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A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen

Mr. Cohen
Mr. Cohen
Author's collection

The Isle of Wight music festival in 1970 was a disaster. The biggest musical acts in the world had been booked to perform, including the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Miles Davis, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Jethro Tull. But when these stars arrived they found themselves greeted by thousands of hostile fans. Incensed that the festival had charged for admission, hordes of drunk and drugged-out young people swarmed the island, throwing beer bottles at the stage and shouting insults at the performers. Many of the legendary musicians had left the stage in disgust. Then, on the festival’s final evening, Leonard Cohen walked onto the stage.
“Greetings,” Cohen said in a soft tone, “Greetings. When I was seven years old, my father used to take me to the circus. He had a black mustache, and a great vest and a pansy in his lapel, and he liked the circus better than I did.” As Cohen told 600,000 people about his trips to the circus as a boy, he asked everyone to light a match. The crowd grew calm. Cohen began to sing, and the crowd began to sing with him. Many great musicians are changed by experiences like this. “He’d found some self-confidence, maybe, and some calm, but taking the stage, Cohen was the same person he’d been all along, explains Liel Leibovitz. “The 600,000 who heard him that night—they were the ones transformed.”
Reading Leibovitz’s graceful account of Cohen’s work, one feels almost like a member of that long-ago crowd—stopped short amid the lunacy of life as something stronger, something deeper, takes center stage. A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen (W.W. Norton & Company, $25.95) is not a biography—though Cohen’s major life events are here. Rather, it is a non-fiction Portrait of the Artist, a meditation on how Cohen’s unique and timeless voice was formed, and how it continues to affect us ever more deeply as the years pass.
This is a wise book, and it asks poignant and incisive questions: How, for example, did Cohen’s childhood in French Canada inform his later work? What about his later residence on the Greek island of Hydra? And how did his faith affect his art, and vice versa? Leibovitz is particularly poetic about this last topic as he tells us about Cohen’s maternal grandfather, who lived with his family for several years, was a rabbi, and exposed Cohen to the fiery stories of the prophets: Between the earthy materialism of his father’s side of the family and the spiritual longings of his mother’s, Cohen found himself trying to solve the question of what gave meaning to life.
As the decades have passed, Cohen’s contemporaries have died, or become punch lines, or grown irrelevant. Cohen is ten years older than Mick Jagger, for example, and far more relevant, it would seem. Cohen’s artistry has only grown more potent as time moves forward. And his popularity only continues to increase. In 2013, as the troubadour approached his eightieth birthday, Times Square featured a sixty-foot billboard advertising Cohen’s two-night engagement at Radio City Music Hall.
Cohen never fit into an easy category. He was too folky for the hard rock set and too acerbic for the folk set. But Cohen’s genius overshadowed any passing musical fad. Now, as Cohen continues to create powerful, timeless music, the time is right for an elegant examination of the man’s work: his passions, his fears, his poetry, his anger, his loneliness, his redemption. The time is right for Leibovitz’s A Broken Hallelujah.