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Hallelujah with Malcolm Gladwell | E7/S1: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)

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Hallelujah with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 7| Season 1| Revisionist History
Length: 36 min | Released: July 27, 2016

Malcolm Gladwell: In 1984, Elvis Costello released his 9th album, Goodbye Cruel World. I bought it the week it came out because I bought every Elvis Costello album back then, the week it came out. There’s a theory in psychology, the music you listen to at ages 19 and 20 is the music that imprints itself most deeply on your consciousness. If you make a list of your favorite songs, you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, I was 20 in 1984, so I remember Goodbye Cruel World. I listened to it right away and this episode is about one song on that album; it’s called The Deportees Club. I still have it on vinyl, it goes like this.

[The Deportees Club playing]

Oh god, it’s awful.

My name is Malcolm Gladwell. Welcome to Revisionist History, my podcast about things forgotten or misunderstood. This week, I wanna go back to Elvis Costello in 1984. I should say you don’t have to know anything about Elvis Costello or even like his music to be interested in this story. I’m not talking about Deportees Club as a song, but as a symbol. I’m interested in understanding how creativity works and I’ve chosen Deportees Club as my case study for the purely arbitrary reason that I’m obsessed with it and maybe, hopefully, you will be too once we’re finished.

Deportees Club is the second to last song on the B-side of Goodbye Cruel World. The album cover is a picture of a little mountain top with two trees on it, with Costello and his band members in various strange poses. It’s all very 80s. The record was produced by two legends of the British music scene at the time, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. You’ve probably heard some of their work. There did records with Madness, Lloyd Cole, David Bowie, virtually all of the great English new wave hit songs of the 1980s and early 1990s. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley were the guys behind the curtain. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Come on Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners? “Come on Eileen, oh, I swear what he means. At this moment, you mean everything…” I’m a terrible singer, but maybe you can make that out. That song? Langer and Winstanley.

[Come on Eileen playing]

Clive Langer knows Elvis Costello of course. They would bump into each in the way that people in a small world always bump into each other, and new wave music in the 1980s was a small world. At one point, Langer has his own band and he was doing a show on a river boat in the river Mersey. Costello calls him up.

Clive Langer: And he said, “Oh, I’ll come up and play a few songs before you go on.”

MG: That’s Langer; we met at a pub on Lauriston Road, in Hackney in north London. He’s slightly spidery, with close cropped white hair and oversized glasses, and the kind of graciousness that only the English seem to possess; an absolutely delightful person. My father is English and all older, charming Englishman remind me of my father. We had some tea, it was all very civilized. Okay, back to Elvis Costello.

CL: He came up and played all his, his best songs, I mean, his, his hits. You know, Alison and Everyday.

[Alison playing]

MG: Alison, Costello’s first big hit.

CL: And then, I had to go in and do my first ever show with the same lineup and we weren’t as good, you know. So I don’t know, I didn’t know quite how to take that.

MG: If you detect a little bit of friction in that, you’re not wrong. Elvis Costello is a genius and, like a lot of geniuses, he has a really strong personality. A few years pass and Costello’s record label decides they want to broaden his commercial appeal. He has a fanatical following among those who know new wave music, but the label wants a big commercial hit. So they turned to the hit makers Langer and Winstanley and the two of them produced a record for Costello called Punch the Clock, which has a number of absolutely exquisite songs, including Shipbuilding, which Langer co-wrote with Elvis Costello.

[Shipbuilding playing]

MG: You collaborate on Punch the Clock.

CL: Yeah.

MG: And you like that album?

CL: Yes. He doesn’t.

MG: And he, he doesn’t?

CL: No.

MG: Why is he unhappy with it?

CL: I think it was just too commercial at that time and he wanted to write something simpler, more alive, more… You know, he, he’s more of a purist than I am ’cause I was brought up with psychedelic pop in the mid-60s, so I was kinda, “Oh, yeah. We can do this, we can do that,” you know. And he’s like, “I want it to sound real, and, like Bob Dylan or something,” you know. But, um… And when you get that right, that’s amazing.

