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April 14, 2014

Book Notes - Liel Leibovitz "A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen"

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

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

In A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen Liel Leibovitz thoughtfully examines both the legend and his creative output.

Marc Dolan wrote of the book:

“In A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, Liel Leibovitz neatly limns the spiritual quest that underpins most of Cohen's work, from Montreal to Tel Aviv and beyond. Less about Suzanne than 'Suzanne,' Leibovitz’s book highlights the novelist behind the songwriter, the poet behind the novelist, and the would-be prophet looming over them all."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Liel Leibovitz's Book Notes music playlist for his book, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen:

I first heard Leonard Cohen's music when I was fourteen. My father, the jovial and respectable businessman, was arrested for robbing a string of banks, and my family's comfortable upper-middle-class life fell apart. Because my friends had no idea how to relate to this radical turn of events, they stopped by and brought me CDs. Most of them were awful—this was 1990, so there was a lot of Roxette and Mariah Carey—but one of them was Songs of Leonard Cohen. It changed my life, or, more accurately, it saved it.

Because Cohen is such a magnificent songwriter, it is possible, even for fans of his, to spend years listening to his music without really diving deep and discovering the hidden gems that hide in the less illuminated corners of his albums. One of the greatest pleasures of writing a book about him was the thrill of listening to his music with a fresh pair of ears, discovering and rediscovering some sparkling songs. I still love "Hallelujah" and "Suzanne" and "Sisters of Mercy," but here are ten Leonard Cohen songs that are just as potent at mending your heart.

Field Commander Cohen

His songs are often so spare and his lyrics so profound that Leonard Cohen hardly gets credit for being genuinely funny. But it's hard to listen to "Field Commander Cohen" without cracking a smile as the deep-voiced singer riffs on the Andrews sisters and acknowledges his own reputation for being depressing by referring to himself as "the grocer of despair." The moment you think he's merely being self-deprecating, though, he dives deep again, talking about love and faith and hurt. Not a lot of songs can capture the whole gamut of human emotion, but this one comes close.

Passing Through

The tone is chatty, the tune is country, but the lyrics are as crystalline as any Cohen has ever written: told through a series of encounters with some of history's greatest men—Jesus, Adam, George Washington, FDR—each of the song's verses has a star-struck Cohen asking naïve questions only to receive different iterations of the same answer: life is hard, and we're all only passing through, but that doesn't absolve any of us of the responsibility to do our best to make our short stay as just, compassionate, and loving as possible. Amen to that.


Cohen's collaboration with Phil Spector, the 1977 album Death of a Ladies' Man, is the one entry in his body of work that even his biggest fans love to hate. The animosity is not entirely misguided, but the album does contain one brilliant and heartbreaking song: sampling The Shields' 1958 hit "You Cheated, You Lied," Cohen's "Memories" sounds like the sour sequel to the original. Instead of a young doo-wop crooner singing about a girl cheating on him but realizing that there will be other girls, other loves, and happier moments, Cohen plays the part of the same singer, now two decades older and broken, walking up to the tallest and the blondest girl and asking to see her naked body. He's old enough now to know that heartbreak isn't a sweet and passing sorrow, but a permanent state of being, and he now seeks not romance but sex. It's so sad, and so beautiful, and Spector's Wall of Sound makes it nearly unbearable.

Diamonds in the Mine

On the cover of Songs of Love and Hate, Cohen's 1971 third studio album, the singer—hair unkempt, eyes wild, head jutting out madly from a pool of blackness—looks a lot like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In "Diamonds in the Mine," perhaps the album's most spirited song, he sounds like a madman, too: his voice flat, Cohen nonetheless gets animated as he howls lyrics that could've been written by Dylan while binging on Benzedrine. It's both fun and terrifying, a snapshot of Cohen in a low point of his life, just after the charms of his early career and just before the wisdom of his later years.

Chelsea Hotel No. 1

Before there was No. 2, with its famous "we are ugly, but we have the music," there was the song's original version, which Cohen never recorded but which he played in several live shows before taking another stab at it and shaping it into perfection. The original is nowhere near as elegant and moving as its subsequent version, but No. 1 still has its pleasures. Rather than ending on a candid and cutting note by telling Joplin he doesn't think of her that often, Cohen concluded his first draft by praising Joplin's "sweet little sound," telling her "I'm thinking of you, baby." It's gossamer, but its sweet and it makes these two giants of song seem like teenaged lovers for one fleeting moment.

If It Be Your Will

The song may be too well-known to merit inclusion in a list of obscure masterpieces, but it's not nearly as celebrated as it should be. Perfectly mimicking the cadences and preoccupations of Jewish prayers, it is as moving as anything you may hear in church or at shul: "If it be your will," Cohen sang, "If there is a choice / Let the rivers fill / Let the hills rejoice / Let your mercy spill / On all these burning hearts in hell / If it be your will / To make us well." No wonder then that when he was asked in 1994 by a rock magazine which song he wished he had written, Cohen replied, "'If It Be Your Will.' And I wrote it."


Again, this one, too, is hardly forgotten, but if you're looking for words to live by, you could hardly do better than this: "Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There's a crack, a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in."

That Don't Make It Junk

Any song that begins by stating "I fought against the bottle / But I had to do it drunk" demands—and deserves—your full attention, but if you're expecting any more barstool wisdom, Cohen is too sober to offer any. "I know that I'm forgiven / But I don't know how I know," he sings. "I don't trust my inner feelings / Inner feelings come and go." You're left to figure it out for yourself, then, with Cohen slow and ever-deepening voice as your only tool of exploration.

Un Canadien Errant

Of course, a patriotic folk song titled "The Lost Canadian" ought to feature a mariachi band. But it's no joke: Canada, Cohen once said in an interview, "has an experimental side to it. We are free from the blood myth, the soil myth, so we could start over somewhere else. We could purchase a set of uninhabited islands in the Caribbean. Or we could disperse throughout the cosmos and establish a mental Canada in which we communicate through fax machines." To underscore this idea—that nationality matters but that it isn't some ancient and sacred covenant but a more modern compact between people who get together and agree to share an identity—Cohen could do no better than to make Canada sound like Mexico and sing in his nasal French. That the pride and the patriotism come across anyway should be all the proof we need that Cohen was right.

Going Home

I had no doubt that I wanted to give Cohen the book's last word. And "Going Home" was the perfect choice. "I love to speak with Leonard / He's a sportsman and a shepherd / He's a lazy bastard living in a suit," it begins. "But he does say what I tell him / Even though it isn't welcome / He just doesn't have the freedom to refuse." It had taken Leonard Cohen 80 years to achieve this wisdom, 80 years to learn how to live with Leonard Cohen, nearly 80 years to score his first chart-topping album. There's hope, then, for us all.

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

Kirkus review
Washington Post review

Vox Tablet interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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