The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light is a fascinating non-fiction book which traces the strange route of a song. That song, one of the most popular ones in the world, is the cultural phenomenon known as “Hallelujah” by master wordsmith Leonard Cohen. It’s a song I love but have never given much thought to. The tune is simple and I’m positive that the first time I heard it, I believed it was an old song I have heard before.
Strangely, this marker of pop-culture is fairly new. Written in the 1980s, “Hallelujah” was on the only Leonard Cohen album rejected by his record company. I did my own informal and rather small survey in which none of the participants who knew and liked the song realized it was written as early as the 1980s. Many, like myself, thought it was written much earlier. Mr. Light said it best:
“Other [fans of the song] think that it’s an ancient liturgical song, and are shocked when informed that it was written in the 1980s. Because it has reached so many more listeners through interpretation rather than through the author’s own performances, now it mostly just seen like it’s always been here.“
Mr. Light attributes the phenomenal success of the song to the fact that there is really no definitive version of it. Unlike, for example, “Imagine,” with which every changed lyric can cause massive backlash, “Hallelujah” is open for interpretation and artists feel free to change the order of the versus when needed.
Light’s research is deep and his analysis covers the musical and lyrical aspects of the song that makes it the cultural phenomenon sweeping the pop world in recent years. The author doesn’t shy away from critical analysis which I find to be enjoyable and without any hidden agendas.
After giving the reader a background on the song’s origin and Mr. Cohen’s career, the author dives into Jeff Buckley. The ill-fated singer included a somber version of the song on his landmark album Grace (1994). When Buckley’s young life ended, a cult following was established around the singer and the song.
“Hallelujah” gained a massive audience from, ironically enough, a children’s film. Dreamworks’ Shrek, the massive blockbuster, featured the song in a key moment (sang by Rufus Wainwright) and helped galvanize it in the minds of young and old alike. From Shrek, the song’s ascent was meteoric as it became the “go to sad song” for TV stations and movies, especially after the 9/11 aftermath.
“Hallelujah” has been overdone and overused, but enters the age of televised singing contests and the need for a song which can make almost everyone sound good. Again, the song was drummed into the heads of another generation, albeit at 90 second clips which the contests allow. Another twist in this fascinating saga involves Mr. Cohen’s finances, or lack thereof. Having spent five years in a California monastery, Mr. Cohen discovered that he had been liberated from his savings by those he trusted and was forced to tour again after a 15 year intermission. Soon Mr. Cohen discovered that his beloved song had taken on its own life and meaning with each individual listener.
The Holy or The Broken is a thoughtful, illuminating book written with style by a fan whose enthusiasm flows off the pages. It’s a pleasure to read as the song plays in your head page after page.
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried 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 tongue but Hallelujah
- 288 pages
- Publisher: Atria Books
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1451657846