James O'Brien

"Hallelujah" comes from the Hebrew, its literal meaning being praise Yaweh. Its roots are in music, mostly gospel and spirituals. But it is also the one-word title of compositions in every musical genre from classical to jazz--tunes sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Hothouse Flowers, Nick Cave, Allison Crowe, K-O, Toots and the Maytals, Martin Sexton, and Ryan Adams. Most memorably, "Hallelujah" is the name of a 1985 Leonard Cohen song, which has been covered by dozens of singers, each with varying degrees of desperation, each to a personal, bring-you-to-your-knees effect.

I remember hearing it a few years ago at the old Loring Bar. It was an open-stage night. After some prompting from hootenanny host Alicia Corbett, a nervous guy got up on stage with an acoustic guitar and some lyrics scrawled on a sheet of paper. I sat at a table near the front as he fumbled through the chords, stopped, and almost bailed. It was a high-wire act, but the tiny boho crowd pulled him through because they knew the song, they knew they wanted to hear it, and they knew he wanted to sing it.

I suppose I should say that the guy butchered the song, or that it was sacrilegious for him to take such a cavalier approach to such a beautiful work. But how can that be true when I remember it so vividly? How is it that I can't remember half the cultural moments that are considered important, but that as I live and breathe I can see still the guy, eyes closed tight, fending off his own self-consciousness just to sing, "Now I've heard there was a secret chord/That David played and it pleased the Lord/But you don't really care for music, do you?"

It is my favorite line in the song. The open-mic desperado sang it with a slight but discernible sneer, as has everyone from Cohen and John Cale to Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright. It's as if the singer was addressing a music-impaired heathen who has traded a life of listening for a gray overcoat and briefcase. The singer is simultaneously defending his or her music, and all music, from all sorts of intruders, foes, and parade-rainers. It is a shrug of the shoulders. It is fiercely nonjudgmental. It means what it says: "You don't really care for music, do you?"

There's a new radio station in town. It is left of the dial, along a spectrum that has long been a bastion of interesting programming and diverse sounds, no matter what the kvetchers say about the evils of corporate media or the failings of public radio. Predictably, and sadly, within hours of the station's launch last Monday came the bitching. It wasn't this enough or that enough. It was too soft or too hard. The porridge wasn't just right. Lost was the fact that the station did not exist just hours earlier, and that it was clearly a day for jubilation, not nitpicking.

We are full-time opinion mongers, whiners, and weigher-inners. We never say, "I don't know," because we always know. We tell the shark it has jumped before it hits the water, we give answers before we hear the questions, and we decide what we think before we finish reading. We are a rabid pack of American Idol judges, constantly poised to gong the next contestant. Nothing is ever up to snuff, everything is spun, every motivation is up for debate.

Our critical faculties, so crucial to wading through the ocean of bullshit before us, now betray us. They have been sharpened to an instant-message sheen, to the point where nothing matters, nothing is cool. Quickly, now: We must make up our minds, have our say, get in the last word, and make fun of anything that moves us. To do otherwise--to take our time or to sit quietly with it, to give ourselves up to it, to truly feel it--might be to acknowledge that there is something in us that we don't care to uncover.

So instead we bitch. We bitch about bad service, bad manners, bad people, bad jobs, bad relationships. We bitch about things that are imminently bitchable: pundits and media and government. And when that carcass has been picked, we bitch about things we should be having mass multiple orgasms over: no-brainers like a radio station that plays music that holds keys to the universe, run by people who have been waiting all their lives for a chance like this to come along.

And when the chance comes, even though we can hear it with our own ears, we don't believe it, because we have been down this road before. So we squint at the vision. We shoot before we got shot. We curb our enthusiasm.

Screw it. I am so tired of bitching. Today is Groundhog Day and I am celebrating by giving thanks for the groundhog. Ancient Celtic cultures saw the groundhog as a symbol of mysticism, hope, and gratitude. We long ago reduced it to a cartoony weather prognosticator, which is why most of the country will wake up this morning to images of a freaked-out Punxsutawney Phil. The rest of the world will hold up the groundhog as an icon of rejoicing what is, not what isn't. And they will shout, from Iraq to Irondale, "He is risen," "Let the little rodent lift our burden," and "Hallelujah"--six more weeks of this ridiculously magical winter and its glistening, gleaming new soundtrack be praised.


Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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