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The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" [Hardcover]

Alan Light
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 4 2012
A venerated creator. An adored, tragic interpreter. An uncomplicated, memorable melody. Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure.”

Today, “Hallelujah” is one of the most-performed rock songs in history. It has become a staple of movies and television shows as diverse as Shrek and The West Wing, of tribute videos and telethons. It has been covered by hundreds of artists, including Bob Dylan, U2, Justin Timberlake, and k.d. lang, and it is played every year at countless events—both sacred and secular—around the world.

Yet when music legend Leonard Cohen first wrote and recorded “Hallelujah,” it was for an album rejected by his longtime record label. Ten years later, charismatic newcomer Jeff Buckley reimagined the song for his much-anticipated debut album, Grace. Three years after that, Buckley would be dead, his album largely unknown, and “Hallelujah” still unreleased as a single. After two such commercially disappointing outings, how did one obscure song become an international anthem for human triumph and tragedy, a song each successive generation seems to feel they have discovered and claimed as uniquely their own?

Through in-depth interviews with its interpreters and the key figures who were actually there for its original recordings, acclaimed music journalist Alan Light follows the improbable journey of “Hallelujah” straight to the heart of popular culture. The Holy or the Broken gives insight into how great songs come to be, how they come to be listened to, and how they can be forever reinterpreted.

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The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" + I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen + Old Ideas
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  • I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen CDN$ 21.94
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Product Description


"Thoughtful and illuminating... [Mr. Light] is a fine companion for this journey through one song’s changing fortunes." (The New York Times)

"A combination mystery tale, detective story, pop critique and sacred psalm of its own." (The Daily News)

"Brilliantly revelatory... A masterful work of critical journalism." (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

"A deeply researched mixture of critical analysis and cultural archaeology." (Los Angeles Times)

"Keeps the pages turning... A well-constructed, consistently enlightening book, which should have Cohen devotees and music fans alike seeking out their favorite version of the song." (The Boston Globe)

"Fresh and compelling." (Entertainment Weekly)

"Reverentially details every stage in the [song's] evolution—and along the way, he reveals the compelling stories behind some of its most iconic interpretations." (The Atlantic)

"Absorbing…Eloquent... Light expertly unpacks the song's long, strange journey to ubiquity." (The Village Voice)

"A must for music fans." (Booklist (starred review))

"Reads like an investigative oral biography of a song. A true songography." (Pop Matters)

About the Author

Alan Light has been one of America’s leading music journalists for the past twenty years. Light was a senior editor at Rolling Stone, founding music editor and editor in chief of Vibe, and editor in chief of Spin magazine. He has been a contributor for The New Yorker, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Elle, Mother Jones, and the Oxford American, and is the author of The Skills to Pay the Bills, an oral history of the Beastie Boys; The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”; and cowriter of the New York Times bestselling memoir by Greg Allman, My Cross to Bear.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love This Book Jan. 25 2013
My husband and I saw Cohen in concert recently. It was great concert and piqued our interest in him. This book is at times funny, at times poignant, but always interesting. We both loved it and have friends waiting in line to borrow it.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Light Stuff Indeed Dec 31 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Really, just enough material for a decent Vanity Fair article, stretched out with repeated stories and shallow observations from "stars", published with larger font and deeper spaces between lines. Wait to pick this one up at a garage sale. Someone will be giving it away.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  108 reviews
52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Light's explanation of word choices is richly helpful and persuades multiple listenings from multiple musicians Jan. 8 2013
By Bookreporter - Published on
In THE HOLY OR THE BROKEN, Alan Light almost insists that the reader know more than one version of Leonard Cohen's song, "Hallelujah." He conducts a wide-ranging study of first the song itself, including many, many verses and their Biblical and secular origins, and then the story of Jeff Buckley, whose recording was hugely instrumental in the eventual mega-success of the song. The accounts of the more than 200 recordings, artists and uses of the song follow in fascinating stories.

Leonard Cohen has been a figure on the international music scene for decades, and his gravelly voice and sometimes suggestive, always evocative lyrics are his trademark. Light's introduction shows Cohen accepting an award for "Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence" earlier this year in Boston. Bob Dylan sends a congratulatory email addressing him as the "Kafka of the Blues," and the fun begins of sorting out how "Hallelujah" went from being on the single album that was refused by Cohen's record company to winning this prestigious honor from PEN New England.

The opening verse of "Hallelujah" (musicians have been known to rearrange the order, to omit verses, or even stop in the middle) starts with an image of King David's "secret chord" with its special spiritual power. It was his noted musicianship that first earned David a spot in the royal court, the first step toward his rise to power and uniting the Jewish people. David's longing for Bathsheba "overthrew" him. The greatness of Samson ("She tied you to a kitchen chair / she broke your throne, she cut your hair" in the second verse) and the power of David are no longer viable; these Old Testament icons are helpless in lust and despair. "They find themselves in a stark and barren place" with only a broken or a holy "Hallelujah."

This verse continues with the lines "It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth / the minor fall, the major lift," a bit of music theory for non-musical folks. k. d. lang's version makes this information absolutely imperative.

