THE HOLY OR THE BROKEN: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.” By Alan Light. Atria Books. 288 pages. $25.
There’s a great scene in the 1992 film “Wayne’s World” in which an impatient guitar-store employee prevents Wayne from plucking out the opening arpeggios of “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. Pointing with great urgency, the guy directs Wayne’s attention to a sign hung on the wall: “NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.”
In Alan Light’s new book about the music of Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile describes another such printed prohibition, this one taped to a soundboard at L.A.’s Hotel Cafe, where Carlile says performers are enjoined from doing a tune that in recent years has become nearly as ubiquitous as Led Zeppelin’s rock-canonical classic.
The sign’s beseeching request? “PLEASE DO NOT PLAY ‘HALLELUJAH.’ ”
Just how Cohen’s song, released to little fanfare in 1984, came to its current position is the story Light takes up in “The Holy or the Broken.” It’s a deeply researched mixture of critical analysis and cultural archaeology from a veteran music journalist, and it comes at a moment of increased interest in Cohen.
In January of last year, he put out “Old Ideas,” his first new studio album since 2004, and an acclaimed biography by Sylvie Simmons arrived on shelves in September. And Cohen recently concluded a lengthy world tour with two arena concerts in New York.
That durability is key in Light’s account of “Hallelujah,” which first appeared on an album, “Various Positions,” that Cohen’s label rejected for being a noncommercial “disaster.” Yet the song, a wry reflection on the intersection of sex and religion, slowly found favor among other artists; Bob Dylan performed it on stage and John Cale covered it for a 1991 tribute album.
And then Jeff Buckley, the ill-fated son of the ill-fated folkie Tim Buckley, discovered the song and included a searingly gorgeous version on his 1994 debut, “Grace.”
That’s where Light’s book gets interesting, as the author charts in ample (if occasionally lumpy) detail the way Buckley’s imprimatur drove “Hallelujah” outward into the indiscriminate scrum of mainstream pop culture: into “Shrek,” the animated feature; into television coverage of the 9/11 attacks; and into the repertoire of TV singing competitions.
Drawing on countless interviews with musicians and industry insiders, including Bono, Regina Spektor and, crucially, a cast member from “One Tree Hill,” Light argues that Cohen’s song provides “a shortcut to feelings of contemplation, loss, solitude.”
Reviewer Mikael Wood writes for the Los Angeles Times.