MG: I wanna hear a little bit more about Punch the Clock, about whether those differences in perspective had an impact on the way the record turned out.

CL: Not so much on Punch the Clock, we didn’t have tension. We had tension later, which I’ll talk to you about.

MG: Yeah.

CL: What we did have, when we did the playback of Punch the Clock, we got quite drunk and played it back really loud.

MG: Of course they did. And how much would you kill to have been in the room with them?

CL: And , um, he, he kind of freaked out, he said, “It’s all rubbish,” you know, “It’s, it’s, it’s terrible, it’s terrible.” And I said… I had to, you know, calm him down a bit and we all carried on.

MG: When the time comes to make the next album, Costello turns to Langer and Winstanley again, only this time…

CL: The first thing he said is, “I want to call it Goodbye Cruel World. I think it’s gonna be my last album,” which he didn’t, he didn’t even tell the band, so he was confiding in me.

MG: They do a first run through, recording all the songs live. Langer is the producer, the one who’s supposed to be running the show, but immediately there’s an issue. Elvis basically takes over.

CL: Because he’s quite forceful, a powerful guy, very eloquent and, you know, lovely but, he could sort of barge in and start changing things when, you know. So I remember saying to him, “Thanks for letting me be here to listen to you make your record, you know, but, uh, I don’t think it should go like that; it shouldn’t be like this,” you know, like… So it was a bit… We were at a bit of a standoff. I think he went out and bought a half a bottle of gin and…

MG: I asked Langer why Costello said this was going to be his last album. It’s not like he was an old man, ready to retire.

CL: He wasn’t even 30. It’s just that he’d had a lot on his back, you know. He, he’d been through a lot. I don’t know if he wanted to carry on playing the game at that point.

MG: The result is disastrous. I hated Goodbye Cruel World when I first heard it, and remember, I’m a massive Elvis Costello fan. A couple of years ago, Costello did a television variety show called Spectacle.

TV Host: Ladies and gentleman, will you please welcome to the stage the one and only, Mr. Nick Lowe.

MG: And in the episode where he interviews Nick Lowe and Richard Thompson, the camera pans the audience and twice you seem me, grinning madly. As I said, I am a massive Elvis Costello fan and believe me when I say Goodbye Cruel World was unlistenable, especially Deportees Club. It was angry and loud and upsetting.

[Deportees Club playing]

And I’m not the only one who feels that way. In 1995, the album is rereleased by Rykodisc Records and Elvis Costello writes, in the liner notes, “Congratulations. You’ve just purchased our worst album.” You have to kind of admire his honesty.

Except, on that same rerelease, Costello includes a new version of Deportees Club, one of the songs on the original album he hates so much. He gives it a new melody and plays it by himself, an acoustic version, shortens the title to Deportee, fiddles with some of the lyrics, and it never appears anywhere else, just on this random rerelease by Rykodisc Records, whatever that is. And I would’ve never heard it except when my friend Bruce ran across it and played it for me. Bruce, by the way, was also in the audience of that Elvis Costello TV show, grinning madly. Anyway, Bruce and I used to make mixtapes for each other, and he puts this new version, Deportee, on a mix tape for my birthday and I become obsessed with it. I’ll bet I sing parts of it to myself almost every day. I don’t really know why, but it might be one of my favorite songs ever. There’s a line in it that jumps into my head whenever I’m sad, it’s so perfect, a little couplet about the dissolution of romantic love.

“And you don’t know where to start or where to stop. All this pillow talk is finely talking shop.”

CL: Can we play it?

MG: Yeah.

MG: I’m in the pub with Clive Langer, the producer of the original, awful version of Deportees Club. Strangely, he’d never heard the new, obscure, and amazing version of the song he produced so long ago.

MG: Wanna hear the, uh…

CL: His new version?

MG: Yeah.

CL: Yeah.

MG: So I found it on my iPhone and Langer leaned his head over the table so that his ear would be right next to the tiny phone speaker.

MG: Let me see. Is this the one?

