In the preface to A Broken Hallelujah, Liel Leibovitz’s new book about the philosophical underpinnings of the work of Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, the author bestows Cohen with the heady designation of prophet, “Millennia ago, as we began asking ourselves the same fundamental questions we still ponder, we called men like him prophets, meaning not that they could foresee the future, but that they could better understand the present by seeing one more layer of meaning to life. The title still applies.”
The title was hard earned. Perhaps Leonard Cohen was born harboring an incipient need to question what meaning might lie within the seemingly uncontrollable chaos of life. It’s possible that his father’s untimely death jump-started a somewhat premature search for meaning in the then nine-year-old Cohen, but it’s likely that it would have commenced soon enough, simply under different circumstances.
His lifelong pursuit of the big questions has found its way through many destinations, external and internal, geographical and philosophical. Traveling with him from the start were the ancient teachings of Judaism, which were joined along the way by the influence of other writers, an eventual deep commitment to Zen Buddhism, and his responses to the ever-changing culture and politics of the times.
By 1963 Cohen had already published a book of poetry and a novel. It was several years later that he made the fateful decision to put his words to music. There was something magical about that combination of his melancholy tunes and often enigmatic lyrics. His renditions of those songs have come to resonate deeply with a loyal and still developing fan base, growing to an unexpected crescendo during his seventh decade on the planet.
This is the third Leonard Cohen-related book I’ve been asked to review in as many years. As I sat down to read A Broken Hallelujah, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d find it to be no more than a rehashing of already published material. I’m delighted to report that this thought-provoking book not only stands on its own, it is absolutely outstanding and although a reader’s previous interest in Leonard Cohen might add an extra layer to the reading experience, it is certainly not required.