Speaking of the verses in order, or speaking of the words in a particular phrase, is pointless; the song is as versatile as the artists who chose to sing it. The variety of rhymes with "hallelujah" include "you don't really care for music, do you?'" and "moonlight overthrew you" to the darker "shoot at someone who outdrew you." In his tribute to Cohen in Boston, Salman Rushdie grins as he compares "what's it to ya" as equally non-sacred.

There's always a pleasant danger in knowing too much about any one thing. With "Hallelujah," the fear is that you'll lose the power of the music trying to remember what it is exactly about each verse you love. However, Light's explanation of word choices is richly helpful and persuades multiple listenings from multiple musicians.

In John Cale's 1991 album I'm Your Fan, the stripped-down presentation "humanized the song, arguably flattening out the emotional ambiguity...but retain[ing] the mystery and majesty of its imagery." Amanda Palmer, as others do, believes Cale's editing and "restructuring truly cracked the code of the song," leading to the explosive success that would follow. Cale's version was the one Jeff Buckley heard first, and Buckley would change the course of the song's history.

Light's history of Buckley and his recording of "Hallelujah" follows the young singer's life and his happening upon the song. His interpretation is intimate, personal and youthful; he was exactly half Cohen's age at the time each recorded the song, so what they had learned added up to a very different set of lessons. He polishes the song, and it connects with different, younger listeners. His Grace album came out in 1994, and it was uneven and unsuccessful. However, after Buckley's too-early and tragic death, "Hallelujah" became an "insider's secret" among his following and served as his elegy.

On September 12, 2001, Buckley's version of "Hallelujah" became the backdrop for VH1's footage of the rubble and panic of the smoking World Trade Center. The song captured the loss and anguish, confusion and despair of a nation. It had become a spiritual.

Light's book fills in the spaces of years with details of how "Hallelujah" was used in television, movies and music studios. He quotes the famous; my favorite is Bono's comment about the title itself: "Praising God, Yah, Yahweh --- it's a very powerful word, a big idea, and I've hung on to it very tightly over the years."

Finally, though, nothing trumps a snowy Sunday afternoon tracking down and listening to recordings of "Hallelujah" for the pleasure of hearing them again or for the first time just to see. Or looking at the finale of season three of "The O.C."when Marissa dies or catching the Shrek moment when he is contemplating his loneliness. Or Googling the k. d. lang version for the 2010 Olympics opening and stopping, in absolute joy. Or even, after reading Bon Jovi's apology for his adaptation of the song, finding it and realizing he was damn right.

Renée Fleming puts it well: "Halleljuah" has blossomed into a "kind of Rorschach test...because everyone has a different reaction to it." And we each own it.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting take on a well worn song Dec 11 2012
By Freddy22 - Published on
I was surprised to love this book as much as I did. In particular, the narrative is tight and reveals much about the roots of this song and it's subsequent covers that I would never have known. Fantastic interviews, and very nifty codes in the back that link to different video versions of Hallelujah. Great for music lovers, history buffs, and even those Shrek-ies who found the song with Rufus Wainwright's version. Great for the holidays!
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hallelujah for Alan Light Dec 11 2012
By Yanksgal - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A revelatory pop music detective story with the layers of the song peeled back like an onion. Mr Light reveals a wide variety iofinterpretation and teases out their meaning for us in an entertaining and expansive manner. His writing is engaging to the general reader and the Hallelujah addict as well and he weaves a masterful accounting of the life and times of Leonard Cohen as well as the tragic life of Jeff Buckley into a narrative that can be enjoyed by any fan of Hallelujah and of popular music. The writing is lyrical and precise - a rare combination and Mr Light's passion shines through on every page - a real pleasure to read while listening to countless versions of Hallelujah!
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book, but thin; buy it when it is in the discount rack Jan. 15 2013
By Pat Rocchi - Published on
I was fascinated by this subject: A song, "Hallelujah," is unnoticed on its first go-round, yet somehow gets rediscovered and then adapted for many purposes until it turns into a secular hymn. Yes, it was interesting, but not enough for an entire book.
I admire the work of Alan Light, the author. While his prose is serviceable, his research is indefatigable. He delves into the lives of Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley (the REAL subject of this book, as it turns out), giving the reader excellent insight into their characters. But after a while, it turns into a litany of "who recorded this," "who adapted these lyrics," "that version was bad," ad nauseum. By the last third of the book, he is simply padding the book with repetition.
I bought the book at Barnes & Noble, and at $25.00, I paid too much. Even the Amazon price of $16.00 is too high. I say borrow a copy from a friend or the library, or wait until it's on sale for $5.98 in a close-out rack. I guarantee that is where this well-intended but lightweight tome will end up.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars LC and Hallelujah Dec 20 2012
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Such a unique book with so many interesting people all tied together with the song. Very well done and I love the ability to hear so many of the versions discussed.

It is powerful that it can be used in so many different scenerios and that different choices can be made from the verse selections. I still like the London DVD version best.
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