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The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah"

3.6 of 5 stars 3.60  ·  rating details  ·  825 ratings  ·  233 reviews
A venerated creator. An adored, tragic interpreter. An uncomplicated, memorable melody. Ambiguous, evocative words. Faith and uncertainty. Pain and pleasure.” Today, “Hallelujah” is one of the most-performed rock songs in history. It has become a staple of movies and television shows as diverse as Shrek and The West Wing, of tribute videos and telethons. It has been cover ...more
ebook, 288 pages
Published December 4th 2012 by Atria Books
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,386)
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Jennifer (aka EM)
It's hard to sustain an entire book based on an analysis of one song, but if there's a song to write a book on (other than perhaps one by Dylan), it'd be Hallelujah. Although Cohen sanctioned the writing of this, he did not participate in it - and his voice is notably missing. Then again, something might be lost if Mr. Cohen himself commented in any kind of a definitive way: as part of his thesis, Light repeatedly comes back to the idea that Hallelujah has enjoyed the slow build to popularity - ...more
jeremy
in the nearly thirty years since leonard cohen first recorded "hallelujah," it has gone from largely overlooked album track to one of the most covered songs in recent history. rock editor and journalist alan light traces the improbable trajectory of this now infamous song from its painstaking birth (it took years to compose) to its enduring ubiquity. the holy or the broken focuses mostly on the bard of montreal and the late singer-songwriter responsible for its most well-known (and perhaps most ...more
Kelly
This was great -- if you like music or think about the meaning behind words or lyrics or why the song Hallelujah took on the life it has, this is a must-read. Prepare to spend hours on YouTube watching different renditions and dissecting the performances.

There's a particularly great one of Cohen performing his original and the expressions when he sings make it clear he's written some FUNNY STUFF into the song (though I love how Buckley bleeds his heart out into his version of it). And I'm firml
...more
Paul Gleason
Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" is the antithesis of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Even though both songs are undeniable classics written by two of the world's greatest living songwriters, they stand world's apart - or so Alan Light suggests in his book, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah".

According to Light, a former editor-in-chief of Vibe and Spin magazines and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Rolling Stone, Dylan, a
...more
Eve
I wish I knew why this book exists. It probably has something to do with the fact that there are eleventy billion covers of this Leonard Cohen song, and someone needed to explain why on earth and in heaven people can't stop punching it into the karaoke machine or singing it on musical talent show TV programs.

To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, 'I used to love it...but it's all over now.'

For the uninitiated—those who didn't know that Cohen wrote the damn thing; it seems I'm unusual in that his was
...more
Jeff Tucker
If you’re looking for the meaning of lyrics to ‘Hallelujah’ or what Leonard Cohen was thinking about when he wrote the song or what the lyrics mean to him you won’t find it in this book or anywhere else. Cohen, very wisely I think, won’t talk about the song’s lyrics. This isn’t a book about Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley who sang the most celebrated version of the song. It’s a book about the history of the song itself. It was originally ignored by Cohen fans and music critics but it was discovere ...more
Richard Behrens
This book amazed me. I first heard the song Hallelujah on a John Cale live CD called Fragments of a Rainy Season and was very hypnotized by Cale's solo piano live rendition and subsequently saw him perform it live several times, including once with a stringed quartet. The song led me to Leonard Cohen who wrote it and I soon became addicted to his music and poetry. For half a decade I enjoyed the song in solitude and knew it only through the original 1984 Cohen and the 1992 Cale version. To my am ...more
Rick
Mar 08, 2013 Rick rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2013
This is a book about a song. A single song. A single song that has been covered hundreds of times, but still, a single song. It's a testament to the song that while reading the book I listened to various versions of the song hundreds of times, and never got tired of it.

Leonard Cohen, John Cale, Jeff Buckley. That's the main thrust of the song here, John Cale playing an under-heralded part in bringing Cohen's song to Jeff Buckley, who then brought it to the mainstream. As a lifelong Cohen fan wh
...more
Alice
Let's just get this out of the way right now. The only two acceptable covers of this song are by kd lang and Rufus Wainwright (although it's really a cover of the Cale version), John Cale if you must.

