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

3.63  ·  Rating Details ·  1,102 Ratings  ·  279 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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Jennifer (aka EM)
Sep 03, 2013 Jennifer (aka EM) rated it it was ok
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
Nov 23, 2012 jeremy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
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
Dec 08, 2012 Eve rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 23, 2013 Kelly rated it really liked it
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
Paul Gleason
Nov 23, 2012 Paul Gleason rated it really liked it
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
Richard Behrens
May 04, 2013 Richard Behrens rated it really liked it
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
Mar 08, 2013 Rick rated it really liked it
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
Jan 28, 2015 Erika rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
"There is a religious hallelujah, but there are many other ones," Leonard Cohen once said. "When one looks at the world, there's only one thing to say and it's hallelujah. That's the way it is."

Well, that was a fascinatingly dry read.

I've been on a huge Jeff Buckley kick lately. I just cannot get enough of Grace. It's amazing and Hallelujah is really the shining point on that album. So, when I came across this book, I decided to check it out. It's really fascinating to read about all of the var
Julie Suzanne
We had a community sing-along of "Hallelujah" a few weeks ago, and I eagerly participated because it is one of my favorite songs, after all. But when I arrived and saw a verse with which I wasn't familiar on our handout, and it was so clearly about sex and orgasm, I was a little uncomfortable singing with my neighbors, especially children. I mentioned this to my husband and my friend, and both looked at the verse and they weren't sure they agreed with me. How could they not? It was blatant. Then ...more
Jeff Tucker
Dec 31, 2012 Jeff Tucker rated it liked it
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
Apr 21, 2013 Alice rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Mar 06, 2013 Melody rated it liked it
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
Sarah W
Aug 16, 2016 Sarah W rated it really liked it
Eventually this book devolves into a list of all the times Hallelujah has been sung on American Idol, but up until that point it's oddly compelling. The author manages to avoid any cynicism throughout, even while describing how the song has become a lazy emotional shorthand for TV shows, a crutch for young musicians trying to boost their careers, and a golden goose of a sort for an aging and financially-strapped Cohen. A healthy dose of cynicism might have helped this book in the last few chapte ...more
Jan 28, 2015 Erika rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
"There is a religious hallelujah, but there are many other ones," Leonard Cohen once said. "When one looks at the world, there's only one thing to say and it's hallelujah. That's the way it is."

Well, that was a fascinatingly dry read.

I've been on a huge Jeff Buckley kick lately. I just cannot get enough of Grace. It's amazing and Hallelujah is really the shining point on that album. So, when I came across this book, I decided to check it out. It's really fascinating to read about all of the var
Jan 05, 2013 William rated it liked it
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
Zohar -
Apr 05, 2013 Zohar - rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013
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’m positive that the
Jun 14, 2013 Pamela rated it really liked it
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
Howard Goodman
Apr 01, 2013 Howard Goodman rated it really liked it
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
May 04, 2013 Mediaman rated it it was ok
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
Mar 13, 2013 April rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Aaron Burkhalter
Aug 21, 2013 Aaron Burkhalter rated it it was ok
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
Aug 13, 2013 Byron rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jennifer Stringer
Feb 25, 2013 Jennifer Stringer rated it liked it
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
Dec 29, 2012 Ashley rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Apr 28, 2013 Jay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music, media
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
Dec 09, 2012 Bonnie Irwin rated it really liked it
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
Apr 30, 2013 Cheyenne Blue rated it liked it
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
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
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A veteran music journalist, ALAN LIGHT is the author of The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" and Let's Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain. Light was previously the editor-in-chief of Vibe and Spin and a senior writer for Rolling Stone. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times.
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“Though most cultural observers hadn't noticed it yet, everything was now in place for "Hallelujah" to sweep through the pop landscape. It was a song that had multiple strong, emotional connections with millions of listeners. Its mood was both fixed and malleable, universal and specific. It was familiar enough to resonate, obscure enough to remain cool. Though its most celebrated performer was gone forever, its mysterious creator had come back to the spotlight just in time.
After 2001, whether it signified an individual's solitude (human or monster or otherwise) or a population in mourning, "Hallelujah"—now far removed from Leonard Cohen's initial," rather joyous" intent—was established as the definitive representation of sadness for a new generation.”
“It’s a rather joyous song,” Cohen said when Various Positions was released. “I like very much the last verse—‘And even though it all went wrong, / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah!” 0 likes
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