[Deportee playing]

CL: You know, it sounds like he’s found his song.

MG: But he didn’t know, at the time either, that that’s what the song… I mean, that’s what’s sort of fascinating, that…

CL: Yeah.

MG: Neither of you in the moment.

CL: No, if sometimes, you know, if it’s not sounding right, it maybe… I don’t know, maybe we were not focused enough, you know. Maybe we were making a record but we were miles away, you know.

MG: In the end, they, Elvis Costello and his producers, all thought they had put out something mediocre. What they didn’t understand until much later was that that mediocrity contained a bit of genius. It’s just that it hadn’t become genius yet.

That’s what I wanna talk about, time and iteration. What happens when genius takes its sweet time to emerge? I know that this is just one three-minute song. Maybe you don’t even like it, but every time I hear it, I think the same thing, which is this is something that gives a lot of people in the world pleasure, including me, and it almost didn’t happen. If Elvis Costello doesn’t go back and revisit Deportees Club, turn it into Deportee, we miss all that beauty and the thought of that breaks my heart.

There’s a theory about creativity that I’ve always loved. It’s an idea that an economist named David Galenson came up with. Galenson is an art lover and it strikes him, when looking at modern art, that there are two very different trajectories that great artists seem to take. On the one hand, there are those who do their best work very early in their life. They tend to work quickly, they have very specific ideas that they want to communicate and they can articulate those ideas clearly. They plan precisely and meticulously then they execute, boom. Galenson calls them conceptual innovators; Picasso is a great example. He bursts on the scene in his early 20s and electrifies the art world at the turn of the last entry. I think that someone like Picasso is who we have in mind when we think of that word “genius.”

But Galenson says, “Wait a minute, there’s another kind of creativity.” He calls it “Experimental Innovation.” Experimental innovators are people who never have a clear, easily articulated idea, they don’t work quickly. When they start off, they don’t really know where they’re going, they work by trial and error, they do endless drafts, they’re perpetually unsatisfied. It can take them a lifetime to figure out what they want to say. Who’s a good example? Cezanne. Every bit as famous and important a painter as Picasso, maybe the greatest of the impressionist, who reinvent modern art in Paris in the late 1800s, but Cezanne’s genius and Picasso’s genius, they could not be more different.

MG: Why don’t we start with your favorite. Do you have a favorite in this room?

John Elderfield: Well, maybe my favorite at the moment is that one in the back.

MG: I’m talking to a man named John Elderfield. He’s a Cezanne expert and he took me to that gallery at the Metropolitan Museum in New York where they have all of their Cezannes. Easily a few billion dollars’ worth of paintings in one room and it took only about 5 minutes, wandering from picture to picture with Elderfield, to see experimental genius in action.

JE: So, this, um, one of the many portraits of, um, his wife, that Cezanne made and it’s one of four pictures done in a short period of time when they were living together in Paris.

MG: The Cezanne we’re looking at is a picture of a middle aged woman, seated; her head is tilted slightly to the side. As with a lot of Cezanne’s portraits, we can see only one of her ears. He didn’t like doing the second ear. She’s sitting quietly, almost floating in the chair.

JE: And I think it’s arguably, you know, one the greatest portraits that he did.

MG: It’s one of a series of four similar portraits. Elderfield says that the first two are a little smaller, looser, maybe one traced from another. And then the third, much like the one we’re looking at, but without any background painted in, just a figure.

MG: Is this very typical of the way he worked? So he does, essentially, he comes back to her four times and…

JE: Yeah, and then ends up…

MG: And he, he gets it right.

Notice my assumption here. Because what I was thinking, when I said that bit about “he gets it right the fourth time” was that if Cezanne did four versions, he must have been marching toward some kind of preordained conclusion; he has an idea and he’s perfecting it. But that’s not Cezanne. Standard practice is you do a sketch, work out the problems, do a finished version. Cezanne kind of starts in the middle. The fourth version of Cezanne’s portrait of his wife, the one we’re looking at, is less finished than his second and third version.

