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30 Day, 30 Authors: Liel Leibovitz

Saturday, November 28, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a contributor to several publications, including The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and others. He is the author or co-author of six books, and holds a PhD in communications from Columbia University. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, the author Lisa Ann Sandell, and their children.



Rock and Roll, Religion, and Leonard Cohen

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Liel Leibovitz wrote about how Leonard Cohen became his personal savior. His newest book, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption and the Life of Leonard Cohen, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

With very few exceptions, the story of American popular music in the last five decades is largely a story of decline. After a brief and fiery decade, the Sixties, in which every kid who flocked to California or downtown Manhattan with a guitar case and a hungry heart seemed to turn into Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Lou Reed, things took a turn for the worse. Take away Springsteen, the Ramones, and the Notorious B.I.G., and you’re left largely with years and years of bloated stadium schlock, screechy garage noise, or confections too sweet for the musical palate of anyone older than 12.

What happened? How did a scene that produced so many masterworks in such a short time fade away? There are several feasible explanations, from the changing economics of the music business to the ravages wrought by technology, but one of them in particular deserves much closer attention: the reason American music has sucked so badly for so long may be, first and foremost, theological.

You don’t have to be a scholar of either religion or rock n’ roll to realize how much the two have in common. All you need to do is spend some time with, say, the Doors. If you look at the long-haired, bare-chested Jim Morrison striking a Christ-like pose in the band’s most iconic image, and if you listen to the way its four musicians race one another to ecstasy, creating songs that are so white-hot with passion they nearly fall apart, you realize that the Doors were about more than putting out albums and prancing on stages. They were about, to paraphrase their most famous song, breaking on through to the other side, transcending above reason and unlocking a higher mystical sphere of human consciousness.

The Doors were hardly alone: Recording Revolver, the Beatles’ 1966 album, John Lennon told his studio technician he wanted to sound “like the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top,” while the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson quipped that “our influences are of a religious nature” and Lou Reed dove into the work of the German philosopher Oswald Spengler and his theories of Christianity’s decline. For a host of socioeconomic and political reasons, much of this profoundly religious nation’s spiritual yearnings—newly released from traditional forms of worship like church attendance—were expressed instead by guitar, bass, and drums. Rock was how young people worshipped, and they were every bit as devout as their ancestors.

They were also in for a very big disappointment. The salvation the rock gods of the 1960s promised was immediate and complete and orgasmic. If organized religions advertised redemption as a life-long process, the shabby saviors with their musical instruments argued that it could be achieved in a four-minute song, aided by sex and drugs and abandon. Which, of course, is much more than mere humans are capable of: soon, the heady stirrings that Morrison and Hendrix and Joplin and the others aroused, inflamed by songs that shredded guitar strings and words that devolved into howls, turned tragic, with a slew of young corpses announcing the end.

With so many of rock’s messiahs now departed, the scene experienced a crisis of faith. Instead of going deeper, bands went louder, cultivating all of the genre’s rituals but none of its profundity. And fans reacted in kind, viewing the music now not as a spiritual pursuit but as just another consumer good. Rock’s immense promise appeared on the verge of being extinguished.

And then we started listening to Leonard Cohen.

He was 33 when he decided, in 1967, to abandon his career as a poet and pick up a guitar. He was a decade older than his peers, and shared nothing of their fervor. Cohen never believed in breaking on through to the other side. His idea of redemption was a thoroughly Jewish one, trusting not in instant transcendence but in the slow and painstaking personal journey we each must take to realize that being alive wasn’t that great, but it sure beat the alternative.

Instead of songs full of beats and life and promise, he sang softly and slowly about the fragility of existence. “There’s a crack in everything,” goes one of his better-known lyrics, “that’s how the light gets in.” Cohen’s was a wise and mature theology, but fans found it depressing. He was always well-received in Europe, but remained relatively obscure stateside, with no chart-topping albums or sold-out stadium tours.

But he persevered, and, eventually, a new generation of musicians, weary of rock’s narrowing spiritual scope, embraced Cohen as their rabbi and worked his ideas into songs. Nick Cave, the Pixies, R.E.M., Beck, and U2 are all big fans and disciples. Their music reflects the master’s. It is about hope and suffering. It is passionate but sober. It is committed in its explorations of fundamental human emotions without once trying to whip these emotions into a frenzy. And it has given us not only a renaissance for Cohen himself—his most recent album, released in 2012, was his first ever to crack Billboard’s top ten chart—but also a great rock revival. And the only thing to say to that is Hallelujah.

Liel Leibovitz writes for Tablet Magazine and teaches at New York University. He is the author of A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption and the Life of Leonard Cohen and Aliyah as well as the co-author of Fortunate Sons, Lili Marlene, and The Chosen Peoples. He lives in New York City.

