Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review: 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 A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes when you’re a hardcore fan of a band or a singer, a completist, you come across the old “B-Sides and Demos” style release and just have to have it. There are usually some familiar songs in their original unproduced incarnations, a promising song that never made it onto any of the official releases, and a lot of things you tell yourself – for as long as it takes to justify the price of the album – are OK.

This book reads a lot like a B-Sides and Demos release.

On the one hand, Leibovitz has an intriguing fundamental take on Cohen. He sees him as a kind of wannabe prophet, someone pushing popular music to more authentically spiritual dimensions than anyone else. He has a number of striking readings of Cohen songs, and he adds some real depth to a few. I’ve been listening to a lot Cohen’s music in the last several weeks – more than at any other time in my life – and Leibovitz gives me a few new ways to listen to something like “Famous Blue Raincoat” as a song vacillating between an abstract philosophical inquiry and a personal, signed letter.

But…much of the rest of this feels like filler, like the demo tracks that might have sounded good at the time and now don’t feel fleshed out.

To take a representative example, we get an extended description of the Isle of Wight Music Festival. We hear about its promoter, about the anarchists resolved to overturn it, about the performers’ reactions to hostile crowds. For 20+ pages, it feels as if the book is going to talk just about the festival. And then, near the end of the section, Cohen emerges and calms the audience by talking to them. It’s a great scene, and it led me to what my favorite music books do: to track down the track described on Youtube and enjoy it in a new way.

I expect that exegesis to be emblematic of how Leibovitz sees Cohen on stage, but it turns out to be mostly anomalous. Cohen was not generally able to connect with crowds in those days. It’s a great story, but the first two-thirds feel like digression and the final third doesn’t seem to connect to the rest of the portrait Leibovitz is painting.

We get similar digressions all the time. We hear about Jewish religious practices, about the rise of punk or prog rock, about the zeitgeist of 1975 or 1984. There are places for that kind of work. Greil Marcus – widely quoted here and a clear inspiration – has a knack for doing what we might call rock criticism’s version of literary theory’s new historicism, of taking a small cultural moment and demonstrating how it reflects larger political and aesthetic tensions of its age. But Leibovbitz – as well and as insightfully as he writes in small sections – doesn’t quite have that same breadth of vision for his subject. (At least not here. I get the impression I’d enjoy spending time with this guy.)

The largest problem here, however, is that the book can’t quite decide what it wants to be. It isn’t quite a biography though we do get substantial pieces of Cohen’s life. It isn’t quite a literary analysis because it jumps from one era to another too markedly, never quite developing its core argument but applying it in repeated (if interesting) ways. And it isn’t quite a music history since we hear anecdotes of performance but no sustained description of Cohen as performer.

In the end, this works to take me back to Cohen’s music, but it seems more an invitation to return to the greatest hits – to the songs I already know – than to explore more rarities from the, sadly, now deceased master. Leibovitz has some tunes that I think could be polished and produced into hits, but they feel too much like unfinished demos for me to recommend this as highly as its best parts make me want to.

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