The book was OK. Much of the time it feels too much like a litany of people who have covered the song, although I suppose it is unavoidable for this sort of discussion. It felt really padded-out, the way one uses excessive quotations to up the length of a thing that doesn't have enough substance (n
...more
Julie Ehlers
I really enjoyed this. It's a brief bio of Leonard Cohen, a briefer bio of Jeff Buckley (R.I.P.), and, of course, a comprehensive bio for a song. The writing is inviting and entertaining, and the explication of the various versions of "Hallelujah" is interesting. But what I found most fascinating were the descriptions of the creative process: Cohen's when he wrote the song, and various other artists' when they were figuring out how to interpret it. Sure, there are times when an entire book about ...more
Melody
It's hard for me to tease out my feelings for the book, when the book is an exercise in conjuring the song. Like nearly everyone else, I adore the song. I have a favorite version, maybe three. I've sat in concert halls and listened to Cohen sing it, tears running down my face, exactly twice. So far.

Well written, well-researched, this book is fascinating to read if you are at all interested in the long strange trip this song has taken, and what many of the singers think about it. It's a special
...more
William
Any book length treatment of a single song probably reveals more about the writer than the song. With the exception of Leonard Cohen, most the song's interpreters are gifted song stylists, but not very good philosophers. Cohen himself is quoted in the book as agreeing with Robert Frost that at some point a poem gets up and walks away, and "doesn't belong to you any more."

The narrative moves quickly, providing interesting historical notes about Leonard and Buckley's career, liberally annotated w
...more
Zohar - ManOfLaBook.com
The Holy or the Bro­ken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buck­ley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hal­lelu­jah" by Alan Light is a non-fiction book which traces the strange route of a song. That song, one of the most pop­u­lar ones in the world, is “Hal­lelu­jah” by mas­ter word­smith Leonard Cohen.

The Holy or the Bro­ken by Alan Light is a fas­ci­nat­ing book about the cul­tural phe­nom­ena known as “Hal­lelu­jah”. This is a song which I love but have never given much thought to it, the tune is sim­ple and I’
...more
Pamela
Like many people, I came to Leonard Cohen's song, "Hallelujah" through the film Shrek (for which one of my former students Vincent Villanueva was a production assistant). I fell in love with the song, bought and played the soundtrack compulsively, and kept the song at the top of my favorites list. When I saw this book reviewed in The New York Times, I knew I had to read it. In the book--which documents in a rather awed tone the rather slow but ultimately meteoric rise of the song from its obscur ...more
Iowa City Public Library
The first thing you notice when you decide to read The Holy or the Broken is that the song “Hallelujah” might be stuck in your head the entire duration you’re reading it. My initial thought when I began to read the introduction? I am about to read an entire book about one song. How is it going to keep my attention?

Thankfully, Alan Light doesn’t have a problem doing exactly that. The progression of the chapters builds nicely–beginning with waxing poetic about a lyric poet/songwriter, the great Le
...more
Howard Goodman
I learned a lot about the song "Hallelujah," most surprisingly that it is far more than a modern all-purpose spiritual with a gorgeous chorus. It is a tremendously intricate and subtle song, with dark and funny musings about sex and disappointment and personal strife.

The book traces an amazing story. Cohen recorded this song in the early 1980s after spending four or five years struggling to write it. But CBS Records judged refused to release the album, judging it uncommercial. For years, almost
...more
Mediaman
The idea of the story behind the song Hallelujah is worthy of a lengthy magazine article, but this writer turns it into a ponderous book that is overly detailed and filled with the author's opinions. Light is never objective in presenting any of the information and claims from the start that the song is one of a few in the last 50 years to already be a "classic" or a "standard." That's kind of hard to say about a song that most people had never even heard of before a Shrek movie! The writer over ...more
April
Ok, what is there to say about this book, about this song?

Alan Light traces "Hallelujah" from its poetic beginning to its ubiquitous presence in popular culture. Leonard Cohen wrote the song for several years and had 80+ verses which he whittled down to the 5 he finally recorded for Various Positions only to have it wait patiently in relative obscurity, even though it was covered and rearranged by John Cale of the Velvet Underground, until Jeff Buckley covered Cale's arrangement on Grace. The so
...more
Aaron Burkhalter
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is like Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" or The Beatles' "Sgt. Peppers." I completely get the universal acclaim, but I also understand that some people are just done with the song.
Because of this ubiquity, I also understand why Alan Light decided to dedicate an entire book to the song. It has a fascinating trajectory from its first appearance on Cohen's 1985 album "Various Positions" (it was then largely ignored and forgotten), to Velvet Underground alum John Cale's
...more
Byron
Fished this from a dollar bin, and I was wary of reading it even after I already paid for it (which, with my financial situation meant that I was gonna have to read it one of these days), but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. The people giving this one and two stars are dead wrong. I can only assume they're what's known in education circles as "discouraged readers."

