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.

Relat­ed Content:

Liel Lei­bovitz is a senior writer for Tablet and the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing, most recent­ly, A Bro­ken Hal­lelu­jah, a spir­i­tu­al biog­ra­phy of Leonard Cohen. He has a Ph.D. in video games from Colum­bia, a fact that makes his sev­en-year-old self very hap­py. He lives in New York with his wife and their two children.