I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
- Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”
It took Leonard Cohen more than two years to write that song.
I was reading an interview with Cohen and I was impressed with the amount of effort he puts into writing his songs. Many people talk about songwriting as a mystic art, even Cohen himself.
If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery”
Many songwriters, such as Bob Dylan, claim to write songs in about fifteen minutes and talk about songs as flowing from them and coming from a source beyond them. This can lead to the impression that writing good songs is just something that happens spontaneously to gifted people. This isn’t true. Good song writing is both a mixture of inspiration and hard work. Like any other craft it takes years of ground work to produce something special.
Cohen has spent years perfecting his craft. The finished version of “Democracy” contains six verses from the sixty or so that he wrote. This is one of the ones that he discarded as not being good enough.
From the church where the outcasts can hide
Or the mosque where the blood is dignified.
Like the fingers on your hand,
Like the hourglass of sand,
We can separate but not divide
From the eye above the pyramid.
And the dollar’s cruel display,
From the law behind the law,
Behind the law we still obey
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
- Leonard Cohen, from an interview published in “Songwriters on Songwriting”