The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light is the American history of a Canadian song. Fully titled The Holy Or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”, it traces the tortured beginnings of the song under the ever-working pen of Canadian Leonard Cohen, through its re-imagination by John Cale and its rebirth at the hands of Jeff Buckley.
My review of the book started with iTunes and the purchase of almost a dozen “Hallelujah” songs. Pro tip #1: Patty Larkin’s “Hallelujah” is not this song. Pro tip #2: Just go to Youtube and listen for free until you find the version(s) you like.
While I have always been a fan of Cohen’s song writing, his voice doesn’t do it for me. I love the song and I listen to a lot (usually on cold Canadian winter days), but I had never heard Jeff Buckley’s version before. The Holy or the Broken explains why: Buckley’s version became popular when MTV threw together a montage of images after 9/11 and set them to Buckley’s version of the song.
It’s weird that this song became a symbol of loss and mourning because of one word: “hallelujah”. Is that really how the MTV generation worked? Apparently so.
Author Alan Light is clearly a fan of the song.
Appropriately enough, I started to think about “Hallelujah,” which seems to me to be, at its heart, at its heart, a challenge to personal and spiritual commitment, on Yom Kippur. Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) hosts perhaps the largest High Holiday gathering in New York City: The Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender synagogue is one of the last congregations in Manhattan that hold open services on Roche hush Anna and your mom are poor, not requiring attendees to purchase an annual membership, or even advanced tickets, to attend… The rabbi ceded the stage to the CBST choir, led by can tour Magda fisherman, which delivered a stunning version of “hallelujah.” The unique composition of the congregation made it a little less weird to hear “she tied you to kitchen chair/she broke your throne, she cut your hair” in this sacred context. But the notion of this song serving as the emotional peak of the service, crackling through thousands of listeners – who were clearly familiar with the song, many weeping as it crescendoed – made it eminently clear that “Hallelujah” had reached a singular altitude, and was a phenomenon worthy of some extended consideration.
• From pp xxxi-xxxii (the Introduction)
It was this paragraph from the Introduction to the book that makes me think that The Holy or the Broken gives short shrift to LGBT singers. Well, actually it gives short shrift to lots of people who cover the song, and in some cases it should, but there are a few out LGBT signers whose versions are far superior to Buckley’s, including kd lang.
kd lang, Brandi Carlile and Rufus Wainwright, and I am sure other LGBT+ singers, cover the song in a way that seems, well, a little deeper, with a little more sorrow and personal feeling, I think. You decide. I have included a number of YouTube videos below, although I think THE definitive version is kd lang’s studio version (the last of the videos below). You be your own judge. Hallelujah!