Songs That Broke My Heart: Hallelujah by John Cale

Conventional wisdom will tell you nobody did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” better than Jeff Buckley. The few who disagree are likely of the opinion that nothing beats the original. Here’s a third opinion: the person who transformed Cohen’s song into the modern standard it is today was John Cale.

As I started to compile songs for this Songs That Broke My Heart series, I found myself noting more than a few cover versions I found “sadder” than the originals. Maybe some songs have more pain embedded in them than their original creators realized, or were capable of expressing. Perhaps the original artists purposefully obscured the darker themes for the listener to slowly untease, only to have another artist come along later and lay it all bare.

The now-iconic song “Hallelujah” has a complicated lineage. Leonard Cohen’s original was released on the album Various Positions in 1984, and has since been overshadowed by a seemingly endless parade of cover versions. Former Velvet Underground member John Cale began it all with a spare, vocal-and-piano recitation for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Time has obscured Cale’s version about as much as Cohen’s original, but it’s still the template influencing nearly every subsequent rendition.

The most idiosyncratic take came from U2’s Bono on yet another Cohen tribute album, Tower of Song (1995). It now sounds very dated, from the brief-lived moment in the mid-to-late nineties when the trance and electronica genres flirted with the mainstream. Jeff Buckley and K.D. Lang each scored hits based on Cale’s version, and numerous amateur performances on American Idol finally broke the song into the mainstream consciousness (relive some of them here, if you can bear it). The song is now a cliché, but retains its ability to push emotional buttons even when performed robotically by Justin Timberlake on the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon in 2010 and by K.D. Lang again at the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

The worst abuse of all, however, was when director Zack Snyder misappropriated Cohen’s original recording for a preposterous sex scene in the superhero psychodrama Watchmen (read The Dork Report review). Granted, it must be said that Cohen deliberately crafted his lyrics to be flexible, and has himself performed different variations over the years. Buckley’s version found a markedly sexual interpretation, and were he still with us, he might have approved of the song’s use in Watchmen. Cohen himself told the Guardian in 2009:

“I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it, and the reviewer said ‘Can we please have a moratorium on Hallelujah in movies and television shows?’ And I kind of feel the same way. I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.”

With such a wide variety of renditions, it’s clear the beauty is all in the particular vocalist’s delivery. Too many, however, bury any real human emotion under mountains of overproduced strings and histrionics, or in Bono’s case, trance beats and an ill-advised falsetto. For me, John Cale’s elegantly minimalist interpretation is the one for the ages, perhaps even moreso than Cohen’s original.

Julie Taymor does The Beatles songbook in Across the Universe

I believe I’m in the minority opinion here, but I really liked Across the Universe. Already loving the songs of the Beatles and the films of Julie Taymor, perhaps I’m predisposed. Taymor rounds up all the usual suspects from the Lennon & McCartney oeuvre: Lucy, Jude, Maxwell (as in “Silver Hammer”), Jo Jo (from “Get Back”), Sadie, Prudence… even the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine kick up their heels as Mr. Kite’s Rockettes. But unless I missed them in the crush, Rocky and Rita didn’t make the cut.

At two plus hours, Across the Universe may in fact be too much of a good thing. The Beatles wrote a great many wonderful love songs, but even these canonical classics can seem a little redundant when strung together in a series, illustrated by Jena Malone & Jim Sturgess swooning over each other over and over.

Jena Malone in Across the Universe
Chris Cunningham & Portishead called & asked for their fish tank back

The best sequences are the weirdest, especially the “She’s So Heavy” number which resembles something out of Alan Parker’s cracked Pink Floyd The Wall. But sometimes the interpretations are ruined by being a little too literal; the “Revolution” sequence starts out great with Jude trying to sway a radical revolutionary group away from violent protest (“But when you talk about destruction / Brother you know that you can count me out”), but he predictably points at a portrait of Chairman Mao right on cue.

Across the Universe
She’s so heavy, indeed

Topped off with cameos by Salma Hayak (times five) and Bono in a rare dramatic role as a sort of Timothy Leary figure (sporting an entertainingly loony American accent modeled, at least to my ears, after Dennis Hoppper), this rumored-to-be-troubled production can be a little overwhelming and redundant, but it’s really something to see.

U2 in a state called vertigo: U23D

U23D is actually a fairly traditional concert movie, a mostly straight-up filmed record of a representative show of a single tour. U2 had already produced one theatrical feature film about themselves (1988’s Rattle and Hum), and released countless productions on video and DVD before and since. So what could have been just another video of the world’s most overexposed band needed to differentiate itself somehow. Turns out the latest 3D technology filling a 40-foot screen consuming your peripheral vision is more than enough to justify its existence.

3D has come a long way from what I remember as a kid, watching Creature of the Black Lagoon on TV with red-and-blue cardboard glasses. At first, the degree of depth is disorienting and headache-inducing, but before too long the brain and eyes adjust. Your perspective is not that of the audience but as if you were standing right on stage with the lads. Sometimes I felt as if I should have been holding a tambourine!

U23D
In a state called vertigo

The old songs I’ve memorized from thousands of plays on LP, tape, CD and now iPod are still great. The martial drumbeat to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” still sends chills down my spine, and I have to admit I even choked up a little during “Pride (In the Name of Love).” I was disappointed by the relative lack of songs from the band’s 90s “postmodern irony” trilogy Achtung Baby / Zooropa / Pop, but I now have a new appreciation for “Love and Peace or Else,” a new song from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb that hadn’t quite made an impression on me yet.

U23D
One blind Bono sez: Coexist or else

I’m a longtime fan that has never seen U2 live. There was a frustration at every opportunity; if they weren’t sold out, I was too broke, sans car, or all of the above. So U23D made a kind of stopgap pilgrimage for me. U2 must be one of the only rock bands to ever preserve the original personnel for so long; here’s hoping they stick together long enough for another tour so I can see them for real.

Everything You Know is Wrong: U2: Zoo TV Live From Syndey

If I could build a time machine to take me to see any band in history, it would be a trip to the early 90s to catch U2 at any point along their legendary Zoo TV tour. New to DVD, Zoo TV: Live From Sydney documents the lads’ performance in Sydney during the aptly named Zoomerang leg. Rewatching the event in the 21st century is interesting; on one hand, it’s almost shocking how far ahead of the curve U2 was in 1993, preaching a pretty weighty post-modern, ironic kill-your-television thesis in front of thousands of rock ‘n’ roll fans each night. But on the other hand, the fixation on cable and satellite TV now looks rather quaint. True cultural desensitization and alienation via media oversaturation came, in the end, from the internet. “Everything you know is wrong”, indeed.

Zoo TV was less a rock concert than a carefully choreographed theatrical event. Bono donned multiple costumes and personas throughout each show: a drunken rock star clad in leather and flay shades, a paramilitary in fatigues, a gold lamé cowboy hat-wearing megachurch televangelist blasting millions of U2 bucks into the audience, and finally emerging as MacPhisto, a kind of washed-up wasted devil tired of life but still up for a good time.

U2 Zoo TV Sydney
I’d hate to see the band’s utility bill at the end of this tour…

Regardless, what’s amazing is that despite all the high-mindedness and avant-garde video art contributed by Brian Eno and Emergency Broadcast Network, U2 still managed to put on a truly ass-kicking rock concert and get millions of people around the globe to come and love every second of it. And for me to buy the DVD.