Book Review: A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen's presence is deeply felt across the musical experience. His songs turn up at funerals, at weddings, and at the emotional climax of films. His arrangements aren't flashy, and his performances aren’t gilded with choreography.
So what fuels his enduring power?
In his well-crafted biography, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen (Norton), Tablet magazine senior writer Liel Leibovitz explores Cohen's enduring impact as a poet, lyricist, songwriter, and Jewish icon.
Cohen spent his youth in Montreal, where his father died when he was just 9 – the same age he says he became a writer. Both of his grandfathers were renowned Talmudic scholars and educators in Europe; after immigrating to Canada in the late 1880s, his maternal grandfather continued his pursuits as a rabbi, while his paternal grandfather chose business instead and became a pillar of Montreal's financial elite.
As a young adult, Cohen wandered at night through unfamiliar Montreal neighborhoods. On one of those excursions, he chanced upon a used bookstore and discovered the works of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Inspired by the profound expression of sorrow and pain – in Spanish, duende – in Lorca's work, Cohen began writing poetry and enrolled in the English Department of McGill University. There, he was influenced by the writings of Jewish poet and classicist A. M. Klein and Irving Layton, who was one of his professors. Cohen's first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, appeared in 1956 and sold out its short run of 500 copies
In the 1950s, the young poet found artistic success by inverting the sacred and profane, ascribing epic language to the earthy and carnal, and bringing the holy back down to earth. An example from his poem “For Wilf and His House”:
When the young Christians told me
how we pinned Jesus
like a lovely butterfly against wood.
Cohen also dabbled in short stories, achieving only moderate success. He did better bringing his craggy poet persona to jazz clubs.
In a lecture he delivered on A. M. Klein at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, Cohen delineated the artist's role as "a priest or a prophet" and then took to the road. On the Greek island of Hydra, he met the Marianne, famously captured later in one of his most memorable songs. He wrote a few tepidly received, sexually explicit novels before coalescing his poetry into pre-song lyric couplets.
While writing his 1964 poetry collection Flowers for Hitler, he wanted to observe history in the making and followed Federico Lorca's footsteps to Cuba. He went as a tourist a month before the Bay of Pigs invasion and was held in detention for a short time by Cuban soldiers before being allowed to leave the island. It was at that point, Leibovitz explains, that Cohen realized his poetry wasn't potent enough a weapon against the power that "chops up frightened men," which he witnessed in Castro’s Havana. Seeking an art form with more prophetic power than poetry, Cohen resolved to move to New York and become a songwriter.
Leibovitz takes pains to contextualize Cohen's decision to become a singer, citing the biblical instruction to "sing praise upon the harp unto our God" and the French economist Jacques Attali’s observation: "Music heralds, for it is prophetic. It has always been in its essence a herald of the times to come." For Cohen, another Jewish poet singer songwriter, Bob Dylan, was the modern standard bearer of this prophetic tradition.
At 30, Cohen found his way into the music scene as a songwriter for Judy Collins. He had his first bout with stage fright when she invited him on stage to sing "Suzanne," which he had adapted for her from an earlier poem. The rest, as they say, is history. Through punk, glam, new wave, and prog, Leonard Cohen murmured his poetry into microphones, skirting commercial success but speaking to the souls of his acolytes.
Cohen's years of wandering brought him from exaltation to degradation, from living in a Buddhist monastery to recording a crass album for record producer Phil Spector. He achieved mainstream recognition in a series of films featuring his music, including Pump Up the Volume.
Leonard Cohen's music, particularly the ubiquitous "Hallelujah," has been recorded by John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and Bono, one of Cohen's most prominent followers. Through his wanderings, Cohen has remained true to his vision of poet as prophet, which may account for his enduring popularity.
Courtney Naliboff lives, writes, teaches, and parents on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine.