Every once in awhile there comes a music book that ventures far beyond mere celebrity biography or fan appreciation. In a vigorous discourse combining excellent writing, shrewd criticism, and a kaleidoscope of people from all walks of life, Alan Light's The Holy or the Broken (Atria Books, 2012) traces the life of one unknown song, or its many lives, as it traversed the repertoires of a myriad of artists, movies, TV shows and advertisements. This deep, fun and engaging exegesis on the musical and cultural ramifications of singer Leonard Cohen
's "Hallelujah" is a beautifully crafted book of rare brilliance. It is a cultural history of a single song that has emerged from a relative obscurity to be a modern day anthem, and unexpectedly becoming one of the most popular and most covered songs not just in the Leonard Cohen's canon but in other artists' work worldwide.
Light, who in past has helped singer Gregg Allman in the writing of his autobiography, as well as writing several books on hip hop, has a rare talent for making exciting and unexpected connections, and while he intimately probes, by interviews and interpretations, he pulls diverse artists, writers, producers and ordinary people into the mix, thus giving an insightful meditation on the song's cultural context and its impact. He provokes discussions about the song's lyrical and musical structures and meanings, its place in the careers of Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckleywhose tragic and premature death actually gave its lifeand its treatment in the hands of other musicians, ranging from singers John Cale, Bono and K.D. Lang to Jon Bon Jovi and Rufus Wainwright, to name but a few. The Holy or the Broken is a thrilling biography of a song full of life, written by a man that still pays his rent in the Tower of Song, but is enjoyed and shared by the whole wide world.
All About Jazz: What was it about the story of "Hallelujah" that made you decide it was a worthy subject for a book-length work?
Alan Light: It occurred to me that the trajectory of this song was so unlike any other song I could think ofthe other songs that have reached the same kind of stature, like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "Imagine," were immediately recognized as special songs, where this one took 10, 15, 20 years to become a global anthem. I thought that it might sustain a longer story to try to figure out how that happened.
AAJ: Does mapping the life of a song differ from mapping the life of a living person, like Gregg Allman's autobiography, My Cross to Bear (William Morrow, 2012)?
AL: Working on Gregg's book with him was a matter of trying to capture his voice and his feelings, to convey what it was for him to live and survive the complicated life he has had. With this book, though it was mostly a chronological story, it was less linear more about the momentum the song acquired, like a snowball rolling downhill over the years, but through different media and usages and markets.
AAJ: It's a fascinating connection that you develop as the book moves forward. How easy or difficult it was to direct the plethora of people's stories and impressions into a multilayered and mosaic kind of book like The Holy or the Broken? How difficult was it to strike a balance between peoples' stories and the analysis?
AL: The most rewarding part of the process was hearing real people talk about the song and its meaning in their lives; at a time when it's very easy to be cynical about music, and how it's not as important or valued or culturally central as it used to be, it was incredibly powerful to hear just how significant this one song was for so many people. It was also the hardest to know how to use that material in the book. Should it be woven into the story as each example occurs? Should it be an introduction or a coda? Or should it be isolated as its own chapter and examined as kind of one element of this phenomenon? Hopefully I made the most out of this great material.
AAJ: What were some of the most interesting stories that arose as you were interviewing people and researching?
AL: So many things were surprising and fascinating. Of course, I loved hearing the story of the family who named their daughter "Hallelujah" because of what the song meant to them. But also, it was endlessly interesting to hear different artists talk about performing the song; they all had strong ideas and feelings about it, and not one of them gave the sense that they did it casually or blithelythey all seemed to understand that it really connected them to a legacy to sing these words or play this melody.
AAJ: Who or what was most helpful to you in researching and writing the book?