Not to let you in on any more than you need to know about me, but I'm one of these people who have spent many an evening in a dank
...more
Jennifer Stringer
This is probably a case of hearing an NPR interview with an author and discovering the interview was likely enough and I didn't need to read the whole book. The book traces the history and rise of Leonard Cohen's " Hallelujah." It looks at how it's become a modern day hymn, touching our "spiritual, not religious" society's soul and the commercialization of the song by Hollywood when it needs to insert some instant melancholy and longing into a scene. It was somewhat interesting, and I would reco ...more
Ashley
Few modern songs are so deep in the cultural psyche as “Hallelujah.” The first time I remember REALLY hearing it was an episode of The West Wing, Posse Comitatus. This beautiful, haunting song provided the only sound while a number of scenes played out before our eyes. The song provided more emotion than even Aaron Sorkin’s writing and the stellar cast could convey.

I heard it again in Shrek, but it wasn’t until years later when I saw The Watchmen that I heard it by the man who wrote it, Leonard
...more
Jay
This really had the feel of a companion book to some VH1 2 hour documentary on Cohen's "Hallelujah". I could picture the structure of the documentary, starting with history and interesting trivia on Cohen and Buckley, interspersed with direct quotes from friends and collegues. These same people would also appear later when discussing the philosophies of the song and the different takes dozens of singers have had of the song. The author thoughtfully included YouTube links to many of these discuss ...more
Bonnie Irwin
What do you call a book about a single song? Too bad the word "discography" is already taken. Light does a good job of explaining how "Hallelujah" went from being a song that Leonard Cohen could not release in 1984 (the label did not think the album would sell) to being an ubiquitous anthem of sorrow and celebration, but the fascinating thing is not so much the song, but how so many musicians interacted with it and one another over the years. Along the way, Cohen himself picks it up repeatedly a ...more
Cheyenne Blue
A light, pleasant read that charts the success of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah". The focus is on Cohen, the songwriter, and the Jeff Buckley version with a side of John Cale, although it mentions some of the numerous other versions in passing. There's discussion on the fluidity of the lyrics, and the current overuse of the song thanks mainly to the endless renditions done by X Factor contestants.

I'm not a fan of the Buckley version - my favourite version is Rufus Wainwright's - so I found th
...more
Erin Tuzuner
This would have worked better as an essay, because even the goddamned brilliance of Hallelujah sounds like a circle jerk for 200 pages. I get it, it's like the first time you have sex in that everyone has something to say about it. Everyone feels the need to embellish, enunciate, exclaim. This is just a perfect song. Leonard Cohen is a genius. Rufus Wainwright is an adorable prince. Jeff Buckley is the great unknown because dying young gives you that glow. There is too much trivia, and as someon ...more
Pamela
A quick, informative read about the strange fortunes of a song that has become one of today's most covered and most popular: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It was nearly ignored when first released int he mid-1980s; the album it was on couldn't even get a U.S. release. Nevertheless, its simple, beautiful melody and religio-erotic imagery have captured musical artist after musical artist to do his or her own interpretation. Light offers insights about what precisely has made "Hallelujah" adaptable ...more
Nancy
Wow.. Who knew there would be so much information on one song? I liked this book for multiple reasons, but mostly for the additional of the MS scan codes at the end leading you directly to the videos of the performances discussed in the book. I only wish there were more of them.

Reading so much information on the same song definitely got tiresome at some points, but I feel like the main themes; song flexibility, Buckley’s masterpiece, and the public fascination with the song are now drilled into
...more
Amy
This song has fascinated me for about 10 years now, and I've heard it a millions times, knowing that it has been covered by...well, almost everyone. This book tackles the history of the song, from its birth by Leonard Cohen, to it's classic cover by Jeff Buckley, to it's million and one uses in moves and TV. It's a song worthy of its own book, just because it can be interpreted in so many ways. Lyrics are changed on a regular basis (I think there are 8 different verses in total), and the song in ...more
Jessica
Feb 26, 2014 Jessica rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: music lovers; Buckley fans; Cohen fans
Shelves: non-fiction
"There's a blaze of light in every word; it doesn't matter which you heard; the holy or the broken Hallelujah." Cohen's own words seem to pre-ordain the course of his now ubiquitous song, "Hallelujah."

I take issue with other reviewer's complaints that this book should have been a magazine article(a complaint I make a lot!). Light covers a lot of ground glancing off changes in the music industry, the joys and agony of musicianship, an extensive and multi-faceted interpretation of the lyrics of t
...more
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