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