JE: Well, for example, here you can see this unfinished parts, putatively unfinished parts. I mean like the area of they dress there, where there’s light, you can really see the grounds of the canvas and all the way through the little part. And you can see, he’s being put these brush strokes down by not actually filling them all together.

MG: Cezanne didn’t work according to some clear, linear plan. He basically just did versions over and again, iteration after iteration, trying to stumble on something that seized his imagination. Many of Cezanne’s paintings are unsigned because he doesn’t want to admit to himself that he’s done. He draws portraits of his art dealer, Ambrose Villard, and he makes him come for 100 sittings.

A hundred!

JE: A hundred.

MG: Normally they would be how many in that year?

JE: Well, I mean, normally, for portraits, it would just be a relatively short number, I mean, five or something.

MG: Why does he need a hundred?

JE: Uh, exactly. I mean, what’s, so what’s he doing all the time?

MG: Cezanne was never finished. This is what David Galenson means by experimental genius and Galenson points out that you can see this creative type in virtually every field.

Herman Melville publishes Moby Dick when he’s 32, writes it in a heartbeat; he’s Picasso. Mark Twain publishes Huck Finn when he’s in his late 40s and it takes him forever because he ends up obsessively rewriting and rewriting the ending; he’s Cezanne. Orson Welles does Citizen Kane when he’s 24; Picasso. Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t reach his prime until his mid-50s, after he spent his entire career making one thriller after another, playing with a genre over and over again; Cezanne.

But there’s one field where I think Galenson’s theory plays out the most powerfully.

More in a moment after this break.

Now back to our story, and that’s music.

[Hallelujah playing]

That’s the song Hallelujah. It was composed by the Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen but basically, everybody has done a cover of Hallelujah. Rufus Wainwright, U2, Jeff Buckley, Bon Jovi, John Cale, Bob Dylan, I could go on. It’s featured in countless TV and movie soundtracks. If you ride the New York City Subway on a regular basis, you’ll probably hear a busker singing it virtually every day. Like a good Canadian, I go to a Canada Day celebration every year at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, where local artists sing cover versions of Canadian songs. Every year someone does a version of Hallelujah, every year it brings down the house. And here’s what’s interesting about that song: it is so not Picasso; it is Cezanne, textbook Cezanne.

A few years ago, the music writer Alan Light wrote an absolutely wonderful book, an entire book, on the song Hallelujah. It’s called The Holy or the Broken, and one of the big themes is how peculiar Leonard Cohen is. He’s a poet, a tortured poet.

Alan Light: He is a writer in that way that he labors over what these lyrics are, line by line, word by word, throws a lot away, spends a great deal of time, and Hallelujah, famously out of all of these, is probably the song that, that he says bedeviled him the most.

MG: That’s Alan Light; he came by my house one day to talk about Hallelujah.

AL: He sort of was chasing some idea with this song and couldn’t find it and just kept writing and writing and, and depending when he tells the story, wrote 50 or 60 or 70 verses.

MG: Which is…?

AL: For this song and…

MG: I don’t… You’ve been writing about music for many, many years. Have you ever heard of a musician who wrote any different?

AL: I don’t, I don’t think so. I mean, and I don’t know what meant, I don’t know if that means variations on verses, I don’t know if that means entirely, like, how much of this is exaggeration.

MG: It doesn’t matter.

AL: But it doesn’t matter; it’s whole other…

MG: It’s a whole other…

AL: Level. Well, there’s a famous story that, uh, you know, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan have this kind of mutual admiration thing and, apparently, they met up in the 80s at some point. They were both in Paris and they went to meet at a cafe and Dylan said, “Oh, I like that, that song Hallelujah,” which is a fascinating piece of the story that, really, the first person who paid attention to Hallelujah as an important song was Bob Dylan. But he said to Leonard, you know, “I like that song. How long did you work on that?” And Leonard said, “I told him that I’d worked on it for 2 years.”

MG: Which was a lie. Cohen later confessed it took him much longer. Then, Cohen asks Dylan how long it took him to write the song I and I.

