IN 1966, when Leonard Cohen was recording his debut album at Columbia Records’s Studio E in New York, he was assigned a producer named John Simon, who had recently scored a hit with the Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball” and would later work with The Band, Simon & Garfunkel, and Big Brother & the Holding Company. Simon respected Cohen, but wasn’t confident that his word-dense compositions, dirge tempos, and somber voice would have much appeal. So he tried, likely with Columbia’s encouragement, to enliven the songs with musical flourishes. Cohen scowled at such additions to his songs, which he said needed only his acoustic guitar accompaniment. When Simon proposed adding drums to a song called “So Long, Marianne,” Cohen balked. Piano? Again, the artist said no. When the producer added hurdy-gurdy to “Sisters of Mercy,” Cohen turned it down so low in the mix that it sounds like an afterthought, less like an instrument than the memory of one.
Even though the album sold poorly at the time — and was dismissed by some critics for brooding too intently — time has been kind to Songs of Leonard Cohen, which has been absorbed into the rock canon as one of the great debuts of the 1960s. However, even half a century later, Cohen remains a divisive figure, equally embraced and dismissed for his ascetic early folk records, his dour countenance, his litany of biblical references. For some fans, Simon may emerge as the unlikely hero of this anecdote, or at least a figure of immense sympathy, faced with the impossible task of making Cohen’s music palatable to a mass audience. Even in the 1960s, when rock was first being thought of as a serious art form, his songs were steeped in the kind of grave import that made listening an inspiration for some, a burden for others. His monotone can sound thoughtful and introverted, as though he is holding a conversation with himself, or it can come across as dreary and self-serious, as though melody were a bourgeois indulgence. Cohen wasn’t the first to think of rock lyrics as poetry — Dylan already ruled that realm by ’66 — but he was among the first artists to approach rock lyrics via poetry instead of vice versa. Prior to picking up a guitar, he had been a prize-winning poet and novelist; fans claim he elevated his third medium, while others argue it needed no such haughty elevation at all.
In his new book, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, Liel Leibovitz portrays Simon as a foil for Cohen, the villain of the story and the agent of Columbia’s prurient interest in sales and profits. His mission, whether sinister or simply ignorant, was to hinder the artist in pursuit of his muse. “John Simon found the songs as Cohen played them depressing,” Leibovitz writes. “But he still wanted ‘to try and dress him up a little bit, to put a little icing on the cake.’ Icing, he thought, was all the cake needed: the songs were sad, but they were also beautiful, and their beauty had to be accentuated.” Allegedly misinterpreting the songs, Simon overestimated the need for flourishes; butting heads with Cohen, the producer finally quit and left the singer-songwriter to finish the record himself: “Cohen’s cut had no room for imaginative interpretations.”
Was “sweetening” Cohen’s music necessarily a perverse urge? Even Leibovitz admits that Simon’s additions are “haunting,” and, even so low in the mix, they do add some much-needed humanity to Cohen’s words, transforming what might have been mere recitation into something like music. The album sold poorly and garnered mixed reviews. In The New York Times,the headline shrugged, “Alienated Young Man Creates Some Sad Music.” Cohen, reports Leibovitz, responded with dramatic intimations of suicide, as when a reporter from The Village Voice interviewed him at the Chelsea Hotel and Cohen threatened to jump from the window. “The curtains are as florid as his lyrics,” noted the critic, unimpressed.
A Broken Hallelujah is not strictly a biography of Leonard Cohen, whose long life has already inspired several books — including, most recently, Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. What Leibovitz has written, instead, is a kind of critical taxonomy, less concerned with the particulars of what he did or where he went than with what he was saying through his art at various points in his career. This approach allows Leibovitz, who teaches at New York University and has penned books on Lili Marlene and the history of Israel, to write loosely and often vividly about Cohen’s poems, novels, and songs, but also to explore the artist’s cultural context: Who were his contemporaries and how did he distinguish himself from them? How did he address the world and its beauty and vulgarity?
