The Holy Or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah"

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Simon and Schuster, Nov 19, 2013 - Biography & Autobiography - 254 pages
7 Reviews
Praised as “brilliantly revelatory…a masterful work of critical journalism” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), The Holy or the Broken is the fascinating account of one of the most-performed rock songs in history—Leonard Cohen’s heartrending “Hallelujah.”

How did one obscure song become an international anthem for human triumph and tragedy, a song each successive generation seems to feel they have discovered and claimed as uniquely their own? Celebrated music journalist Alan Light follows the improbable journey of “Hallelujah” straight to the heart of popular culture.

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User Review  - BethEtter - LibraryThing

Great read - chronicles the evolution of the song Hallelujah from Cohen writing it to Buckley singing it and all over the world. Very informative and highly entertaining. Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - froxgirl - LibraryThing

Can you knock an author down for being just too sincere? Alan Light's biography of the iconic song "Hallelujah", written by Leonard Cohen, enhanced by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and Rufus Wainwright ... Read full review


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About the author (2013)

The Holy or the Broken CHAPTER ONE
Allen Ginsberg once said, "Dylan blew everybody''s mind, except Leonard''s."

Comparisons are often drawn between Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. There are books devoted to comparing and contrasting the two towering singer-songwriters; in early 2012, someone even released a "Cohen and Dylan" app, documenting their recordings and set lists for comparative purposes, complete with "quiz mode." (One especially free-thinking soul--who revealed only that his last name is also Cohen--even devoted a website,, to a detailed "musical conspiracy" theory alleging that Dylan was the primary author of Cohen''s best-known song; even in the Wild West of the Internet, the site didn''t stay up for long.)

The two artists have in fact crossed paths many times. They were both signed to Columbia Records by the legendary A&R executive John Hammond; both lived in New York''s Chelsea Hotel, and later wrote about it in song; both recorded in Nashville. Dylan sang backup on "Don''t Go Home with Your Hard-On," from Cohen''s 1977 Death of a Ladies'' Man album. In December 1975, when Dylan''s Rolling Thunder Revue tour played in Montreal, he dedicated the night''s performance of "Isis" to hometown hero Cohen, who was in the audience--and then delivered the definitive rendition of the song, as documented in the 1978 film Renaldo and Clara.

So it isn''t too surprising that when Cohen and Dylan were both on tour in the mid-1980s and found themselves in Paris at the same time, they decided to meet at a café. At this impromptu summit, Dylan expressed his admiration for one of Cohen''s new songs, the largely unknown "Hallelujah." The discussion that followed has passed into myth among fans of both singers, and the details frequently change in the retellings over the years, but here''s the way Cohen recounted it in an interview with Paul Zollo in 1992:

"Dylan and I were having coffee the day after his concert in Paris a few years ago . . . and he asked me how long it took to write [''Hallelujah'']. And I told him a couple of years. I lied, actually. It was more than a couple of years.

"Then I praised a song of his, ''I and I,'' and asked him how long it had taken and he said, ''Fifteen minutes.'' "

Although clearly a story told for laughs, playing on the contrast between Cohen''s meticulous, obsessive lyric writing and Dylan''s notorious impatience, there seems to be a good bit of truth to it: Over the years, Cohen has repeatedly described the agony that this one composition gave him. "I filled two notebooks," he once said, "and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel [in New York], on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, ''I can''t finish this song.'' "

When Old Ideas came out in 2012, Cohen chose not to do interviews to promote the album. Instead, he appeared at a few listening events in major cities before the release date, allowing journalists to hear the album in full and then taking questions for a brief session. In London, the playback was held in the basement of a Mayfair hotel, and Jarvis Cocker, debonair front man of the band Pulp, served as the moderator. These many years later, Cohen was still talking about the torment that "Hallelujah" caused him.

"I wrote ''Hallelujah'' over the space of at least four years," he said (elsewhere, he has also said that it was "at least five years"). "I wrote many, many verses. I don''t know if it was eighty, maybe more or a little less.

"The trouble--it''s not the world''s trouble, and it''s a tiny trouble, I don''t want you to think that this is a significant trouble--my tiny trouble is that before I can discard a verse, I have to write it. I have to work on it, and I have to polish it and bring it to as close to finished as I can. It''s only then that I can discard it."