AL: And Bob said, “Yeah, 15 minutes.”

MG: Dylan is Picasso.

AL: With Leonard, it’s not the first thought, best thought school at all and he talks about, you know, being in a hotel room in his underwear banging his head on the floor because he couldn’t solve this song, Hallelujah.

MG: Leonard Cohen spends 5 years writing Hallelujah. He finally records it in 1984, it’s for an album called Various Positions. When Cohen finishes recording the songs, he takes them to his record label, which is CBS, to the head of CBS, who’s this legendary figure named Walter Yetnikoff, who’s the guy who releases Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA; not a dumb guy. Yetnikoff listens to Cohen songs and says, “What is this? We’re not releasing it, it’s a disaster.” The album ends up being released by the independent label Passport Records. It barely makes a ripple. And if you go back and listen to that first Hallelujah and try to forget how beautiful future versions would be, the song’s failure makes sense. It’s not there yet.

There’s an essay written by Michael Barthel about the trajectory of Hallelujah, and he calls Cohen’s original version, “So hyper serious that it’s almost satire.”

[Hallelujah playing]

Kind of turgid, isn’t it? But Cohen’s not done. He keeps tinkering with it, he plays it in concerts and he slows it down, it becomes twice as long, he changes the first three verses, leaving only the final verses the same. The song becomes even darker this time around.

[Hallelujah playing]

One night, Cohen is playing this version at the Beacon Ballroom, in New York, and the musician John Cale happens to be in the audience. Cale is a legend; he used to be in the Velvet Underground, a really pivotal figure in the rock and roll avant-garde. He hears this song come out of Cohen’s mouth and he’s blown away, so he asks Cohen to send him the lyrics, he wants to do a version of it. So Cohen faxes him 15 pages. Who knows what the lyrics actually are at this point? Cale says that, for his version, he took the cheeky parts. He ends up using the first two verses of the original, combined with three verses from the live performance. And Cale changes some words. Most importantly, he changes the theme and brings back the biblical references that Cohen had in the album version.

[John Cale’s cover of Hallelujah playing]

Cale is really the one who cracks the code of Hallelujah, according to Alan Light. This cover version appears on a Leonard Cohen tribute album put together by a French music magazine. It was called I’m Your Fan, came out in 1991. Almost nobody bought I’m Your Fan except, weirdly, me. I think I found it in a remainder bin in a little record store on Columbia Road in Washington DC. Another person who bought I’m Your Fan was a woman named Janine, who lived in Park Slope in Brooklyn. She was good friends with a young, aspiring singer named Jeff Buckley. He used to house sit at her apartment and one time, when Buckley’s there, he happens to see the CD of I’m Your Fan. He plays it, he hears John Cale’s version of Hallelujah and decides to do his own version of that version. He performs it at a tiny little bar in the East Village called Shinae, where he happens to be heard by an executive from Columbia Records. So Columbia Records ends up signing Buckley and he records his version of Hallelujah for the album Grace, which ends up being Buckley’s first, and only, studio album. It came out in 1994.

[Jeff Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah playing]

Now, I’m guessing that Buckley’s version is the one you’re most familiar with. It’s the famous one, the definitive one. It’s not really a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; it’s a cover of John Cale’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, only with Cale’s piano swapped out for a guitar. And of course, Buckley swaps out Cale’s voice for his own extraordinary voice.

[Hallelujah playing]

Every subsequent cover, and there have been hundreds, are really covers of Buckley covering Cale covering Cohen. So, the evolution finally stops. But wait, not really.

AL: Buckley records the song in 1994. Still, nobody particularly pays attention to it. I mean, again, in retrospect, we think of Jeff Buckley as this very important figure and this big influence on Radiohead and Coldplay but nobody bought Grace, nobody bought Jeff’s record when it came out; it peaked at number 160 on the charts or something. It was a huge disappointment after all the hype around him, so that didn’t make it a hit.

