After five years and seventy different verses, Leonard Cohen finally released Hallelujah in 1984. The mega hit that we know today came onto the scene with a deafening silence, it was an absolute failure. Cohen was performing a few years later, and musician John Cale, who was in the audience, was enthralled by the song. He did his own cover which was released in 1991, and again the song did not do much commercially.
One day Jeff Buckley was at a friend’s house and popped in Cale’s CD. He had a similar emotional response to the first time Cale heard Cohen sing it. So he decided to do his own cover, which became the version we hear everywhere today. This song was released in 1994 and the album peaked at just 160 on the charts. But in 1997 Jeff Buckley drowned and the tragedy sent Hallelujah sky rocketing up the charts, fifteen years after Leonard Cohen recorded the original.
I see somebody with a guitar singing Hallelujah in the subway all the time, so why did it take fifteen years for listeners to fall in love with it?
This incredible story so eloquently told by Malcolm Gladwell has similarities to an unbelievable book I just read, Endurance.
Endurance is the story of Shackleton’s incredible voyage across Antarctica, brilliantly told by Alfred Lansing. First published in 1959, the book was a flop and fell out of print two years later. And then in 1986, after twenty-five years without a single copy published, the rights to Lansing’s masterpiece were bought by Kent Carroll. The book sold five thousand copies in its first year and never looked back.
Here is Lansing painting an agonizing image for his readers:
The clothes the men wore, now that they were sitting almost motionless, froze stiff. Not only were their garments wet from the spray and the snow, they were also worn and saturated with the oil secreted from the men’s own bodies during the six months of constant wear. If a man shifted his position, even slightly, his skin came in contact with a new, unwarmed surface of his clothing. Everyone tried to sit still, but it could not be done. The weariness, the lack of food, the exertion, and the worry had weakened them so that the harder they tried to sit still, the more they shivered- and their own shivering kept them awake. It was better to row. Shackleton in the Caird doubted that some men would survive the night.
The book is filled with powerful passages like this, so it’s not surprising that Endurance has sold half a million copies. But why did it take readers a few decades to embrace it? It’s not too often that talent slips through the cracks. LeBron James and Michael Jackson are almost always found. But sometimes, for unknown reasons, greatness must be rediscovered.