Alan Light: Songs of Perseverance and Survival

Alan Light: Songs of Perseverance and Survival
Nenad Georgievski By

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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 Buckley—whose tragic and premature death actually gave its life—and 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 of—the 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 blithely—they 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?

AL: It was very impressive to see how eager all the artists were to talk about the song, even the superstars like Bono or Justin Timberlake or Jon Bon Jovi. And also the singers you might think would have less to say about it, like the American Idol/X Factor contestants. They were all enthusiastic and thoughtful and had different ideas and interpretations, and it certainly kept me interested to hear how many ways into "Hallelujah" there have been.

AAJ: Did your view of the song change over the course of writing the book? What was the most challenging aspect of telling its story?

AL: It changed constantly, but it also solidified. I would hear repeatedly that the lyrics, if you really look at them, aren't necessarily appropriate for a wedding or for a memorial or whatever use came up. But at the heart of the song, at the basic purpose Leonard set out for it, it seems to me that it is ultimately about perseverance and survival in the face of pain and disappointment and the challenges of life. And that central idea seems to absolutely fit all of the different uses and contexts, whatever nuances and alterations the lyrics are given along the way.

AAJ: There are as many interpretations of this song as there are covers to it. What is it that makes it so powerful and popular?

AL: Looking at the song in retrospect, you can break down some of the reasons for its popularity. But I don't think any of that was intentional or can be generalized into lessons for the next writer to come along.

AAJ: What does the song mean to you personally?

AL: I wouldn't say that it's my very favorite of Leonard's songs. That changes all the time, but "Tower of Song" is pretty unbeatable, and "Bird on the Wire" and "Dance Me to the End of Love." Certainly, it's come to mean more and more to me, and my appreciation went deeper and deeper, as I got further into this story and really saw how incredible this journey has been, and tried to think through all the different reasons that it connects the way that it does.

AAJ: Is there a formula for creating a song that would span over generations without losing its appeal (and gaining new audiences along the way)?

AL: No formula. As Jon Bon Jovi says in the book, If Leonard Cohen were trying to write a hit, would the first few lines be an explanation of the chord changes? You can break the song down to its components and see how the one-word hook, the simple melody and the universal strength of the imagery and the different emotions present from verse to verse—and the malleability that's allowed with the lyrics—all contribute to its appeal; but it's not like that's a checklist of things to use if you want to write an anthem.

AAJ: Do you think that years of the song's overuse and overplaying have taken away its impact or significance?

AL: I think we could all probably use a break from the placement of the song in movies and TV dramas. That's the one place where it just seems like it became a cheap shortcut to trigger an emotion, without bringing anything new or thoughtful to the song. But I'm not tired of hearing people sing it, and hearing the different ideas and approaches they bring. Obviously some will always be better than others, but I think it's even clear from the most recent tragedies in the US (the Newtown school shootings, the Boston Marathon bombing) that this is the song people continue to turn to for solace and healing, and will remain so until something else comes along that offers comparable impact.

AAJ: When writing about popular artists and their work that has had so much coverage in the media, how do you find something new to say?

AL: I don't really know how to answer that one. If you don't think there's something new to say, I suppose you don't write about it (or you do so with a sense of the limitations of what you're trying to accomplish). Truth is, I don't think there had been that much coverage of this song—none at all in the beginning, very little during its rise to prominence, and then some complaining about its overuse, but never anything that really tried to tell the full story and examine the reasons for this unprecedented legacy.

AAJ: Every other day there's some graph or blog lamenting the imminent demise of the music industry. On the other hand, the process of making music and publishing has never been easier thus creating a flood of music of Biblical proportions available to people. How can a single song achieve popularity and longevity in these confusing times?

AL: This was really the most gratifying part of this whole effort, really being able to see how a great piece of music ultimately finds its way, and that when people stand at the most important moments and crossroads in their lives (weddings, funerals, religious services, etc), there is something that a song can still do for them emotionally that nothing else can accomplish.

Jeff Buckley—Hallelujah AAJ: What is it about songs or albums by bands and solo artists years after people still by their albums and the demands for their story continues to run high. What is the secret ingredient to their longevity?

AL: There is no secret. If people respond to a song or an artist, it is for a reason. I believe that's true even with the dumbest pop music—it's not a formula that you can create in a lab, because if it were, record companies would never miss, instead of missing 90 percent of the time. There is something that makes people react to one song over another, one performer over another. I guess our job as journalists is to always be trying to determine what that is.

AAJ: The book closely follows the life stories of the main protagonists who wrote and popularized the song, Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley. In popular opinion, Leonard Cohen has a musical stature that far outstrips most of today's other musicians. Why does Cohen still matter as a songwriter?

AL: Because no one else writes songs like he does. Because there is a precision to the words, a mastery of the language that is probably unparalleled in contemporary songwriting. He is certainly a purer poet than Bob Dylan (which is not to say that he's a better songwriter), and his sense of melody is highly under- rated. One version of "Hallelujah" that became very important to me was the instrumental by [ukulele player] Jake Shimabukuro, because it was almost a sort of palate cleanser—when you're thinking about Leonard Cohen, it's so easy to just get caught up in the words, but people hear and experience and react to a song first for its melody and hook and feel, so listening to it without lyrics was a good exercise for me throughout the researching and writing of this thing.

AAJ: The book mentions the biopic movie Greetings from Tim Buckley which just had its premiere. Many people today believe that Jeff Buckley actually wrote the song. Certainly, he is much more important than just for his interpretation of this song. What do you think Buckley's legacy is today?

AL: Jeff Buckley made such a strong impact on the generation of musicians coming up behind him that I think music fans today assume he was a much bigger star than he ever was. But when you have Coldplay, Radiohead, etc. all talking about what a huge influence he was, I guess that's understandable. I think there's something in the scope of his ambition, and the romance of his life and death, that resonate with fans—probably even more than the actual handful of recordings that he left us with.

AAJ: Was Leonard Cohen in some way involved in the making of this book? Was he supportive?

AL: I didn't expect Leonard to talk to me, since he does not do interviews, but he gave the project his blessing and support.

AAJ: Have you had any response to the book from him or Jeff Buckley's estate about the book?

AL: Leonard's manager was very enthusiastic about the book. And I was very happy that both Leonard and Jeff's Facebook pages posted when the book was released, so I'll take that as a vote of confidence.

AAJ: What about the response from readers? What has that been like?

AL: It's been great. And it seems like every single person who has read it that I've spoken to has their own "Hallelujah" story. And that was my experience doing the research—I'd like to pretend that I did all this great, old-school reporting and dug up these personal stories, but the truth is that everywhere I turned, someone had some relationship to this song, some place it turned up in their own lives, and that only reinforced for me that I was on the right trail.

Selected Bibliography

Alan Light, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" (Atria Books, 2012)
Gregg Allman (with Alan Light), My Cross To Bear (William Morrow, 2012)
Alan Light, The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys (Three Rivers, 2006) 1998)
Alan Light, "Vibe" History of Hip Hop (Three Rivers, 1999)

Alan Light (with Quincy Jones), Tupac Amaru Shakur: 1971-1996 (Plexus,

Photo Credits

Page 1: Mary Ellen Matthews

Page 2: Alice White

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