There’s a clear alignment between the talents of Bob Dylan and the late Leonard Cohen. Firstly, there’s the poetical similarity that ties them both together, which is what Cohen spent his 20s pursuing while Dylan has a Nobel Prize to show for his wordsmithery.
Despite being older than Dylan, by the time the Canadian finally started to experiment with music, Dylan had already set flight on an unstoppable trajectory into iconoclasm. Both men had the same calling, and the only difference is it took Cohen longer to realise his destination. By the time he began, he’d gathered life experience that separated him from his contemporaries which poured imitable wisdom and heartbreaking into his work.
They didn’t cross paths until they played at a festival together in the early ’70s, and slowly a friendship started to blossom with both men full of admiration for the other. While there are plenty of similarities between the two, there were also significant differences between them as well.
For a start, Cohen was a lot more meticulous with his writing than Dylan has ever been. In fact, the process of creating ‘Hallelujah’ was such a long-winded one that he lied out of embarrassment when Dylan complimented him about the track.
“A lot of people have made the comparison between Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen over the years, and there’s some hilarious stories,” Cohen’s son Adam told the BBC in 2019. “Like the two of them are sitting in a cafe in Paris and Dylan says to him, ‘How long did it take you to write ‘Hallelujah’?
“And my father completely lied to Dylan and said, ‘Oh you know couple of years.’ I think it was seven years,” he added. “And then my father returned the favour and said, you know, ‘How long did it take you to write ‘[Just] Like a Woman’?’ and Dylan said ‘fifteen minutes’.
“And that’s very much about process, I think. Dylan had this quality where he would ‘from the hip’, you know spit and polish, spit and vinegar and then this old man of mine was much more like chiselling marble.”
Dylan’s love of ‘Hallelujah‘ is something that he’s spoken about in glowing terms, which is reserved for a selected coterie of artists. “It’s a beautifully constructed melody that steps up, evolves, and slips back, all in quick time. But this song has a connective chorus, which when it comes in has a power all of its own,” he once commented.
“The ‘secret chord’ and the point-blank I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself aspect of the song has plenty of resonance for me.”
On another occasion, Dylan sincerely said, “When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs.”
He added, “I see no disenchantment in Leonard’s lyrics at all. There’s always a direct sentiment as if he’s holding a conversation and telling you something, him doing all the talking, but the listener keeps listening.”
Dylan is a difficult person to please, praise is not something that comes easy to him, and you have to earn your stripes for him to talk about you in similar superlatives as Cohen. Listen to the bohemian troubadour put his take on ‘Hallelujah’ below.