The man who became a superstar by mistake

You may already know this story but, hey, allow me to repeat it, even if it’s just to illustrate the incredible role of serendipity in success and failure.

We begin in 1984 when Leonard Cohen, the venerated Canadian musician, released a song titled Hallelujah. You see, Mr Cohen had been toiling on that one song for so many years and, although it wasn’t a bad piece of work, it arrived like a wink in the dark.

And to make matters worse for the singer-songwriter, some of the biggest records of that decade would also come out that year. For instance, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Lionel Richie’s Hello were first released in 1984.

But today, Hallelujah occupies a special place in the hearts of musicians, filmmakers, reality and award show producers, and cover artistes worldwide.

True, many describe Thriller as the best pop record ever made but while Thriller may be beautiful, Hallelujah is simply heavenly. So, what happened between 1984 and the late 90’s when Mr Cohen’s masterpiece finally attained its legendary status? I’m going to tell you.

Before I do, though, let’s take a moment and watch this video:

Hallelujah is the most emotional song I’ve ever listened to. I love it too much. It goes with celebration, mourning and sadness, meditation, happiness, and maybe even Christian worship.

Many movies, beginning with Shrek, have used and reused the song in many forms. Alexandra Burke performed it, enveloped in bright white lights and machine-generated smoke, while wearing a gilded dress designed for celestial beings.  She won the fifth series of The X-Factor.

Yet, Hallelujah didn’t become this beloved until it’d taken a circuitous and tortuous journey through repeated iterations.

First, Cohen released it in an album that nobody bought. Then a small Canadian indie record company included it in a compilation that nobody noticed. After several more tweaks, Leonard Cohen performed an iteration of it at a live show where John Cale saw him and asked permission to re-record it.

Cale’s cover did just a little better than the original. Then one day, Jeff Buckley, young, sexy, some people said he looked like White Jesus, happened on the little-known collection released and long forgotten by the small Canadian record company. Of all the songs in the compilation, Buckley was blown away by Hallelujah and decided to record his own version.

For months, his album simmered among his few fans. But then, he went swimming one day and drowned.


Buckley was 30. And just as it happens with many artists, his untimely death made him more famous and his work even more precious. That’s how Hallelujah finally became the global juggernaut that it is today.

From Cohen’s first release to Buckley’s passing was all of 15 years.

By many people’s standards, Cohen wasn’t successful as an artiste, even though several art critics and other musicians such as Bob Dylan held him in the highest regard.

I might not know any other Cohen song, but this single song transcends many albums that some other artistes spend their lives throwing at their audience. Cohen said it took him 5 years to write the song— he was said to have ended with as many as 80 draft verses of Hallelujah. The result and trajectory of the masterpiece is so affecting that two important books have now been written about it.

holy or the broken alan light

The books are A Broken Hallelujah by Liel Leibovitz; and The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light.

I first learnt most of the facts about Hallelujah from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, in episode 5 of season 1. Because Hallelujah had held me entranced for several years, Mr Gladwell’s work was very much welcome.

It became the springboard for my own further study of Hallelujah. Now I have five versions of the hymn in a Deezer playlist. The best version for me is by Pentatonix, in a cappella. It’s lovely, as the video above shows.

Hallelujah also reminds me of my work in advertising. Does any of us— writers, designers, planners, strategists— ever get the chance to create an immortal piece of work?

Yes, we win awards and populate our shelves, but next year, there’ll be more awards and in five years, maybe no one will even remember the dancing bicycle ad we created last year that set the world on fire.

Essentially, most of us creators are artists and we wish we could have a signature work like Cohen’s Hallelujah. But we can rest happy, because sometimes, we’re lucky enough to get a Thriller. It comes fast and lands with a bang. It wins a lot of hearts, is often cited in training schools, and makes us rich and famous– Just like Alex Bogusky, the young creative director who projected Crispin Porter Bogusky onto the world stage.

I met Bogusky once— in an interview he gave to an online magazine. In the intro, they described him as the Jesus of Advertising. These days, though, not many young creatives remember how transcendent Bogusky was.

At 40, Mr Bogusky retired from advertising and has since ascended to other creative, but mostly humanitarian, vocations. It appears he’s still creating his life’s work.

For the rest of us, the journey continues, as we keep trying to find our own Hallelujah.

As we march towards it, however, let’s proceed with optimism.

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