A Secret Chord
1988-08-04, Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, CA
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One month from - [checks calendar, tries to remember what day it is] - yesterday, my second book will be released. Though the book's subject isn't Bob Dylan precisely, he comes up once or twice. Or maybe more than that:
(Take that, Eagles-comma-The!)
The book is my entry in the 33 1/3 series of small books about one classic album. Though "about" can be a loose term with these, and certainly is in my case. I take my album as an entry point to write about a whole lot more. The album I chose: 1991's I'm Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
As you might guess from that title - or from the subtitle, really - I’m Your Fan is a tribute album. One of the most important tribute albums ever, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. But also a good example of the tribute-album format more broadly, which the book is about as much as it is this specific album. I interviewed the musicians who performed on tribute albums and the producers who curated them - including the late, great Hal Willner, who essentially invented the format, though he'd claim otherwise. (His first words when I called him up to talk tribute albums: "Is it all my fault?" RIP Hal.)
No artist has been tribute-albumed more than Bob Dylan. That's what a lot of those indexed page numbers refer to. A Dylan tribute album is responsible for Mark Knopfler's sublime "Restless Farewell." A Dylan tribute album is also responsible for My Chemical Romance's unlistenable "Desolation Row." And, get this, both of those come from the same tribute album (2010's hit-and-mostly-miss Amnesty benefit Chimes of Freedom). So it often goes with tribute albums. It’s not a format known for consistency.
But there's another reason Dylan comes up in my book - which, have I mentioned, is available for pre-order now? - and it gets us to today's show. Twice in 1988 (this Los Angeles show is the second), Bob Dylan covered the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah."
Big deal, right? Everyone has covered the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah." And, let's talk straight, most of them did it better than Bob. Had he covered the song in recent years, with his Sinatra-rejuvenated voice and versatile backing band, that could have been something. But 1988, a year of hoarse shouting and punk banging, was about the worst time in his career to sing a song like "Hallelujah."
The reason it matters though is that year: 1988. I'd known Dylan's two raggedy "Hallelujah" covers for years, but hadn't appreciated the chronology until beginning my research (shoutout to Alan Light's great book on the entire history of the song). Dylan didn't cover "Hallelujah" after it had become such a cliche that even Cohen was saying in interviews, hey, cool it with “Hallelujah.” Dylan covered "Hallelujah" when no one was covering "Hallelujah."
Dylan was not only the first major artist to cover "Hallelujah," he was one of the first people to even hear "Hallelujah." Cohen recalled the two sitting in a café in Paris, likely in July 1984, six months before he released the song. The two great songwriters traded lyrics. Cohen sang "Hallelujah" to him. Dylan gave him a little "I and I."
When Cohen's album with "Hallelujah" came out, his label famously didn't even release it in the states. The whole story is too long to get into here, but suffice to say that "secret chord" might have stayed a little too secret for Leonard’s liking. Dylan covering it four years later was one of the first indications that "Hallelujah" might actually be as good a song as Leonard had thought. “Everybody’s interested in Dylan, but it’s pleasant to have Dylan interested in me," Cohen said with characteristic modesty.
Which brings us to my book. Dylan's two "Hallelujah" covers, touched though Leonard might have been by them, didn't appreciably alter the song's obscurity. The artist that set "Hallelujah" on its path to current ubiquity wasn't Bob Dylan. It was John Cale. And it happened on I'm Your Fan.
The rest is a story for another place. A book, perhaps. And if you like this newsletter, I hope you'll consider checking it out. It comes out September 3 and is available to pre-order at the links below (and here's my first book, which also features a lot of Dylan content, if you're curious).