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

What did Alex Trebek and Leonard Cohen have in common?

“Both were Canadians,” you reply.

“Both were beloved by huge audiences,” you add.

Yes, of course. And both get the title of Rabbi, according to Mark Oppenheimer, cohost of the Unorthodox podcast, even though neither was actually a rabbi. Alex Trebek wasn’t even Jewish, of course, but he was still a rabbi (“the adult version of Mr. Rogers,” says Oppenheimer’s cohost, Stephanie Butnick). And what about Leonard Cohen? Well, you be the judge. But first read A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, written by the third cohost of Unorthodox, Liel Leibovitz (whose name I keep thinking should be spelled Liebowitz, but that’s because I have more linguistic connections with Germany than with Israel, where Leibovitz is actually from).

This is definitely not a biography of Cohen, even though much of it is biographical. And it’s definitely not a hagiography, since it’s a “warts and all” account. Pay close attention to the subtitle. I’m always a bit startled when people label Cohen’s music as rock and roll, since so much of it is clearly in the folk tradition and he had so much influence over the pop genre as well. But the author seriously considers some of Cohen’s music — most of it? — as rock and roll, so you’ll need to walk with him down that road. You’ll read about Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Phil Spector, about all of whom Leibovitz is, shall we say, less than complimentary. Very negative, in fact. But that’s useful for a compare-and-contrast exercise. You’ll read a fair chunk of musical analysis, and you’ll learn a lot about the Jewish communities of Montreal, communities that most Americans know nothing about, other than bagels and delis. And of course you’ll hear a lot about Judaism, but in a way that might surprise you. It won’t surprise you that Leibovitz is a scholar of Judaism, but you might not expect him to be so respectful of Christianity and Buddhism. But respectful he is — and Cohen was more than that.

In some ways the book is framed around Cohen’s most famous song (even though I am endlessly irritated by those who misattribute it by giving credit to any of the performers of the many different cover versions). Chapter titles come from “Hallelujah,” as does the middle third of the subtitle.

One anonymous Amazon reviewer says that “Leibovitz brings a discerning background in philosophy, poetry and music to his book that unveils Leonard Cohen, a gifted performer and very private man.” That is correct. So go read the book!

Categories: Books, Life