"To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions, and it takes a lot of uncovering," admitted Leonard Cohen in an interview with Paul Zollo ("Songwriters on Songwriting"). Cohen penned a staggering 80 draft verses to his hit song "Hallelujah."
"If I knew where the good songs come from," he added, "I'd go there more often. It's much like the life of a Catholic nun. You're married to a mystery."
The suits at Columbia Records, not realizing that "Hallelujah" would not only eventually be recorded by more than 300 different artists, but would also be employed in numerous films ("Shrek," "A Lot Like Love"), television soundtracks ("Criminal Minds," "The West Wing," "House") and televised talent contests ("American Idol," "America's Got Talent"), initially refused to give Cohen's 1984 album ("Various Positions") the green light.
"Hallelujah," in addition to becoming the subject of both a book ("The Holy") and a BBC radio documentary, was also played at Fenway Park during a tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.
And just last week, Bon Jovi's version of "Hallelujah" went viral on YouTube — with 20 million hits and counting.
By picking and choosing among "Hallelujah's" 80 draft verses, cover artists have been able to co-create (with Cohen) a personal interpretation of the song — from melancholic to uplifting to acerbic to joyful.
Bono, who is a big fan of "Hallelujah," told Rolling Stone in 2012, "I've thought a lot about David in my life. He was a harp player and the first God-heckler. As well as shouting praises to God, he was also shouting admonishments. ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?' That's the beginning of the blues."
Since Cohen enjoyed numerous hits ("Suzanne," "I'm Your Man," "Bird on a Wire") in addition to "Hallelujah," the national media went into cardiac arrest upon discovering the legendary singer-songwriter had opted to retreat from the music business' spotlight in 1994.
In his 2014 book, "The Art of Stillness," author Pico Iyer describes meeting Cohen on a California mountaintop. During the five years Iyer's boyhood idol spent in seclusion at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles — meditating, doing odd jobs and enjoying the friendship of an elderly Japanese abbot named Kyozan Joshu Sasaki — Cohen was also ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name "Jikan" (meaning "silence").
Why in the world would a man who made his living making music that the entire world embraced, choose, at this point in time, to embrace the sounds of silence?
Cohen confessed to Iyer that he found sitting perfectly still to be the answer to all of life's problems.
"Leonard Cohen," Iyer wrote, "had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life — an art — out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might polish the verses of one of his songs."
"What else would I be doing?" he inquired of Iyer. "Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don't know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence."
"Typically lofty and pitiless words," writes Iyer. "Living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn't diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer."
Going nowhere, as Cohen pointed out, was the grand adventure that makes sense of journeying to anywhere and everywhere else.
"With machines coming to seem part of our nervous systems, while increasing their speed every season," concludes Iyer, "we've lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it."
With one-third of American companies now funding stress-reduction programs and such trends as observing an "Internet Sabbath" — turning off online connections from Friday night to Monday morning — illustrate how increasingly frantic we are to unplug ourselves from technology and/or to bring simplicity and serenity back into our lives.
When Nicholas Kraft crisscrossed the country to film his documentary "Pursuing Happiness," the most frequent question he encountered was "What is the secret to happiness?"
Kraft's response? "It's no secret at all. Which is not to say that there isn't a lot to understand. It is kind of like music. There are only 12 notes and people are still composing music with those 12 notes. I think there are only a limited number of things that really contribute to happiness, and those are things that we already know."
I suspect Kraft's definition of happiness might cause Leonard Cohen to shout — "Hallelujah."
Beverly M. Kelley is author of "The Oldest Cold Case in Port Cabrillo" and professor emerita at California Lutheran University. This is her last column for the Ventura County Star