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

I love this version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, sung by k.d. lang for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. Her heart-felt performance, the emotion of the games, the song written by a Canadian, performed by a Canadian, yet embracing everyone and all of life—what a way to welcome the world!

But in 1984, when Leonard Cohen first recorded “Hallelujah” as part of a new album, CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff responded, “What is this? This isn’t pop music. We’re not releasing it. This is a disaster.”(1)

How then, did “Hallelujah” ever come to be so well-known and so well-loved as it is today—recorded by hundreds of artists, recognized as one of the greatest Canadian songs ever written, included by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time?  How did all of that and more grow out of such a lowly beginning?

Journalist Alan Light tells the story in The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” (New York: Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, 2012).

In it, he relates the pivotal role of Jeff Buckley who “polished the song to a perfect shape”(2) and who has sometimes been mistakenly thought to be its author (3). He includes comments from k.d. lang, U2’s Bono, Jon Bon Jovi, Justin Timberlake, and many others in the music industry and beyond.

Did you know that it took Leonard Cohen over 4 years to write “Hallelujah, and he wrote perhaps 80 different verses? That while the song has been variously described as sensual, sexual, secular, non-religious, it’s also been used in the movie Shrek, as a 9/11 memorial, and in religious services of worship?(4)

This is an absorbing book with much to offer music lovers, anyone engaged in creative process, anyone interested in popular culture. I love the way the author explores and explains the story behind the song, yet without robbing it of the mystery and ambiguity that is part of its broad appeal. The book also includes a helpful index for looking up a particular artist or topic, and QR codes so you can watch some of the performances referenced in the book.

I’m only sorry that while Leonard Cohen gave his blessing to this project, he declined to be interviewed—although not surprising, I suppose, since he rarely gives interviews. Besides, the song with all of its complexity and multiple interpretations has certainly taken on a life of its own.

Leonard Cohen once said, “I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”(5) Yet as I listen to the song in its various versions again and again, it seems profoundly religious to me in the best sense of the word. The title and repeated refrain “Hallelujah” literally means “Praise the Lord.”  The song opens with allusions to the biblical poet/musician/king David.

When Leonard Cohen was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he recited this verse in his acceptance speech(6):

I did my best; it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I learned 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 lips but Hallelujah!

As he writes in another verse:

There’s a blaze of light in every word;
it doesn’t matter which you heard,
the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!

While some may interpret the song as “secular,” I hear it as a holy Hallelujah, and the song itself in its ambiguity and richness seems to give me permission to interpret it that way. Below is Leonard Cohen’s own version. How do you hear it?

(1) page 31
(2) page 68
(3) Jon Bon Jovi for one, page 148
(4) pages 178-88
(5) page 25
(6) page 25

Disclosure: A review copy was provided to me by Simon & Schuster Canada. As always, the choice to review and any opinions expressed are my own. You can read an excerpt from the book here.


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10 thoughts on “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”

  1. Both versions brought tears to my eyes. Whether secular or sacred makes little difference to me, because it seems to me that the “Lord of Song” bursts through the creative process of all sorts of broken people, myself included, to commune with us in the midst of life. Thanks for a great post. Mark

  2. I’ve only recently become aware of this song and would concur with you that its spiritual/religious overtones are what I like best. A singer/songwriter I’m more familiar with who boldly crossed over the sacred/secular divide in countless songs is Hank Williams, Sr.. His country gospel blended with songs of heartbreak, cheatin’, and drinkin’ reveal a tortured soul starving for salvation.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. I still remember the first time I heard this song on the radio while driving home from work. It had such a profound effect on me that I almost had to stop driving and pull over! I heard it first by Cohen and think his deep gravelly voice is particularly suited to the lyrics. But when I heard K.D. Lang sing it I I thought it was the most beautiful experience again!

  4. I have loved this song forever and find myself drawn to it for relaxation and contemplation. I listened to the various artists singing it and must say the raw, tortured sound of Leonard Cohen’s voice echoes in my soul. Especially with the beautiful voices of the Webb sisters and Miss Robinson to back him up. I’m going to download The Holy or the Broken….sounds very interesting.

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