RedemptionPosted: June 7, 2014
This review originally appeared in the Economist, June 7, 2014
A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord. By Leil Leibovitz.Sandstone Press; 256 pages; $25.95 and £14.99.
AT THE age of 29 Leonard Cohen wrote a letter accompanying a collection of poems he was submitting for a young writers’ contest: “I was born in Montreal, September 21, 1934. My passport number is 5-017560. My eyes are hazel.” That Mr Cohen did not mention that he had already won a prize for his earlier writing defines him, Leil Leibovitz argues. All that matters to the singer is his work; and on that alone should he be judged.
“A Broken Hallelujah” opens with a gripping account of Mr Cohen’s appearance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 before jumping back to his Jewish upbringing in 1930s suburban Montreal. Mr Leibovitz explores the influence of poets, such as Federico García Lorca, A.M. Klein and Irving Layton; the impact of Bob Dylan; Mr Cohen’s time on the Greek island of Hydra; significant recording sessions; his touring career; his training as a Buddhist monk; and his triumphant comeback in the late 2000s.
Mr Cohen’s own writings are preoccupied with the search for redemption, “the one theme that, with slight variations, would consume him throughout his career”, Mr Leibovitz writes. This started after his father’s death when Mr Cohen was nine. Mourning one night, he scribbled a few words on a slip of paper. He then took his father’s favourite bow tie, slit the fabric and inserted the note before burying it in his garden. This, Mr Leibovitz argues, began Mr Cohen’s writing career and placed him in the tradition of writers who destroy their work, particularly Kafka. Mr Cohen would later remark: “I’ve been digging in the garden for years, looking for it. Maybe that’s all I’m doing, looking for the note.”
Mr Cohen’s search for redemption led him to Mount Baldy monastery, where he trained as a Rinzai Buddhist monk. But, Mr Leibovitz writes, “All that meditation hadn’t freed Cohen of his acute depression, an affliction with which he had wrestled all his life.” The only thing that would alleviate this was his work.