My first Leonard Cohen experience was the soundtrack on Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," where Cohen declared, among other things, "Everybody knows."
What I soon knew was that Leonard Cohen was a writer of weight. I started listening to everything I could, as well as reading his poetry.
Eventually, I found "Hallelujah." So when I came across "The Holy Or The Broken," Alan Light's new book on the ubiquitous song, I had to read it.
What I have found is an engaging story about "Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & The Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah," according to Light's subtitle.
Most listeners are familiar with the song from the "Shrek" soundtrack, thanks to the Rufus Wainwright version of the melodic 1984 hymn.
Whichever version listeners encounter, Light believes they will discover in the song, "Cohen's unnerving marriage of the divine and the damaged," a haunting combination of the biblical and the sensual.
For his part, Jeff Buckley came to the attention of music industry notables in 1991, when he sang at a commemoration for his late father, Tim Buckley. That same year, the Cohen tribute "I'm Your Fan" included John Cale's version of "Hallelujah." This confluence of talent and text soon saw Buckley adding the song to his repertoire, a decision that put both on the musical map, leading to the unlikely ascent at the core of Light's book.
"If Leonard Cohen was the author of "Hallelujah" and John Cale was its editor," Light contends, "Jeff Buckley was the song's ultimate performer, which is high praise for a composition that has been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Susan Boyle.
The music world's discovery of Buckley after his 1997 death coalesced in Cohen's composition, which, combined with (Buckley's) "mournful delivery of the prayer-like words proved irresistibly alluring to listeners." From here, "It was an insiders' secret to those who already knew about (Buckley), and an accessible pop song if it was functioning as an introduction. It now served as an elegy that went above and beyond the actual words and music."
The "Shrek" soundtrack, with Wainwright's crooning, further broadcast the song's subtle power to the wider world. From here as well, the song has built critical mass, becoming the soundtrack, Light contends, of the current zeitgeist.
Cohen, who gave his consent but was not interviewed for this book, is notable for a number of other compositions, but even more so for his influence on fellow musicians. While his own efforts have often gone unrewarded where sales are concerned, million sellers like Bono and Kurt Cobain have kept Cohen's catalogue relevant and resonant, defined by the Buckley connection.
While Light's reporting could benefit from Cohen's direct participation here, as well as a less reverent point of view about the songwriter, the result nonetheless demonstrates convincingly why "The Holy or the Broken" is a prayerful "Hallelujah."
Ask most casual music fans, and they are certain to argue songs like Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind," Lennon's "Imagine," or The Stones' "Satisfaction" top the list of most enduring songs. Light's argument, however, is that this distinction, as everybody knows, rightly goes to Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Rating: 4 out of 5
Glen Young teaches English at Petoskey High School. His column, Literate Matters, appears the second and fourth Thursday of each month. Young can be reached at P.O. Box 174, Petoskey, Mich. 49770.