three reasons i play shows | three reasons i never close them with “hallelujah”

Once upon a time, I agreed to play a house show. Some weeks later, I was caught off guard to see ads billing it as an exclusive venue with high ticket prices. In the future, I’ll ask more questions when I get a strong guarantee.

At the show, the booker said that it had been tradition to close with a sing-along of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. I said that I would be very uncomfortable doing that. He politely dropped it, so we didn’t sing it.

This all felt a little gross, but I had trouble understanding why. So, I journaled a bunch, reached out to friends, had a frank chat with the booker, and then journaled some more. All this reminded my why I play shows in the first place and why I chose not to use “Hallelujah” as a sing-along.

This is what I learned in the form of a listicle. (omg! you won’t believe number three!)


one reason i play shows: for fun (or something like it)

Playing shows can be fun, but they’re a strange kind of weighty, exhausting fun.

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Shows are places we can gather to celebrate songs and the people who love them. And making something out of nothing is a damn miracle, especially because it’s always easier to not make anything at all. And even after something is made, it’s easier to not care about something than it is to care about something.

So, playing a show is a basic celebration of both performer and audience choosing to care about something instead of nothing.

That’s fun.

Shows are places where we can say things to strangers that don’t come up in everyday conversations. And you can kick up a bunch of dust without causing a fuss. Or cause a fuss, kick up dust, and own the fucking room for about a half hour.

And shows can be a source of community with a little dash of risk and potential rejection - that can be more rejuvenating than your favorite facial scrub.

That’s fun. 

Shows are how some people make meaning - asking questions, making proclamations, and raising attention for the problems they want to solve together.  

When you put three bands on a stage together who ask different questions from different perspectives using different sounds and different instruments, you create a space where no one has a monopoly on meaning. And then we all get to be properly challenged/unsettled/delighted.

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That’s fun.

At their best, shows can give you a little bit of hope on the bad days when your job feels like it scrapes out your insides, plops the goop down on a scale, and direct deposits that to your bank account. And they still give you energy on the good days when it feels like your goop is endless and worth its weight in gold.

But that’s all a bit much. It’s easier to just call it fun.


one reason i’ll never close with a “hallelujah” sing-along: with great power comes great responsibility

“Hallelujah” is a song written by Leonard Cohen and released in 1984 on the record Various Positions. You’ve heard it, but maybe not the original version.

“Hallelujah” is a case study in what a song is, how it moves through people and time, and how it changes clothes, popping up in unexpected places with different things to say each time you run into it.

Malcolm Gladwell spent 40 minutes digging into the song on a podcast. A book called The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" came out in 2012.

“Hallelujah” is a powerful song, but that power wasn’t immediately apparent. It didn’t make it on the original Leonard Cohen album that it was written for. He apparently wrote 80 verses to get to the original version of the song. It was quiet and hid for a long time before John Cale covered it in 1991 for a Leonard Cohen tribute album.

This movie came out 17 years ago you guys. That’s wild.

This movie came out 17 years ago you guys. That’s wild.

Cale reached out to him for lyrics, and Cohen faxed him all of them, even the ones that never made it into the original recording. From that, Cale built the version that most people cover today. Then, it took until 1994 for Jeff Buckley to cover it on Grace. And it didn’t become a big hit until after Buckley died in 1997.

It’s almost a fluke that we ever heard it in the first place, but this is a song that is so quietly powerful that it continued to move and shift patiently over decades, from Cohen to Cale, from Cale into Buckley, from Buckley to hundreds of others.

Now that we all have “Hallelujah,” we have to decide how and when we use it.


another reason i play shows: to build and share a space with heroes

this is what happens when you google “spiderman with a guitar”  anyway, here’s spiderweb

this is what happens when you google “spiderman with a guitar”

anyway, here’s spiderweb

Local heroes. Traveling heroes.

Quiet heroes. Friendly heroes.

Surprisingly unpleasant heroes who quickly stop being heroes. Strangers who become heroes when you see how well they treat people.

