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

Jiri Mesic
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LEIBOVITZ, Liel, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, New York: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2014, 281 pages, ISBN: 978-0-393-08205-0

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1A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz is according to the blurb on the cover a “meditation on the singer, his music, and the ideas and beliefs at the core of his work.” While the first line of the Preface (13) states that the book is not intended to be a biography, most of the book is in fact a retelling of Cohen’s life story as we know it from his predecessors such as Ira Nadel, Jim Devlin, Loranne S. Dorman & Clive L. Rawlins, Anthony Reynolds or Sylvie Simmons.

  • 1 The archive contains 140 banker’s boxes of Leonard Cohen’s personal letters, unpublished manuscript (...)

2However, Leibovitz’s work is supported by a more extensive research in The Leonard Cohen Archives at University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library1, which enables him to present excerpts from Cohen’s unpublished novel Ballet of Lepers or an unpublished story, “Saint Jig,” besides personal letters to his family or notes from his notebooks. Leibovitz’s investigation is bolstered by discussions with Cohen’s biographers such as Allan Showalter or Sylvie Simmons and the singer’s close friends: a Canadian sculptor Morton Rosengarten and Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard. In addition, he interviewed Murray Lerner, the film director and producer of the videos from the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 and the producers of Cohen’s first recordings, John Simon (Songs of Leonard Cohen 1967) and John Lissauer (New Skin for the Old Ceremony 1974) who provide new insights into the recording of the albums.

3The book is introduced by a prelude which describes the atmosphere of the Isle of Wight Music Festival in 1970. It is followed by nine chapters portraying the singer’s childhood, his Jewish origins, Canadian cultural milieu and his relation to other Canadian poets and mentors (Irvin Layton, Louis Dudek, F.R. Scott and A.M. Klein). The critic further probes the influences of the Spanish poetry and the concept of duende, Cohen’s engagement during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Yom Kipur War and his life on the Greek isle of Hydra. He also discusses Cohen’s poetry and novels, the recordings of his albums, his concerts and other public performances and similarities he shares with the work of Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. The book ends with an epilogue dealing with Cohen’s last world tour for which Leibovitz uses the phrase “religious gatherings” (240).

  • 2 Cohen quipped during his “The Prince of Asturias Awards Speech” in October, 2011: “It was those six (...)

4The critic is well-acquainted with the literature dealing with the mystical stream of Judaism and Christianity, music theories and world literatures. His only shortcoming is that some of his remarks deal with fields and domains beyond his immediate knowledge, such as the concept of duende. Leibovitz bases his analysis of duende on the lecture “Importancia histórica y artística del primitivo canto Andaluz llamado ‘Cante Jondo’ (1922)” by Federico García Lorca in which duende is addressed and sees it as a quality of the voice (54)―as described in the lecture ―which is certainly true, but he forgets to mention that it is, in the first place, a temporal possession of the spirit over the performer (which is, actually, reflected in the voice) and subsequently over his audience. Unsurprisingly, it is called duen de casa or “the master of the house” in Spanish, which suggests the seizure of the soul. Moreover, the influence of the concept of duende in flamenco and especially its hidden potential in the six chords Cohen learnt and has been using throughout his career due to an early flamenco teacher, could have been mentioned2.

5Nevertheless, this lack of expertise in certain fields is outbalanced by his investigation of Cohen’s personal history, controversial attitudes, or directly outrageous acts such as the 1972 Hamburg concert, when Cohen “Sieg Heiled” on stage (157) or when he read a short speech by Goebbels in Berlin, which are, according to the critic, consequences of “stage fright, Mandrax, and political violence” (157).

6The core of the book is devoted to the idea that Cohen’s work is deeply prophetic, which is analysed by Leibovitz’s in relation to Cohen’s speech “Loneliness and History: A Speech Before the Jewish Public Library” delivered in 1964 in Montreal. The author’s theory is built on the conviction that the singer gave up on his priestly responsibilities because of his origins (the name Cohen denotes a direct descendant of Aaron), as revealed in the speech. He claims that Cohen is more or less a biblical prophet who understands “that humankind’s spiritual and sexual yearnings [are] intertwined” (50) and makes a distinction between the priest and the prophet, one being the preacher of the biblical law while the other voices actual commands. This distinction is refuted by Cohen himself who claims in the same speech that there must have existed prophets and priests at once: “Some moment in time, very brief, there must have been, among the ancient Hebrews, men who were both prophet and priest in the same office. I tease my imagination when I try to conceive of the energy of that combination. Their lives burned with such intensity that we here can still feel the warmth” (rpt. in Fournier 150).

7Leibovitz also presents interesting thoughts on the first meeting between Dylan and Cohen in 1969 and their reciprocal admiration (143). Many details which are presented are not usually known by the public, such as that Cohen refused to sing at Dylan’s show in Montreal in 1975 (145-146). The critic follows the well-trodden track when he searches for the common features between these two poets. However, he ignores the fact that they differ in the basic approach to song-writing or to song in general. While Dylan finds his sources in the cultural history of the country he inhabits and then processes the art, religion, philosophy or politics of this culture with an arrogant sneer added to it, Cohen is more or less a mystic speaking of how art, culture, history and politics influence his deepest self. Therefore, it could be more fruitful, instead of searching for the similarities between the two, to focus on the differences between them.

8The book, however, does present an intriguing mélange of disparate ideas in a very neat writing. Liel Leibovitz made a painstaking analysis and gave thought-provoking conclusions. Cohen’s devotees will find plenty of material that appears in print for the first time.

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Devlin, Jim. In Every Style of Passion: The Works of Leonard Cohen. London: Omnibus, 1996. Print.

Devlin, Jim. Leonard Cohen: In His Own Words. London: Omnibus, 1998. Print.

Dorman, Loranne S., and Clive L. Rawlins. Leonard Cohen: Prophet of the Heart. London: Omnibus, 1990. Print.

Fournier, Michael, and Ken Norris. Take This Waltz: A Celebration of Leonard Cohen. Quebec: Muses’ Company, 1994. Print.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Leonard Cohen: A Life in Art. London: Robson, 1995. Print.

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. Austin: University of Texas, 2007. Print.

Reynolds, Anthony. Leonard Cohen: Pozoruhodný život. Trans. Miroslav Jindra and Klára Kolinská. Praha: Mladá fronta, 2012. Print.

Simmons, Sylvie. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. London: Jonathan Cape, 2012. Print.

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1 The archive contains 140 banker’s boxes of Leonard Cohen’s personal letters, unpublished manuscripts, together with photos, newspaper clippings, diaries, extensive notes, original manuscripts and other paraphernalia. See: Gibson, Stacey. “He’s Our Man.” University of Toronto Magazine. University of Toronto, Autumn 2006. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. <>.

2 Cohen quipped during his “The Prince of Asturias Awards Speech” in October, 2011: “It was those six chords, it was that guitar pattern that has been the basis of all my songs and all my music.”

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Jiri Mesic, « Liel Leibovitz, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen », Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2015, consulté le 22 avril 2018. URL :

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