Writing "Hallelujah" cost the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen a lot of time and pain. He just kept on writing verse after verse, for years on end, until he had completed about 80. Then he threw most of them away.
"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'," he once said. Even what he did not throw away is still immensely long – at least seven verses and chorus, which would take eight or nine minutes to sing. None of the recorded versions contains every verse. Instead the singers pick and choose – and in Simon Cowell's case, he chose enough for four minutes.
The Leonard Cohen version that can be heard on YouTube lasts almost seven minutes, although he leaves out the first two verses that Alexandra Burke sings. But Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and most of the others who have recorded the song include a verse that Burke omitted: "There was a time you let me know what's really going on below but now you never show that to me do ya." Seemingly, the powerful sexual imagery was too graphic for The X Factor. Especially the next line: "But remember when I moved in you and the holy dove was moving, too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah."
Cohen was 50 when he finally recorded the song, in 1984. It went out to an audience made up mainly of thirty and fortysomethings, who remembered Cohen from their teens. It spawned a huge number of cover versions, including Buckley's from 1994, three years before he drowned aged 30. The song reached a mass audience when John Cale's version was included on the Shrek soundtrack.
The word "Hallelujah" makes it sound like a suitable song for Christmas. It is not short of religious imagery, but the line "If there is a God ..." makes it plain that this is not a hymn. Cohen's version ends with a verse that Burke omits, which begins "I did my best, it wasn't much ..." which makes it plain that this is a song for a middle-aged man coming to terms with life's disappointments. Those words would have sounded very odd being belted triumphantly by a 20-year-old on the threshold of stardom.