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A Broken Hallelujah

Posted on May 9, 2014

Photo by APN/Chris Pizzello

By Ruth Rosen

To see long excerpts from “A Broken Hallelujah” at Google Books, click here.

“A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen”
A book by Liel Leibovitz

There are surely some Americans who have never heard of Leonard Cohen. Then there are those who remember his early songs, like “Bird on a Wire,” popularized by Judy Collins in 1968, but who dismiss him as a poet/songwriter of despair and depression. Finally, there are the millions of fans, and I count myself among them, who experience his music and lyrics as authentic expressions of their own lives.

Liel Leibovitz, with “A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen,” has written an elegant, beautifully crafted book that Cohen’s fans will instinctively understand. It is not a biography, though he does recount Cohen’s loss of his father at age 9, his lifelong struggle with depression, decades blurred by alcohol and drugs, his life in Cuba just days before the revolution began, his efforts to sing and lift the spirits of Israeli soldiers during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the five years he spent in a Buddhist monastery, and his astonishing comeback in his mid-70s as a global troubadour whose concerts, held in huge arenas around the world, have given him a stardom he never expected.

Nor is it a discography, though Leibovitz uses newly available private letters and journals to explain the ups and downs of Cohen’s remarkable career in studio recordings and promotional tours. Rather, “A Broken Hallelujah” is more of an exploration of the literary and spiritual traditions that shaped Cohen, as well as a portrait of a person who could be cocky and arrogant, witty and ironic, angry and tender, and quite often, the unfailingly polite gentleman. 

At age 15, Cohen stumbled upon the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, whose “central artistic engine” was duende, often described as “deep song” or “soul.” Goethe described it as “that profound and nebulous sadness we all feel but can’t easily articulate.” In Lorca, Leibovitz writes, “Cohen glimpsed his own state of mind, reflected back at him in beautiful verse, rich with intricate imagery, elegant and gloomy.”

In Leibovitz’s view, Cohen’s success—spanning more than four decades—rests on how his lyrics, like those of Lorca, bypass our rational self and touch our soul. Cohen comforts our existential loneliness, acknowledges our emotional confusion and reflects our search for truth, as well as our outrage at injustice. With Cohen’s songs as the soundtrack of our lives, we experience the universal feelings of lust, love and loss. Through his prophetic songs, we search for redemption, even though Cohen insists that God may not be listening. Still, he encourages us to carry on with humor and honesty and insists, in his 1992 song “The Future,” that “love’s the only engine of survival.”

Many Americans don’t realize that Cohen, a Canadian, was a highly acclaimed poet and novelist long before they heard his songs about Suzanne’s odd habits or his farewell to Marianne. The son of a wealthy Jewish family in Montreal, he began his nightly wanderings at a young age through the seedy streets of downtown Montreal. In his search for adult guidance, he turned to poets, and to Jewish thinkers who disagreed with one another but who also taught him to embrace a faith that asks its believers to question everything but their own tradition.

As Leibovitz notes, Cohen was always out of sync with the times. He was too young for the Beats, too old for the youth of the ’60s. He fled both Canada and Judaism and exiled himself on Hydra, a primitive Greek island, where he lived with a Norwegian woman, the famous “Marianne.” But even in exile, the troubadour tradition of Montreal and the contradictions of Judaism and other spiritual traditions threaded themselves throughout his poetry and songs.

In the late 1960s, Cohen arrived in New York. Leibovitz describes how much Robert Zimmerman—a young Jewish man from Minnesota, who reinvented himself as Bob Dylan—influenced Cohen, who lived in the famous Chelsea Hotel where Dylan and other musicians and artists were nurturing new forms of musical and artistic expression. Cohen began writing songs.

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