The early chapters are the sharpest and most insightful, especially as Leibovitz traces the roots of Cohen’s art-making impulse to his twin heritage as a Canadian and a Jew. He grew up in the prosperous Westmont neighborhood of Montreal, the second generation of Lithuanian immigrants. When Leonard was nine years old, his father, a World War II veteran and store proprietor named Nathan Cohen, died after several bouts of ill health, and the event awakened the boy’s literary interest. Leibovitz recounts how Leonard
sneaked into Nathan’s room and selected his father’s favorite bow tie. With a pair of scissors he cut a slit in the fabric, then scribbled a few words on a slip of paper and inserted it into the tie. […] He tiptoed his way to the backyard […]. With the tall locust trees as his dark and silent witness, Leonard dug into the frozen earth, tossed the tie into the hole, and covered it with dirt.
It was his introduction to the power of words as well as his first glimpse of their inadequacy in raising the dead or assuaging our grief. “That night in the garden,” writes Leibovitz, “Cohen became not just a writer, but a particular kind of writer — the kind who wrote and then destroyed his work.” As a poet, then as a novelist, and finally as a songwriter, he remained a notoriously exacting artist, one who would routinely write up to 30 or 40 verses for a single song, pick the best ones, then toss the rest away. Today, his catalog — including poetry collections, novels, and albums — represents only a fraction of his work.
Another defining lesson for Leonard came from his maternal grandfather, Solomon Klinitsky-Klein, who moved in with the family when Nathan Cohen died. A Talmudic scholar, he “understood that humankind’s spiritual and sexual yearnings were intertwined,” Leibovitz notes. “It was an insight that found a ready listener in the adolescent Cohen, himself discovering both yearnings at the same time.” Anyone who has heard even a single Leonard Cohen song will understand what a profound impact that idea had on Klinitsky-Klein’s grandson. In his poetry, but especially in his novels and songs, he explores sex as a spiritual pursuit: the flesh of another as a vehicle for transcendence. Left unexplored in A Broken Hallelujah, however, is what that means for Cohen’s lovers, who often became the subjects of his songs.
In “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” a woman gives him oral sex while his limousine waits downstairs, then conveniently passes along a bit of wisdom: “We are ugly, but we have the music.” As Leibovitz notes:
Perhaps no line of Cohen’s better captures the essence of his vision. He is telling his listeners what prophetically inclined rabbis had been telling theirs for thousands of years, namely that the world is a place of suffering, that no celestial cataclysm could ever change that, but that there are things here on this earth — art, love, friendship, kindness, music, sex — that have the power to redeem us.
What does it mean that such a crucial line is spoken not by Cohen or his stand-in, but by a sexual conquest, one who bestows rather than receives sexual pleasure? Described somewhat condescendingly in the song as “talking so brave and so sweet,” this woman, much like Suzanne and Marianne in their songs, is less a flesh-and-blood human than a figure akin to classical statuary. Her own inner life seems just beyond the reach of Cohen’s masculine imagination (assuming he actually wonders what she’s thinking). She has been stripped of her own desires and made to function as a muse, as an enabler of deep spiritual contemplation, but has no spiritual life herself.
Cohen eventually revealed the subject of “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” to be Janis Joplin, yet many years later he would regret not the dalliance but the indiscretion of his disclosure. Joplin did not explicitly deny the tryst, but she had a very different memory of it. She is quoted in The Sixties, by Doon Arbus and Richard Avedon, as saying:
Sometimes, you know, you’re with someone and you’re convinced that they have something to … to tell you. Or, you know … you want to be with them. So maybe nothing’s happening, but you keep telling yourself something’s happening. You know, innate communication. He’s just not saying anything. He’s moody or something. So you keep being there, pulling, giving, rapping, you know. And then, all of a sudden about four o’clock in the morning you realize that, flat ass, this mother-fucker’s just lying there. He’s not balling me.
Joplin is breaking character: rather than the disregarded vessel delivering sexual pleasure in tandem with spiritual revelation, she rewrites her role in “Hotel Chelsea No. 2” as that of unfulfilled lover, bored and unballed. By presenting the same scene from a different perspective, she gives voice to all the muted women in Cohen’s music and rowdily upends his neatly arranged pretensions.
It’s obvious throughout A Broken Hallelujah that Leibovitz has drawn a great deal of inspiration from Cohen as a writer and thinker. He indulges long, complex, occasionally convoluted sentences that at times read more like verse than prose, which give the impression of a meticulous author corralling his thoughts and enthusiasms. On the other hand, also like Cohen, Leibovitz is prone to flights of fancy when his prose turns purple, as when he describes his subject as “the sort of man whose pores absorb the particles of beauty and grief and truth that float weightlessly all around us yet so few of us note. He is attuned to the divine, whatever the divine might be.”
