A Broken Hallelujah - Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen Paperback – 13 Mar 2015
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In A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, Liel Leibovitz neatly limns the spiritual quest that underpins most of Cohen s work, from Montreal to Tel Aviv and beyond. Less about Suzanne than Suzanne, Leibovitz s book highlights the novelist behind the songwriter, the poet behind the novelist, and the would-be prophet looming over them all. --Marc Dolan, author of Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock n Roll"
An elegant, beautifully crafted book that Cohen''''s fans will instinctively understand. --Ruth Rosen"
Well crafted and captivatingly written. "
A spiritual odyssey. . . . Thoughtful, ruminative . . . learned, eloquent . . . artful and precise.--David Yaffe
Lively, erudite and affecting. . . . Leibovitz makes a convincing case that Cohen has claimed his rightful place within the prophetic tradition that inspired him all along.
An elegant, beautifully crafted book that Cohen's fans will instinctively understand.--Ruth Rosen
Well crafted and captivatingly written.
About the Author
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet magazine and teaches at New York University. He is the coauthor of Fortunate Sons, Lili Marlene, and The Chosen Peoples. He lives in New York City.
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As one progresses through A BROKEN HALLELUJAH, it becomes ever clearer how this is not a conventional biography. For one thing, it is very much on the short side. Leibovitz does not cram his book with every scrap of information he can scour concerning his subject’s life; he does not present us with Cohen’s every adolescent pimple, nor do we see the poet/singer brushing his teeth at night or practicing his guitar in the mornings. This slender volume has very specific concerns, which are rendered deftly through a number of haunting episodes. Leibovitz sets out not to write yet another life of a musician, not really to see him as a singer at all, but to imagine him as a kind of Old Testament Prophet. “So what is the Prophet Cohen telling us?” he asks at the end of his preface. “And why do we listen so intently?”
To a secular Jew such as myself, this is both an appealing and a suspect premise. On the one hand, Laughing Lenny is just the sort of prophet I can get on board with. After all, one does not recall Isaiah or Elijah writing about getting “head/ On the unmade bed” the way Cohen does. On the other hand, there is the nagging fear that this is another tired attempt to make religion “cool” to an increasingly secularized society. This gives Leibovitz a precarious road to follow, and he treads it judiciously.
The religiosity of Cohen’s lyrics has been apparent from his first record. The archetypal stranger is in his words “just some Joseph looking for a manger”; in another early song, a woman clutches her lover desperately, as though he is “some kind of crucifix.” Despite the overtly Christian bent of these allusions (and many of Cohen’s other lyrics), Liebovitz does a fine job of setting Cohen up as a figure whose home is really amidst the leaders found in the Torah. The grandson of a Talmudic scholar, Cohen never renounced his Jewish identity despite spending long periods studying with a Zen Buddhist. In a few glittering moments, Leibovitz brings Cohen the prophet standing magnificently before us. At the disastrously anarchic Isle of White festival, he tames an angry mob of 600,000 people by telling them a “goddamn bedtime story.” Shades of Daniel taming the lions abound. As a child whose father has just died, Cohen writes a message to his deceased parent, wraps it up in his father’s tie, and buries it in the garden of the family home. It is a ritual no less moving than the chanting of the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Inevitably, the grandeur of Leibovitz’s vision of Leonard Cohen sometimes overstretches itself. For instance, on Cohen’s decision to ditch the classical guitar in favor of those now hopelessly dated keyboard-generated backing tracks, Leibovitz writes, “If the guitar had been the instrument to write songs that played out like diary entries, the Casio was a portal to a higher plain of consciousness.” If spiritual transcendence were so easily achieved, it would be a wonder we needed prophets at all. Still though, overreaching is far from the greatest fault in a biographer, and this unusual synthesis of Jewish theology and pop music history makes for an amusing and thoughtful little book. Finally, Cohen’s message to us, as transcribed by Leibovitz, is one that is simple enough but quite beautiful. “All that humans [can] do” he writes, “[is] go about life, admit defeat, and try to find beauty in all that remained.”
Reviewed by Frederick Lloyd
The book has only 246 short pages. The content is good but not all of it is on Cohen. There are pages devoted to related subjects such as Canadian literature, Jewish history and Bob Dylan. In the first chapter "Prelude", Cohen does not emerge for 12 pages.
There are some good insights such as the difference in Canadian and American artists, the concept of "duende" (which suits Cohen's voice and content) and Cohen's views on his work. There are amazing episodes such as the visit to/escape from Cuba, recording with Phil Spector (dinner with Phil Spector!) and the two performance tours in Israel.
Liebovitz, in some places uses Cohen's own words to describe him. His opening to his audience in Poland shows how he refuses to be used by anyone (to me, they related to the episode where Dylan seems to expect Cohen to perform at his concert); his speech in support of the Bereaved Parents for Peace in Israel shows his long apolitical view; and his reflection on the embezzlement of most of his assets show his forgiveness and resilience.
Each chapter is introduced with a full page photo of Cohen, so you watch him mature. As of this writing he is 80 and has maintained audiences through at least 4 generations (depending on how you count, maybe 5). He has just released a new album and in 2013 performed in tours in Europe and the US.
If you are a fan of Cohen you probably know all the biographical material that is eliminated or pruned and will appreciate the commentary and insight.