Acting on a tip from The Kelly Writers House at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, I recently learned about, and then read, Alan Light’s book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.” This intrigued me as an admirer of this song in particular, Leonard Cohen’s songwriting and singing generally, and other aspects of his literary art (particularly the incredible novel Beautiful Losers). It also appealed to me as an entire book written about a single, short work. In this case, the work isn’t a Commodore 64 BASIC program – as in the book collaborators and I wrote, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1));: GOTO 10 – but a popular song with many lines and many covers, one that has been used in a wide variety of contexts.
The author discusses those many contexts well, covering the original release, the famous Jeff Buckley cover, and many other versions. There’s discussion of Shrek, the VH1 9/11 memorial video, manifestations on Idol and X Factor TV shows, and uses in religious ceremonies. The book is not really a deep dive into the music or the lyrics, although the etymology of the world “Hallelujah” and the differences in how the term is used in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are discussed. Cohen declined to be interviewed, so the book also doesn’t spend too much time on origin myths, just recounting a bit from previous interviews. The book works to tease out the many things the song has meant to people and how it has managed to have all of these meanings.
It’s quite a different book from 10 PRINT, both in methodology and because the BASIC program is quite a bit different, culturally, than the song. I found it a quite enjoyable read.