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Books  >>  Music

Alan Light

The Holy or the Broken

Alan Light The Holy Or The Broken Leonard Cohen Jeff Buckley And The Unlikely Asc
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Excerpt from book:


CHAPTER ONE

Allen Ginsberg once said, “Dylan blew everybody’s mind, except Leonard’s.”

Comparisons are often drawn between Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. There are books devoted to comparing and contrasting the two towering singer-songwriters; in early 2012, someone even released a “Cohen and Dylan” app, documenting their recordings and set lists for comparative purposes, complete with “quiz mode.” (One especially free-thinking soul—who revealed only that his last name is also Cohen—even devoted a website, WhoWroteHallelujah.com, to a detailed “musical conspiracy” theory alleging that Dylan was the primary author of Cohen’s best-known song; even in the Wild West of the Internet, the site didn’t stay up for long.)

The two artists have in fact crossed paths many times. They were both signed to Columbia Records by the legendary A&R executive John Hammond; both lived in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, and later wrote about it in song; both recorded in Nashville. Dylan sang backup on “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On,” from Cohen’s 1977 Death of a Ladies’ Man album. In December 1975, when Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour played in Montreal, he dedicated the night’s performance of “Isis” to hometown hero Cohen, who was in the audience—and then delivered the definitive rendition of the song, as documented in the 1978 film Renaldo and Clara.

So it isn’t too surprising that when Cohen and Dylan were both on tour in the mid-1980s and found themselves in Paris at the same time, they decided to meet at a café. At this impromptu summit, Dylan expressed his admiration for one of Cohen’s new songs, the largely unknown “Hallelujah.” The discussion that followed has passed into myth among fans of both singers, and the details frequently change in the retellings over the years, but here’s the way Cohen recounted it in an interview with Paul Zollo in 1992:

“Dylan and I were having coffee the day after his concert in Paris a few years ago . . . and he asked me how long it took to write [‘Hallelujah’]. And I told him a couple of years. I lied, actually. It was more than a couple of years.

“Then I praised a song of his, ‘I and I,’ and asked him how long it had taken and he said, ‘Fifteen minutes.’ ”

Although clearly a story told for laughs, playing on the contrast between Cohen’s meticulous, obsessive lyric writing and Dylan’s notorious impatience, there seems to be a good bit of truth to it: Over the years, Cohen has repeatedly described the agony that this one composition gave him. “I filled two notebooks,” he once said, “and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel [in New York], on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song.’ ”

When Old Ideas came out in 2012, Cohen chose not to do interviews to promote the album. Instead, he appeared at a few listening events in major cities before the release date, allowing journalists to hear the album in full and then taking questions for a brief session. In London, the playback was held in the basement of a Mayfair hotel, and Jarvis Cocker, debonair front man of the band Pulp, served as the moderator. These many years later, Cohen was still talking about the torment that “Hallelujah” caused him.

“I wrote ‘Hallelujah’ over the space of at least four years,” he said (elsewhere, he has also said that it was “at least five years”). “I wrote many, many verses. I don’t know if it was eighty, maybe more or a little less.

“The trouble—it’s not the world’s trouble, and it’s a tiny trouble, I don’t want you to think that this is a significant trouble—my tiny trouble is that before I can discard a verse, I have to write it. I have to work on it, and I have to polish it and bring it to as close to finished as I can. It’s only then that I can discard it.”

This doesn’t seem to be an uncommon situation for Cohen. In the one ex

"Thoughtful and illuminating... [Mr. Light] is a fine companion for this journey through one song’s changing fortunes."


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