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Hallelujah

The Holy or The Broken (nook book)The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and The Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light (Atria Books, $25.00, 254 pages)

“People keep finding the song in new ways… I’ve had kids talk to me about ‘Hallelujah’ as if they were the only ones who knew it – it’s a cult classic, like the world’s biggest sleeper hit. It’s like joining a club.” Singer Patrick Stump of the band Fall Out Boy

There are some nonfiction books that read like – and were written as, long versions of magazine articles. These tend to be books with lots of filler, in which not so much new information is found. Such is not the case with The Holy or the Broken – while it reads like it might have begun its existence in the form of a possible magazine article, there’s plenty of new and valuable information here, especially for music fans. For the less knowledgeable, this account may lead them to pursue more information about Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley or other musicians named within its pages.

This is the fascinating true story of Cohen’s writing a song included within an album that his record company refused to release. The song would not be discovered and appreciated for 13 years, and – as referenced in the subtitle, it was the late Jeff Buckley’s vibrant cover version that was to make it a worldwide phenomenon. The song is now a staple of televised singing competitions such as American Idol, The Voice and The X Factor.

Author Light details how Cohen’s song – a mixture of joyful and sorrowful sentiments, has benefited from being used as an anthem following tragic events such as 9/11, and via its frequent use on TV and motion picture soundtracks (including Shrek). There’s also the fact that musicians as varied as Bob Dylan, Bono, Sheryl Crowe, Justin Timberlake, Susan Boyle, Rufus Wainright, Lee DeWyze, Willie Nelson, Neil Diamond and k.d. lang have either covered it and/or performed it on stage. The song has become an industry onto itself; one publisher calling the song “a brand.”

The one negative about the narrative is that Light, a former editor-in-chief at Spin magazine, incorporates a bit too much of his personal tastes into the telling – becoming, if you will, more rock critic than unbiased historian. Still, there’s ample fascinating stuff to chew on here – one example being that John Lissauer, the producer of Cohen’s initially-unreleased album Various Positions (which contained Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah”) confesses that, “I felt like I’d ruined (Cohen’s) career.” Far from it!

“When you hear the Jeff Buckley version, it’s so intimate it’s almost like you’re invading his personal space, or you’re listening to something that you weren’t supposed to hear.” Jake Shimaburkuro

“It’s a hymn to being alive. It’s a hymn to love lost. To love. Even the pain of existence…” Jeff Buckley

The Holy or the Broken is well recommended.

Readers or music lovers wishing to learn more may want to read the excellent book Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley by David Browne, and the new biography I’m You’re Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Holy or the Broken is also available as a Nook Book or Kindle Edition download.

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It Don’t Come Easy

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (Da Capo, $26.00, 368 pages)

“Half the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election.”   Paul Simon

The year 1970, as some of us remember, was the year that Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was both the best-selling album and single of the year.   But what might not be remembered is that S&G would soon be targeted – during the very same year – as rock’s ultra-conservative sell-outs.   The New Yorker music critic, Ellen Willis, wrote of Mr. Simon:  “I consider his soft sound a copout.   And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation,  like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore.”

Not to be outdone, critic Miles Kingston (who claimed to be a fan) wrote:  “Some people hate Simon and Garfunkel because their music has no guts, because it is a middle-class look at life, because it slips too easily from idiom to idiom.”   Kingston described their fans as “the left-out kids – the loners, the book-worms… (and worse).”   And then there was the Time Magazine reporter, assigned to do a cover story on James Taylor, who wrote that, “…the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel.   Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”

Yes, David Browne has a knack for finding interesting bits and bytes of information that challenge our collective memory.   This is a non-fiction account of the 1970s – and, specifically, the decade’s beginning – in post Kent State America.   Browne writes about the softening of rock ‘n roll in a year that saw the demise of three of the world’s most successful groups – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY).   Yet, in a year that one publication initially termed The Year That Melody in Popular Music Had Died, it was to be a year of rebirth in music, of melody.

If the hard rock of the late 60s had just about killed melody (John Lennon had called Beatle Paul’s Helter Skelter, “just noise…”), it was soon brought back to life in the form of new performers like James Taylor and Elton John.   Browne’s account is actually a melding of two – one, a background look at the music of the time; second, a description of the social and political environments of the late 60s/early 70s.   In this it bears many similarities to Girls Like Us, an earlier-written account of the musical careers and times of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.

I noted that Browne has a knack for finding interesting factoids.   Here’s another one…  According to his research, backed by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, two of the major songs of the decade were written not for the composer’s own group/band but for the voice of Aretha Franklin.   Yes, both Bridge Over Troubled Water and Let It Be were specifically written for the Queen of Soul, who – luckily for fate – rejected them.   It’s one reason that both songs, written within weeks of each other, share a gospel soul and structure.

If you’d like to read more fascinating things that you never knew about all of the band members and performers listed in the book’s subtitle, and about others like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Allen Klein, Mary Balin, and Billy Preston, you’ll want to run and pick this one up.   As James Taylor was to sing, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox!”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Notes – Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller was reviewed on this site on February 2, 2011 (“Women of Heart and Mind”).

Elizabeth Taylor was to say that, “People don’t like sustained success.”   Which is perhaps why, in 1970, George Harrison sold more records than either Paul McCartney or John Lennon.

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