Book Review: The Holy or the Broken, by Alan Light

WC has described k.d. lang’s incredible cover of Hallelujah at her Fairbanks Concert Association show here in 2011. It remains one the of the ten or so best live performances WC has ever heard, and WC has been to a lot of concerts. If you need a refresher, here’s a link to lang’s performance at the Junos and here’s a link to the late Jeff Buckley’s interpretation.

It may be that Hallelujah is a little over-exposed now, performed badly on American Idol a few too many times. But the story of the song is nearly as fascinating as lang’s interpretation.

Alan Light, in The Holy or the Broken (Amazon link), traces the remarkable history of the song. Written and originally released on Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions in 1984, the song wasn’t regarded as even the best on the album. In fact, Light reports that when Walter Yetnikoff at CBS heard the album, he said, “What is this? This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. This is a disaster.” It was eventually released, but the song was so obscure that Cohen’s live performance of it was cut from the broadcast version of his 1988 appearance on Austin City Limits.

John Cale, formerly of Velvet Underground, heard the song and decided to record it. He called Cohen to ask for the lyrics. He got 15 pages of them on his fax machine. He selected slightly different verses than Cohen had recorded. And when the late Jeff Buckley recorded, he chose slightly different verses still.

And that’s part of why there are more than 200 different covers of this 1984 song, as Light carefully documents. Select the right verses, and you have a sensual, sexual story. Select different verses and you have exquisite religious imagery. Select others and you get a spiritual. Still others and it’s a song for a synagogue. It’s the same song in each case, but the lyrics the artist selects and the interpretation make it extraordinarily different.

And that has allowed this same song to be used in the cartoon Shrek, as part of the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics, as a wedding hymn and at funerals.

In Cohen’s original version, on Various Positions, he sang as the fourth and last stanza,

I did my best; it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I 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!

And there’s a triumph there. Cohen, as is usually the case, is being very modest. His song has taken its place as one of the classic songs of the 20th Century. More adaptive than John Lennon’s Imagine, easier to sing than Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. Apart from a beautiful melody and vivd imagery, it has the nearly unique ability to adapt to almost any emotional tone.

Light also provides some biography on Cohen, including the incredible story of his manager, Kelley Lynch, who embezzled millions from him and then stalked and harassed him, eventually going to jail for criminal violation of protective orders. And there is a brief sketch of the late Jeff Buckley, whose fame is in large measure a consequence of his recording of Hallelujah. There are interviews with some of the hundreds of artists who have covered the song, including John Cale, k. d. lang, Rufus Wainwright, Jon Bon Jovi and Bono of U2, among many, many others.

It’s a fun story of an amazing song, well researched and well told. Hardly earthshaking, but the book certainly has its moments.