It’s a pained, lofty metaphor, yet also one that perhaps reveals more about Leibovitz than it does about Cohen. He writes imaginatively and intelligently, but he also writes as the kind of avid admirer who views his subject as somehow superhuman and entertains no criticisms of him. It’s a popular stance among historians of Dylan and the Beatles, who find glimmers of genius in even the artists’ dimmer efforts. It doesn’t preclude a balanced and painstaking analysis, and, in fact, A Broken Hallelujah is often insightful, especially as it explores Cohen’s Jewish-Canadian heritage. On the other hand, Leibovitz provides less compelling contemplations of Cohen’s music, which makes the latter half of the book feel rushed and scattered.
If there is an idea that propels the book, it is what Leibovitz calls Cohen’s “crisis of intimacy.”
Again and again he reflected on the oddity of having to share intimate sentiments with arenas packed thick with strangers, singing “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne” — one woman his friend and the other his lover, both songs written with specific muses in mind — reportedly as throngs of people who had met neither woman shouted the words back at him from their seats.
As Leibovitz explains, with his 1985 album Various Positions, Cohen learned to write songs that would fit more easily into the context of performance, songs modeled on Jewish prayers: “Like real prayers, once written they seemed no longer to belong to their composer but instead to become the property of whoever cared to softly mouth their words.”
One of the first products was “Hallelujah,” which in a little over a decade would become Cohen’s best-known and arguably best-loved tune. That song looms over his entire career, yet A Broken Hallelujah addresses the song and its popularity in the 2000s only briefly and superficially, as Leibovitz swiftly dismisses every single cover as egregiously misinterpreted and oversung. As he writes of “contestants of televised singing competitions”: “Overcome with emotion, they take the song — as had its best-known interpreter Jeff Buckley — to be about the hallelujah of orgasm, the turning loose of emotion.” Certainly the participants on American Idol are encouraged to emote, but Buckley doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with all of the reality TV hopefuls (nor does Willie Nelson, John Cale, k.d. lang, or Imogen Heap). Buckley’s version, which owes a debt to Cale, is an earthly reimagining and rearrangement of the lyrics into a metaphor concerning the abjection of love, the self-depriving contortions that make commitment possible and sustainable.
And who’s to say “the hallelujah of the orgasm” isn’t just as legitimate as Cohen’s or Buckley’s interpretations? The urge to place Cohen among his contemporaries at various stages in his career is certainly worthwhile. He is such a singular artist that it’s easy to think of him as removed from pop trends, as though his music exists in a cultural vacuum. And yet, here is an artist who played numerous festival dates with his peers, who made a record with Phil Spector, who even toyed with New Wave keyboards in the 1980s. Perhaps because he covers 40 years in the book’s final 100 pages, A Broken Hallelujah comes across as somewhat perfunctory and less than insightful as it winds down, giving especially short shrift to Cohen’s most recent albums, in particular 2012’s Old Ideas. That record provides surprisingly rich commentary on his career; instead of ruminating on his life, he settles into old age and hints at the larger metaphysical mechanisms that have motivated him for so many years. He sings “Going Home” from the point of view of his own muse, which may be God Himself or some lesser deity — or perhaps that part of Cohen that stands apart from his mortal body and will thrive without the shell. It’s deeply self-deprecating and just as deeply self-aggrandizing: he may only be a conduit, a “lazy bastard in a suit,” as he sings, but at least he has some connection to the divine.
Leibovitz doesn’t engage with that or any recent song very closely, but instead uses “Going Home” to pin a pat ending onto an otherwise open-ended story. “After decades of refusing to listen, of running wild, of trying just about anything for a shot at salvation, that lazy bastard was finally realizing that his master, Leonard Cohen, was commanding him with a bit of hard-earned wisdom, telling him to stop.” But the song is less about concluding a career and more about simply continuing it. Cohen has no other choice; the song’s narrator demands his subjugation unto death. For that reason, the song is not the triumph Leibovitz claims. In fact, the ultimate horror — the twist ending to Cohen’s career — is that redemption may not be possible, at least not through art. “Going Home” reduces his efforts to mere dictation, which suggests there will be no hallelujah, broken or otherwise.
Stephen M. Deusner is a freelance writer currently based in Indiana.