MG: Buckley is this incredibly handsome man, looks almost ethereal, like Jesus, with that incredible voice. But none of that is enough until 1997, when something tragic happens. Buckley’s in Memphis and he goes swimming in one of the channels of the Mississippi. He’s wearing boots and all his clothing and singing the chorus of Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin and he vanishes; never seen again. And that tragedy suddenly propels his work, and Hallelujah, into the spotlight.

AL: And it’s really kind of, you know, as you hit the new century, that’s when the snowball kind of starts. The first few covers, the first few soundtrack placements, it’s 15 years since Leonard recorded this song.

MG: 15 years. And think about how many incredible twists and turns that song takes before it gets recognized as a work of genius. It just happens that the independent label, Passport Records, releases the first version, after the album after the album it’s on is rejected by CBS Records. Then Leonard Cohen doesn’t give up, keeps tinkering and performing new versions of Hallelujah, John Cale, one of the most influential musicians of his era, happens to hear Cohen doing that. He revises the song some more, Cale’s version goes out on the obscure French CD I’m Your Fan, which goes nowhere except Janine’s living room in Park Slope. And Janine happens to have a house sitter who happens to play it, happens to like it and happens to have an ethereal, amazing voice. Buckley’s version goes nowhere until he happens to die under the most dramatic and heartbreaking of circumstances and then, finally, we recognize the genius of the song. But think about how fragile and elusive that bit of genius is. If any of those incredibly random things don’t happen, you probably would never have heard Hallelujah.

I don’t think this crazy chain of happenstance matters so much with conceptual innovations. Paul Simon once says, of Bridge Over Troubled Water, one of the most beautiful pop songs ever written, “It came so fast and when it was done I said, ‘Where did that come from? It doesn’t seem like me.’” The song came out perfectly. You can evaluate it right away; it doesn’t require 15 years’ worth of twists and turns and random events. The world is really good at capturing conceptual creations. Or at least, we don’t miss as many conceptual works because they don’t require that the stars be perfectly aligned. But if you’re Cezanne and the first version you produce is just a starting point and you never know exactly what you’re doing or why or whether your work is finished or not, the stars really do have to be aligned.

Cezanne was his own worst enemy in a way. He threw up barrier after barrier, he wasn’t thinking of us when he painted his paintings. That was really John Elderfiled’s point. The art of the experimental innovator is elusive.

JE: There, uh, some of them, which now are in museums, which we know he had tried to destroy. I mean, and you can see, in some of them, the cases of where he slashed the canvases.

MG: Why would he destroy his own canvases?

JE: You know, he had certain ideas about what he wanted to do and felt he actually never was actually getting to that point. There are other paintings done much later where he simply abandons them and Picasso said that, you know, what actually engages us is Cezanne’s doubt, his uncertainty.

MG: He’s, he’s obsessive.

JE: Yeah, he’s absolutely, just totally obsessive.

MG: Elvis Costello, Deportee, in its original flawed form. It comes out in 1984, the same year, by the way, that Hallelujah first came out and I’m not sure that’s a coincidence because 1984 is a very particular moment in pop music. The biggest album of that year was Michael Jackson’s Thriller, pop music glossed to perfection. There’s not a single stray note or emotion on that record. It’s the antithesis of songs like Hallelujah, or Deportee.

Along comes Costello, he wants to make an album in the midst of that cultural moment and he’s not interested in glossy perfection. His marriage is breaking up, he’s having financial difficulties, he says later that Langer and Winstanley were, “Ill equipped for dealing with someone of my temperament at that time. A nurse with a large sedative syringe might have been more appropriate.” Costello writes a series of dark, emotional, bitter songs, gritty and spare, to match his mood; something not 1984. Meanwhile, Langer and Winstanley have been brought on board to produce hits, polished, exquisite.

AL: Every little bit was pondered over and care-, you know, thought about and put together very carefully. I mean, you had bands like Scritti Politti at that time, you know, spending 9 months on a song and, uh, Trevor Horn spending 4 weeks on the snare sound for Two Tribes.

MG: Two Tribes was an album by a hugely popular band called Frankie Goes to Hollywood and they spent a month just getting a particular