Two new books will help secure the place of
Leonard Cohen and his “Hallelujah” in American
cultural history. The first is Alan Light’s 2012
The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff
Buckley & The Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah.
It’s the first book I’ve ever seen that’s about a
Light’s book traces the history of the song itself,
Cohen and his recent popularity, Jeff Buckley and
his short and tragic life, and the various other
artists who brought the song to public attention.
It begins with the lyrics of seven of the some 80
verses Cohen wrote over a period of 4-5 years of
agony and frustration, filling two notebooks with
words and banging his head on the floor. The
book tells of the rejection of Various Positions,
the album that included four verses of
"Hallelujah," by Cohen’s label Columbia. It sold
only a few thousand copies.
The Holy or the Broken traces Cohen’s own
variations, as well as those of John Cale, Jeff
Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and other artists, as
“Hallelujah” gradually rose to be the most
recorded song in 50 years. It plays with
ambiguity--the religious and the sexual content of
the lyrics, the awe and sorrow with which people
respond to the song, and its holy or uplifting, as
well as its broken or painful, nature.
The second is Sylvie Simmons's 2012 I’m Your
Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, a detailed
biography of the song’s composer. At 600
pages, Simmons’s book is almost overdone.
Feeling that the story of Cohen's life and work
had been neglected, she sought to compensate by
tracing the artist's steps through his long and full
Simmons’s book is the result of three years of
work, of her following Cohen’s movements
around the world—from Montreal to Greenwich
Village to the Greek island of Hydra, to
Tennessee, to a monastery on Mount Baldy near
Los Angeles, where Cohen spent five years
studying Zen Buddhism in the 1990s, to his two-
month American tour in 2009.
"He was moving around all the time, he was
constantly with different women. He was
constantly trying new spiritual paths. All of these
things were going on, but at the same time, there
was this amazing consistency to him. He seemed
to stay in the same place as a human being."
Simmons’s book is almost too much—for the
writer and the reader. “Being you wore me out,”
she told him. “There were times when I wanted
to shake you and say, ‘What are you doing?
Why are you leaving this woman?’ And he would
just pat my hand and say, ‘Yes, I know, I know.’”
The effort, according to Simmons, involves having
"to immerse yourself in that person's life to a
degree that would probably get you locked up in
any decent society."
Perhaps the poet in Cohen best summed up his
life in these words from his best-known work:
"I did my best; it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch.
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong,
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah."
What more can any of us do?