The heroes behind your favorite songs who ask your favorite questions and do things that you could never do. Heroes with superpowers who push you to ask more from yourself.

I feel indebted to a growing list of these people, and shows are a way to celebrate them, their songs, and the many ways they make the world a more interesting place to be. If an out-of-towner reaches out to play a show and I believe their songs will challenge/unsettle/delight a room of people, then it’s on me to help muster up a show to make that happen.

And then, if the show goes well, the list of heroes grows.


another reason i’ll never close with a “hallelujah” sing-along: songs can be used in good faith or in bad faith, and it’s hard to tell the difference

what a cute fella

what a cute fella

Over time, the song “Hallelujah” has become a tool. It’s like one of those screwdrivers with a bunch of different tips. Across many contexts and in many situations, this song can be emotionally resonant. And if you’re not trying to do anything more specific than elicit a vague Big Emotion, than this will get the job done.

It’s Cohen’s view that many different hallelujahs exist. Some are melancholy. Some are fragile. Some are uplifting. Some are joyous. Some are sober. Some are sincere. Some are orgasmic. Some are purifying. Some are about the disappointment of desperately wanting to be something more than human. Some are just disappointing.

If you’re in a rush, you could just describe it as “authentic.” But that misses the point.

The Edukators is a favorite movie of mine from high school. It’s also kind of a bad movie, and “Hallelujah” plays over the final scene. It’s heavy-handed, but I still tear up as Buckley’s cover plays through the ending.

The song has become a means to an emotional end. It often deployed as a direct appeal to “emotion” - not a specific emotion, just “emotions.” At its worst, it feels like a last-ditch effort at unspecific catharsis when everything else has failed.

It can become a song of manipulation. Some songs have the power to access certain feelings. And when people eventually discovered that power, “Hallelujah” showed up in talent shows, television dramas, and Shrek. And each time the song was used to emotionally heighten a scene, it lost a bit of its magic.

It can also still make for a wonderful performance (and it wasn’t bad in Shrek), but I’m wary of why and how people choose to perform it.


the last reason i play shows: money

You can’t pay rent with two free drinks, unless they’re really really good drinks and your landlord is a super weirdo. My landlord’s just a normal weirdo because he only takes cash or physical checks.

You need money to pay rent for the place that you live and write songs in. And you need money to buy food that will keep you alive and healthy. And maybe you can even put aside money for when unexpected bad things happen. Maybe even health insurance? What a world!

Then maybe when you’ve met most of your baseline needs, you can spend the time and energy it takes to make something out of nothing. And maybe you’ll even buy an instrument.

I don’t make my living from music - I’m happy as a clam to work a day job that can support me and this peculiar hobby/passion/obsession/self-care tactic. That being said, if I can pay for a day in the studio by playing a gig and dodging a “Hallelujah” sing-along, I’ll consider it.


the last reason i’ll never close with a “hallelujah” sing-along: the surest way to ruin a song is to try to make your voice heard over the voice of the song (but sometimes even that won't work)

This reason is one of Ezra Fruman’s tenets of songwriting. This is Ezra’s face.

This reason is one of Ezra Fruman’s tenets of songwriting. This is Ezra’s face.

Even in the wrong setting, “Hallelujah” is powerful enough to mean something.

And even if a singer sings it with the calculated passion of a high schooler trying to get laid at a party where someone forgot to lock up the acoustic guitar, it can still be strangely beautiful.

But using it too much starts to feel desperate. Hallelujah is a song of desperation, but that’s different than using it desperately.

It’s a song that people have pointed to as “real” or “genuine” while those words increasingly cease to mean either. It’s a song that some people sing to woo the people they’d like to fall in love with the idea of.

But it’s also still a song that asks serious questions about love. And sometimes, somehow, I can still hear someone cover that song and love every second of it.

But there’s a big difference between someone covering that song and someone covering up that song.


so what?

