September 19, 2016

Iterate, Don’t Originate.

Or, how a remake of a remake of a song became a classic

Starting from scratch is usually a bad idea.

Too often, we assume innovative ideas and meaningful changes require a blank slate. When a project fails, we say, “Let’s go back to the drawing board.” When we have habits we want to change, we think, “I just need a fresh start.” However, creative progress is rarely the result of throwing out all previous ideas and completely re-imagining the world.

Take Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” for example.

Cohen spent years struggling with his song “Hallelujah,” writing as many as 80 verses before paring the song down and recording it on the 1984 album “Various Positions.” Then his label, CBS Records, refused to release “Various Positions,” not realizing that “Hallelujah” would eventually become one of the most-performed songs in American musical history.

But what we know and love today is a far cry from Cohen’s original version.

When you are looking to try something new, it often is better to build upon what already works. Any idea that is currently working has passed a lot of tests. Old ideas have already managed to survive in a complex world.

Often, this remixing comes from working together with someone else. But many times it simply involves surveying what is out there (or stumbling upon something interesting) and adapting it to our contexts.

In 1991 a French music magazine released a Leonard Cohen tribute album, “I’m Your Fan,” which included a remake of “Hallelujah” by John Cale. Cale re-edited the lyrics and came up with a version that has seemingly proved more enduring than Cohen’s. But even that didn’t launch the song of a thousand remakes.

Soon after the release of “I’m Your Fan,” Jeff Buckley, then an aspiring young singer, happened to stay in a New York apartment of someone that happened to have a copy of the album. Buckley heard the song, loved it, and released his own version on his 1994 album, “Grace.”

Buckley’s version is probably the one you know. And Buckley’s remake (adapted from Cale’s remake, which was adapted from Cohen’s original) is the version that has launched hundreds of additional cover versions.

Maybe you started Laundry Love, or Messy Church, or Ashes to Go, or any number of other creative ministries. But, more likely, you have taken what is out there and remade it. You’ve taken an original and adapted and improved it to your context.

Creativity isn’t always (or even usually) coming up with something entirely new. Particularly in a tradition like ours, perhaps the most important thing we can do is to take the ancient faith, and all the good ideas that have stood the test of time, and remix it just a little bit for our own time and place.

(The amazing story of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is chronicled in Alan Light’s 2012 book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”.)

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