The Holy or the Bro­ken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buck­ley & the Unlike­ly Ascent of Hal­lelu­jah”

Alan Light
  • Review
By – May 21, 2013
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.

Discussion Questions