Revisit Bob Dylan covering Leonard Cohen song ‘Hallelujah’ live, 1988
We’re dipping into the Far Out Magazine vault to bring you the moment two of our favourite artists, and arguably, two of the finest songwriters the world has ever seen, cross over. The two writers in question are, of course, Bob Dyland and Leonard Cohen.
While performing at the Forum de Montreal in Canada, a venue located in a city which just so happens to be the hometown of Leonard Cohen, the great Bob Dylan rolled out his first live performance of ‘Hallelujah’. It was a jaw-dropping performance.
The fascinating relationship of both Dylan and Cohen was wonderfully profiled by David Remnick, who wrote a fantastic profile on Leonard Cohen in the New Yorker. In his piece, in Remnick details specific discussions between Cohen and Bob Dylan as the duo crossed paths multiple times after their initial meeting in the ’60s.
That initial meeting came about in the most deliciously simple of ways, Cohen was in Paris at the same time Dylan was performing a headline show and had arranged to meet him backstage where a typically quizzical Dylan was particularly interested in Cohen’s hit song ‘Hallelujah’.
“How long did it take to write it?” Dylan asked. “Two years,” Cohen lied knowing full well that the process of forming that particular song actually stretched into five years.
In response, Cohen told Dylan: “I really like ‘I and I,” in reference to the song that appeared on Dylan’s album Infidels. “How long did it take you to write that?” Cohen then asked.
“About fifteen minutes,” Dylan replied. The dye was cast, though they may have been very different writers they were certainly part of the same spectrum. “I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow,” Cohen later said in 2008. “So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this.”
Fast forward to July 8th, 1988, and Dylan’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ had only really just got off the ground. After performing ‘Hallelujah’ in Montreal—amid rumours that Cohen was actually in the crowd watching—Dylan kept the song in his locker for special occasions only.
However, just one month after the show in Montreal, Dylan and his band arrived in Los Angeles to play a show at the Greek Theatre armed with ‘Hallelujah’ as part of their setlist. “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius,” Dylan once said of Cohen. His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres,” Dylan added.
“That song ‘Hallelujah’ has resonance for me,” Dylan later told the New Yorker. “It’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which when it comes in has a power all of its own. The ‘secret chord’ and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.”
Sadly, we will never get to know exactly what Cohen thought of Bob Dylan taking on his track. But judging by this quote from 2008, in which Cohen explains the “strange event” of seeing Dylan live, we’re sure he’d approve. “I went to his [Bob Dylan’s] concert. It was terrific. I’ve been to many Dylan concerts. This one, there was a walkway from the hotel to the auditorium, so you could enter into this private area, the people who had boxes. We were in one of those boxes.”
Cohen continued: “First of all, I’ve never been in a private box in an auditorium. That was fun. And a lot of members of the band came. But it was very loud. Fortunately, Raphael, our drummer, had earplugs, and he distributed them. Because our music is quite soft and that’s what we’ve been listening to for three or four months. As Sharon Robinson said, Bob Dylan has a secret code with his audience.”
Below, enjoy live auto of Dylan’s rendition of ‘Hallelujah’ taken from his performance at the Greek Theatre, Los Angeles.