A Celebration Of Leonard Cohen’s Significance: A Review Of A Broken Hallelujah By Liel Leibovitz

Key Leonard Cohen Books: Those interested in learning more about Leonard Cohen are confronted with a plethora of books about the Lord Byron Of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Consequently, I’ve put together a collection of the Five Key Books About Leonard Cohen:

1. “I’m Your Man” by Sylvie Simmons
2. “Leonard Cohen On Leonard Cohen” edited by Jeff Burger
3. “Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows” by Harvey Kubernik
4. “A Broken Hallelujah” by Liel Leibovitz
5. “Matters Of Vital Interest” by Eric Lerner

Full Disclosure: I read this book in pre-publication form and offered notes to the author, who has retaliated by writing extraordinarily nice things about me in the acknowledgements and footnotes.

See Also: Q&A With Liel Leibovitz

A Broken Hallelujah By Liel Leibovitz

A Broken Hallelujah by Liel Leibovitz1 is a difficult book to categorize. It is not, as the author points out in the opening sentence of the preface, a biography – although it does include a significant amount of biographical data. Nor is it, strictly speaking, a book of literary criticism or literary theory – although the language and concepts of these fields certainly populate the text. The blurb at the W.W. Norton website labels A Broken Hallelujah a “meditation,” which risks being read as off-puttingly New Ageist or off-puttingly classicistic and is, in any case, so encompassing a term as to be simultaneously irrefutable and useless as a classification.

At the risk of damning with faint praise, I suggest categorizing A Broken Hallelujah as an appreciation, albeit a particularly nuanced specimen of the species. This designation denotes not only an understanding of the subject but also an acknowledgement of its value and benefit. Further, an appreciation carries the connotation of the author’s intense personal investment in the presentation.

Leibovitz examines Cohen’s prose, poetry, and songs within the contexts of literature (especially Canadian literature), music (especially rock and roll), and culture (especially Jewish culture). He points out, for example, the consequences of Cohen performing as either a prophet Vs a priest. In another instance, he contrasts novelist Mordecai Richler’s declaration that he “look[ed] forward to the day when [the border between the US and Canada] will disappear and Canadians will join fully in the American adventure” to Cohen’s unequivocal Canadian nationalism which led him to condemn Richler’s stance as “an outright betrayal.”

This strategy is especially effective in presenting an extraordinarily sophisticated but comprehensible perspective on the influences of Judaistic thought, beliefs (sometimes conflicting beliefs), and history on Cohen’s writing. This accomplishment alone would justify the price of the book.

The downside of the contextual comparison tactic is that it is not always clear why certain juxtapositions are offered rather than others. A section given over to Keith Emerson’s2 forays into progressive rock in the 1960s does illustrate a contrast to Cohen’s musical style but nothing in the text presents a compelling reason for selecting Emerson instead of a number of other rockers for this role. More to the point, extending that exposition to more than a page in length to make the point that Leonard Cohen used less elaborate instrumentation than Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, who shipped “200 separate items of equipment, valued by Customs at just over $100,000” (including 13 different keyboards) for a Madison Square Garden show, verges on overkill.3

On the other hand, such idiosyncratic choices are part and parcel of the personal aspect – and appeal – of such a book, engaging the reader in the author’s process.

Further, Leibovitz provides more than analysis; he also offers several pieces of information, garnered from Cohen’s archives, that were previously unpublished – or at least were unknown to me. Yesterday, for example, an article, adapted from this book, about “the previously undiscovered speech [bolding mine] that launched Leonard Cohen’s career” appeared in The New Republic: The Prophet in the Library.

A Broken Hallelujah is not a casual read. One would be ill advised to pick it as the book to take on spring break to pass the time on the beach between tequila shots and wet t-shirt contests. with Jimmy Buffet on continuous play in the background. Nor is it hard labor. A Broken Hallelujah is well crafted and captivatingly written.

Most of all, it is rewarding.

A Broken Hallelujah, Liel Leibovitz’s appreciation of Leonard Cohen, rewards the reader not only with information, enlightenment, and entertainment but also with a celebration of the significance of Cohen’s work to the individual.

Book Information

Note: A Broken Hallelujah sports different titles, book covers, publication dates, and not coincidentally, publishers in the US and the UK. It is, however, otherwise the same book between those different covers.

A Broken Hallelujah Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz
US Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Now listed as “In Stock” at Amazon

A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord by Liel Leibovitz
UK Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd
Release Date: May 15, 2014

I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Mar 30, 2014.


  1. Liel Leibovitz may be familiar to ongoing readers from references in posts on this site to his essays on Leonard Cohen, such as Wall of Crazy (Tablet: December 11, 2012) and St. Leonard’s Passion (Tablet: Jan 31, 201s). []
  2. This is the Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, not the Emerson who wrote Self-Reliance and was the correct match for “Transcendentalist” on your high school English exams. Ralph Waldo Emerson is, however, also mentioned several times in A Broken Hallelujah. []
  3. Yes, I’m aware that me criticizing some else’s prolixity may call to mind the aphorism about the pot calling the kettle black. []

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