This doesn''t seem to be an uncommon situation for Cohen. In the one extensive interview he consented to prior to the release of Old Ideas, for the British music magazine Mojo, he told Sylvie Simmons, who was also in the process of writing her Cohen biography, I''m Your Man, of an unfinished song that he had been working on for years. "I''ve got the melody, and it''s a guitar tune, a really good tune, and I have tried year after year to find the right words," he said. "The song bothers me so much that I''ve actually started a journal chronicling my failures to address this obsessive concern with this melody. I would really like to have it on the next record, but I felt that for the past two or three records, maybe four."

Cohen played another melody for Simmons on the synthesizer, saying it was something he had been struggling with for "five or ten years." He told her that the new song "The Treaty" has been around "easily for fifteen years," while he had been working on another, "Born in Chains," since 1988.

"It''s not the siege of Stalingrad," he said, "but these are hard nuts to crack."

* * *

By the time he was torturing himself with "Hallelujah," Leonard Cohen already had a long, storied, and somewhat baffling career. Cohen was born in 1934 and raised in the prosperous Westmount section of Montreal, the son of a successful clothing retailer who died when Leonard was nine years old.

"I wasn''t terribly interested in music," he told Simmons. "I liked the music in the synagogue. And my mother sang beautifully. . . . I first started to get interested in song when I came across the Socialist folk singers around Montreal." In 1951, he began attending McGill University; during his college years, he formed a country-western trio called the Buckskin Boys, in addition to serving as president of the debating union and of the Jewish fraternity Zeta Beta Tau.

My father was a classmate of Cohen''s at McGill. Though his own premed studies didn''t lead him to cross paths with Cohen in a poetry class, he makes it sound like everyone--certainly everyone among the small Jewish community, limited at the time by strict admissions quotas--knew the burgeoning campus celebrity. It was hard to miss one of their own who was straddling two worlds, receiving honors at school and performing at the local coffeehouses.

At McGill, Cohen won the Chester MacNaughton Prize for Creative Writing, for a series of four poems titled "Thoughts of a Landsman." He graduated in 1955, and his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published the following year.

Over the next decade, he moved to New York (where he hung around the edges of Andy Warhol''s "Factory" scene), then back to Montreal. In 1960 he bought a house--with no electricity, plumbing, or telephone--on the Greek island of Hydra, living off of his inheritance while writing poetry and fiction. Cohen''s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers was perhaps his best-known work, partly because of the book''s explicit sex scenes. "James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen," wrote the Boston Globe, while the Toronto Star''s Robert Fulford called Losers "the most revolting book ever written in Canada . . . an important failure. At the same time it is probably the most interesting Canadian book of the year."

Still, the book only sold a few thousand copies. Frustrated by his lack of success as a writer, in 1967 Cohen decided to take his shot at a profession in music. He planned to move to Nashville, but stopped in New York City along the way to meet with a potential manager named Mary Martin, a fellow Canadian who had been working with Dylan''s manager, Albert Grossman. Martin introduced Cohen to a singer named Judy Collins, and he sang her a song he had written called "Suzanne." She quickly recorded it, in what would turn out to be the first of many versions of this composition.

"He told Mary that he had written some songs, and now he wanted to come down to New York and ask me if I thought that they were songs," Collins said in 2010, prior to singing "Suzanne" as part of the ceremony inducting Cohen into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. "So he sat down and he said, ''I can''t sing and I can''t play the guitar and I don''t know if this is a song.'' So he played it for me, and I said, ''Well, Leonard, it is a song, and I''m recording it tomorrow.'' "

Bolstered by this vote of confidence, Cohen recorded a demo tape in Martin''s bathroom, which she took to John Hammond at Columbia Records. Hammond had worked with everyone from Count Basie to Billie Holiday to, later, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan; when Dylan''s first album flopped, he was known around the Columbia offices as "Hammond''s Folly." In 1967, Hammond signed Cohen, who was already on the far side of thirty years old, to the label and brought him into the studio.

Cohen clashed with producer John Simon about the arrangements, and it ultimately took multiple producers, three studios, and six months to get the first album completed. He recorded twenty-five songs, ten of which made the album, nine of which still remain unreleased. Songs of Leonard Cohen came out in the final week of 1967. It contained several of the songs with which Cohen''s reputation was made, including "Sisters of Mercy" and "So Long, Marianne," and illustrated that from the beginning, the meeting points between the sacred and the physical were central to his songwriting. (Nor was the sexuality in Cohen''s songs purely literary: Over the years, he has been linked to numerous women, including such eminences as Joni Mitchell,

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