I can see how someone might lean on a “Hallelujah” sing-along for some kind of reliable catharsis at the end of a show. Maybe some people would even feel moved, like I was in high school at the end of The Edukators. But to me, turning “Hallelujah” into a sing-along prioritizes a cheap, unrisky attempt at “emotions” over anything you can really sink your teeth into.

But I’m probably taking this too seriously. Maybe songs are just songs and people sing them together sometimes. It’s not like this is some Fyre Festival shit. I was paid for my set. And my desire to abstain from an “Hallelujah” sing-along was respected. But it all still feels gross.

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That’s what it’s all about. You’re not going to be able to work this thing out. There’s no solution to this mess. The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is when you embrace it all and say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all - Hallelujah!’
— Leonard Cohen

Sometimes people try to make their own voice heard over the song they’re singing. That doesn’t give me faith in the singer, but maybe the song can still do some good. I’ll keep rooting for songs.

Anyway, here’s wonderwall.


An open thank-you note for Ezra Furman's "42 Tenets of Songwriting"

Ezra Furman was one of the first songwriters I fell in love with. I made a playlist of my favorite songs, follow us on spotify for that. I wrote out a thank-you note, but the 42 tenets come first.

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Ezra Furman’s 42 Tenets of Songwriting

(Saved from the great beyond when a younger version of me copied them into a note on an iPod Touch at or around 6/3/12 at 8:50AM EST)

  1. A song must be written and performed in order to be a song.

  2. Songs are analogous to human bodies. The part you write is the skeleton. The part you perform is the flesh. But songs happen primarily in time, not space. This analogy will not hold up under scrutiny, but it can be useful.

  3. Songs have the power to change time.

  4. I make songs, but I have very little control over them.

  5. My favorite kind of song is the kind that talks to people. The song's performer may talk to people, but the song itself talks separately. Sometimes a song will go to a person and grab them and shake them.

  6. Often the performer of a song will intend the opposite of the song's own intention. The song can be overruled, or it can overrule the performer.

  7. Songs are almost people. Of all the things that are not people, they are one of the closest to being people.

  8. Songs change over time and sometimes change back. When a song appears it may behave very differently than it did the last time you heard it.

  9. Over the years, even recorded songs can start to sound very different.

  10. A good song can go bad, and a bad song can become good.

  11. Songs are never finished.

  12. It is a song's audience that has the power to give it value. The performer of the song cannot also be its audience.

  13. A song is made "good" or "bad" by the way people listen to it. That said, some songs are better prepared to be listened to in a "good" way than others. This preparedness is not easy to influence and can never be guaranteed.

  14. A song does not reflect its author's efforts, but his hidden self; not what he wants to appear to be, but what he is.

  15. If you are looking for information about a song, the songwriter is usually the wrong person to ask. Ask the audience.

  16. Like a parent to a child, I know how my songs were made but I don't know what they are really like. After a certain point, they are no longer mine, because we both have changed too much.

  17. A songwriter or songwriting team, together with their songs, form a family unit. A strong family unit defines itself against the outside world of facts, keeping the world out and making its own world. Listening to these groupings of songs is like visiting someone's household for a family dinner: you are offered a glimpse into a separate world with its own separate language and truths.

  18. A song can wander away from home and end up somewhere dangerous. This is not always the author's fault.

  19. A folk song is an orphan from infancy, and has to be tough to survive.

  20. I try to influence my songs to behave violently.

  21. My highest hope for one of my songs it that it might bother someone. I want my songs to be pests.

  22. Songs are an inevitable human byproduct.

  23. The materials for songs can all be found in nature, but only humans can arrange them into songs.

  24. We cannot stand to passively listen to nature's irregular rhythms and bad melodies for very long; we yearn to correct them. Listen to the crashing waves, the whistling wind: they are terrible, musically. They have no sense of timing or pitch, and they are totally emotionless. Songs are humans' corrections of the sounds of nature.

  25. A song is not quite a thing. A song is a form that can be filled in again and again. Making songs is like making plaster molds which you can use to make many unique things. But again, in time rather than in space. Also, the molds themselves can change.

