen Facebook Page (bolding mine):

Today Leonard would have been 84 years old. His legacy lives on in his music, his poetry and in our memories. The Fisher Library at the University of Toronto contains nearly 100 boxes of material that document his life. There were more boxes in Leonard’s possession that are just now being opened. Yes, those 80 verses to the song “Hallelujah” have been found and so much more. We look forward to learning more about the story of Leonard’s life.

Even more intriguing is this excerpt from The bountiful afterlife of Leonard Cohen by Brian D. Johnson (Macleans: Sept 30, 2018 – bolding mine), a must-read article for fans :

“I had no idea there was such a vast amount of material,” says Robert Kory, who’s had a team cataloguing the archive for the past year. It’s quite the trove, with items ranging from correspondence with his ex-lover Joni Mitchell to outtakes that include all 84 verses of Hallelujah.

So, when will the Hallelujah Reveal take place? Well, as usual, no one tells me nothing (some things never change). Given that the announcements of the discovery of the verses were published in 2018, it seems safe to appropriate Leonard’s own words about songwriting from the quotation at the start of this post:

 

It’s not a week or two, it’s not a month or two, it’s not necessarily even a year or two. You might have to stay with it for years and years.

 

Credit Due Department: Photo of  Leonard Cohen post by Des Cannon. Photo of the Ark of the Covenant from “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” by Mary Harrsch, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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  1. Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah! by Neil McCormick (The Daily Telegraph: June 14, 2008) Bolding mine. []

4 thoughts on “The Lost Ark Of The Cohenites: The Unpublished Verses Of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

  1. Perfect! I am simultaneously teaching courses on Cohen at three different universities or institutions right now — “teaching” means facilitating a discussion. We start each session with a different version of Hallelujah. People ask for the lyrics…

  2. I am teaching at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, Tufts University and a retirement community in PA. There is a story here, but I won’t try to tell it here. Where are you based? If it continues on zoom, no matter where you are I can let you know.

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