Thanks to its overexposure on all the various amateur-singing TV shows, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" has become one of the most covered songs of our time. But do you know who was the very first person to cover that song? It was none other than our old friend Bob Dylan, who sang it a couple of times on the earliest shows of the Never Ending Tour, in the summer of 1988. Dylan must have gotten the song off Cohen's 1984 album Various Positions, which was so prepossessing that CBS refused to release it. That was before Cohen sang it on an episode of Austin City Limits at the end of 1988 - which is where John Cale heard the song and was inspired to record it for the Cohen tribute record I'm Your Fan, which is when it really took off. That's the version Jeff Buckley heard.
That tidbit comes to you from Alan Light's The Holy and the Broken, a biography of "Hallelujah." The book, which is quote good, reminded me of nothing so much as Dave Marsh's Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock'n'Roll song; Including the Full Details of Its Torture and Persecution at the Hands of the Kingsmen, J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I., and a Cast of Millions; and Introducing, for the First Time Anywhere, the Actual Dirty Lyrics. Both books track a song from its little-known creation by a lone genius, through the cover version that made it a worldwide sensation, and then to a version that even the writer seems a little embarrassed to have to discuss. For Light, it's a version that appeared on a Susan Boyle Christmas (!) album; for Dave Marsh, it was the performance of "Louie Louie" by a kazoo band assembled by a Philadelphia DJ for the purposes of setting a record for the largest kazoo band in history. I wonder if that record still stands.