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Saved by Leonard Cohen

Monday, May 19, 2014 | Permalink

Liel Leibovitz writes for Tablet Magazine and teaches at New York University. His newest book, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption and the Life of Leonard Cohen, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Some people find Christ in their darkest hour. Others turn to Allah. But if you’re a Jew, young, and in trouble, your best bet is Leonard Cohen.

I was thirteen when I accepted the singer as my personal savior. I grew up in a beachside suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel, the spoiled child of a wealthy family. One afternoon, I came home from school, tossed my backpack on the floor, and raided the fridge in search of lunch when someone knocked on the door. It was the police. Three detectives politely forced their way in and informed me that my father—the jovial bon vivant whose hobbies included fast cars, fine hotels, and fat foods—had just been arrested. He was caught red-handed, the lead detective told me matter-of-factly, and confessed to being the Motorcycle Bandit, a brazen criminal who had hit up more than 20 banks in just a few months and whose antics made him a folk hero to many.

And, just like that, life as I knew it ended. I was no longer the child of privilege; I was now the son of the most notorious criminal in a country too small to keep secrets or award privacy. Our house filled up with visitors, and I remember my mother commenting bitterly that it felt like a shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning ritual in which friends and relatives gather to keep the bereaved company.

If the adults had appropriate words of condolence at their disposal, the adolescents, my friends, did not. Like teenaged boys everywhere, they had received no training in the art of empathy, and did not know how to console one of their own in the face of such strange trauma. Instead of words, then, they did what teenaged boys everywhere do and offered mixtapes.

Most of these were dross, catchy pop concoctions that went down easy and left no lasting impression. But one stood out. It contained an assortment of songs by Leonard Cohen.

I barely spoke English then, but Cohen’s words pierced right through the language barrier. They didn’t peddle in sentiment. They weren’t thick with bravado. They spoke a difficult but liberating truth. When I listened to “The Sisters of Mercy” for the first time, for example, I shuddered at the line about those “who must leave everything that you cannot control / It begins with your family, but soon it comes down to your soul.” It didn’t feel like a song lyric; it felt like an insight plucked from some higher realm, telling me to persevere, suggesting that things were tough but not hopeless. Alone in my bedroom, after all the well-wishers had left, I played the tape over and over again. It was the only thing that gave me comfort.

It took me twenty years of growing up and another four of listening intently to Cohen’s music for a book I was writing about him to understand just what I had found so reassuring as a wounded youth. Other artists were better at capturing raw emotion, at stirring the bloodstream, at washing you over with happiness. But then you took off your headphones and walked back out into the world, and the thin mist of feelgood soon evaporated. Like over-the-counter medicine, music was way too weak to fight back the symptoms of life in such an imperfect world. To cure true afflictions, you needed something stronger.

How strong? Consider the following lines, from Cohen’s song “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” We’ve no better distilled version, perhaps, of Cohen’s ideas than this, and no greater proof that what the baritoned bard is offering isn’t just entertainment but theology. A scion of several renowned rabbis, he believes, like the Jewish sages of old, that redemption is funny business: the messiah, goes the old Jewish adage, will only come when all Jews are kind and pious, but when all Jews are pious and kind, they would no longer need the messiah. There’s enormous wisdom in this cosmic joke. It tells us not to wait for someone else to swoop in and save us. It says, sadly, that we’ve no right to expect divine grace, and that the only thing we have, the only thing we need, is ourselves: with enough hard work, and a little bit of love, we all could transcend even the darkest of fates.

That’s the spirit that animates Cohen’s greatest songs. It’s also the spirit that saved me. After my father’s arrest, religious relatives suggested I partake in their practices, but I found little inspiring in the certainties of religious orthodoxy. Cohen showed me another way to worship, one that understood that because we humans are so imperfect, every hallelujah we mutter comes out broken but is no less holy or joyous for it. It’s not an easy idea to comprehend. It’s not immediately appealing like “all you need is love” or “give peace a chance.” But it has made Cohen, at eighty, the closest thing we have to a prophet, and it had made me, at thirteen, find the strength to carry on.

Liel Leibovitz is the author of A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption and the Life of Leonard Cohen and Aliyah. He is also the co-author of Fortunate Sons, Lili Marlene, and The Chosen Peoples. He lives in New York City.

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It's 9:55

Tuesday, December 16, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In Lili Marlene, authors Liel Leibovitz (Aliyah) and Matthew Miller reveal the dramatic story of an iconic love song, its three creators, and their lives under the Nazis. “Lili Marlene,” the unlikely anthem of World War II, cut across front lines and ideological divides. This love song began as a poem written by a German soldier during World War I. The soldier poet’s words found their way to Berlin’s decadent cabaret scene in the 1930′s, where they were set to music by one of Hitler’s favored composers. The song’s singer, however, soon found herself torn between her desire for fame and her personal hatred of the Nazi regime. In Leibovitz and Miller’s narrative, the three artists’ remarkable stories of arrests and close calls intertwine with the recollections of soldiers on all sides who found solace and hope in “Lili Marlene.”

To read more about Lili Marlene, check out the wiki entry here.