  26. The worst kind of song insults its audience. The best kind calls them to action.

  27. The surest way to ruin a song is to try to make your voice heard over the voice of the song. But sometimes even that won't work.

  28. Just as performers choose songs they like, songs choose performers they like.

  29. A song is a mask that shows its performer's true face.

  30. In song we say what we are forbidden from saying elsewhere.

  31. Performing a song is almost always a passive-aggressive act.

  32. It is more correct to use the same word for "song" and "poem," as is done in Hebrew. Poems are songs as long as they can be performed. Most songs, however, can only obliquely be called poems. "Songs" is the larger category.

  33. Writing a song is finding a psychic place and then trying to draw a map to that place. Performing a song is trying to go back and follow that map and bring people with you. The best songs are the ones that work most reliably as maps to a place. Bad songs are hard-to-follow maps.

  34. Songs always suggest images. Part of listening is picturing the invisible.

  35. I make songs in order to make something happen outside of ordinary life. I am rarely successful.

  36. The performer of a song is inhabited by someone besides himself. Who this is remains unknown.

  37. Someone who hears a song is often redefined in relation to the song. In this way songs can be a catalyst for personal change. This is their most important function.

  38. A good song is a place to live for a while.

  39. A good song erases your memory of what the world is like.

  40. Songs show me how fast time moves. They also remind me of how much can happen in a short amount of time.

  41. A song is the highest form of commemoration. But it has to be the right song. Even when moments of silence are observed, a song would be better.

  42. If it is possible to talk to God, a song is a way to do so.


Alright, here’s the personal storytime bit.

It’s weird to exchange words with someone who’s been singing to you for a decade. We didn’t really exchange words - really I just thanked him for writing the song “Don’t Turn Your Back on Love,” and he nodded and might have said thanks.

Growing up, I had a cool alarm clock radio. It projected the time with a red laser beam onto the ceiling, so you could wake up in the morning, roll onto your back, and see how upset you should be at the morning with minimal effort. I remember being excited by that mostly. It also had a radio - that was just gravy.

I listened to a lot of radio back then (Z93, with the cringe-inducing nighttime segment “What’s in Fry’s Fly” hosted by some guy who was always yelling), and only rarely would change over to The X (Dayton’s alternative/hard-for-FM rock station/advertising vehicle for Rock on the Range and Warped Tour).

One time, between all the 2000s rock, a song came on with an acoustic guitar and a strident, inelegant harmonica piercing through the rest of the noise. A little jumpy baseline. And then a flustered man huffing and heaving and puffing his way through a song about sunglasses.

My baby went out with her family to a ski resort in Colorado And left me all alone for a couple of weeks Well she called me up, she said “I love you in the middle of the night.” I said “In the middle of the night, everybody loves everybody else these days.” She said “Oh, in the middle of the day I love you very much.” I said “Everybody loves each other these days.”
— Take Off Your Sunglasses by Ezra Furman & the Harpoons
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I think my working definitions of what songs should do came from Ezra. From songs whose lyrics seemed to rend the music and arrangements to their will to ecstatic screams when seemingly nothing else gets the point across. His songs were never afraid to be uncool, to be pigeonholed into a specific genre convention, to be easily called much of anything. And they seemed more alive than anything I could see with my own two eyes.

I’m thankful for his art. And I’m thankful to whatever radio DJ thought it would be a good idea to play that particular song at that particular time. And I’m thankful to my alarm clock radio.

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me, who has been helped by these songs and the tenets that guide writing them

me, who has been helped by these songs and the tenets that guide writing them

Ezra had a pretty robust tumblr, and at one time, I remember finding a note titled “Ezra Furman’s 42 Tenets of Songwriting.” 

After I saw him on this last tour, I tried looking it up. When I found it in high school, I took it as gospel. But I can’t find it online anymore. 

But, years ago, I copied it into the notes app on my iPod Touch. That, I did find.

So, I don’t think this is gospel. But it is worth preaching. I’m not sure why he took it down. I hope he speaks up if he’s upset. I hope these help you as much as they helped me.