The Holy or the Broken is an inspired telling of the long and convoluted history of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” To get some feeling as to what this unique book accomplishes, one must separate the song from its creator and imagine that it has a life of its own. Its initial recording in 1984 sent it on its way. It was barely noticed. Now and then an artist discovered it and did a cover of the tune. Cohen occasionally changed the lyrics, as is his bent, but as his attention turned to new material, “Hallelujah” was eventually left to its own devices. It took many years, but somehow, never by plan, the song with the haunting melody and enigmatic lyrics was sung by many hundreds of artists, found its way into the psyche of millions and became a cultural icon.
“Hallelujah” is not, author Alan Light informs us, the favorite of many of those who have covered Cohen’s songs or those fans who know most of his lyrics by heart. Cohen himself fails to grasp why this particular song has become iconic. And yet it now feels as if it has always been and always will be with us. The song is at once spiritual and irreligious, somber and droll, sexual and chaste. Many who come to love it don’t really hear or in any way grasp the lyrics. They only hear the title word, repeated over and over again like a mantra.
Along its trajectory, “Hallelujah” became the signature song of Jeff Buckley. He closed out most of his live performances with his beautifully rendered version. He died too young, but his adaptation of the song is an important part of his legacy and through it he lives on. He deserves his place in the title of this book. I highly recommend following my example and reading The Holy or the Broken while listening to some of the many versions of the song. I’ve never before read a book that relates the biography of a ballad. It’s a rare tune that could support 254 pages of text and a rare writer who would take on the challenge. Alan Light was up to the task.
Naomi Tropp recently retired after a long career in nonprofit management. She worked on the Ann Katz Festival of Books at the Indianapolis JCC for 9 of its twelve years and directed the festival for three of those years.