Liel Leibovitz, author of the just published A Broken Hallelujah, may be familiar to ongoing readers from references on this site to his essays on Leonard Cohen published in Tablet magazine where he is a Senior Writer. He also teaches at New York University and is the coauthor of Fortunate Sons, Lili Marlene, and The Chosen Peoples.
Liel Leibovitz Q&A
1. How did you decide to write a book about Leonard Cohen?
When I first listened to Leonard Cohen’s music, I was fourteen and broken. My father had just been arrested for a string of bank robberies, shattering our family’s comfortable upper-middle-class life. Lacking, like all adolescent boys do, the vocabulary to inquire after my emotions and offer their support, my friends stopped by the house and brought me CDs they thought would comfort me. Most were terrible. One was Songs of Leonard Cohen. My English wasn’t good enough then to capture the immensity of his ideas and the beauty of his language—I was born in Israel and lived there until a decade ago—but snippets of songs stuck and gave me immense comfort. Thinking about what it meant to be almost young, or how to avoid reaching for the sky just to surrender, was more than a mere distraction; it was a spiritual awakening, and I remained faithful to Cohen ever since. Three years ago, then, when my friend and colleague Jonathan Rosen suggested I write a book about Cohen, the idea seemed both startling and immediately familiar. A few weeks later, sitting at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto and thumbing through Cohen’s hand-written high school notebooks, letters from Hydra, early stories, and other treasures, I knew that I would now put my own life on hold and slip into the life of another who I’d always admired.
2. How long have you been working on this project?
I started working on this book exactly four years ago this month.
3. Who do you see as the primary audience for A Broken Hallelujah?
While I think Cohen’s dedicated fans—the men and women who read your blog as faithfully as I do—will find the book of particular interest, I hope that its themes will appeal to a larger audience interested in the book’s seminal question, namely what is it about Cohen that propels him, at 80, to ever greater heights while his contemporaries are all either long gone or resigned to sad nostalgia tours. The answer, I think, has to do with Cohen’s spiritual preoccupations: almost alone in American popular culture—a marketplace that rewards audacious dreamers, utopians, and impatient visionaries—Cohen insisted on a spiritual message that was considerably more somber but infinitely more sustainable. While his peers took a lot of drugs and tried—to paraphrase one of them, Jim Morrison, who I discuss at length in the book—to break on through to the other side, Cohen preached a vision of subtle mindfulness, of working hard to be kind to one another, of embracing both the carnal and the divine. I think anyone curious about rock n’ roll and the vast changes it has experienced over the last six decades will find something in the book to like, as would anyone seriously interested in the intersections of religion and popular culture.
4. Would you describe the sort of research you did for this book?
The research I did for this book was threefold. First, I read everything I could find by or about Leonard Cohen. Fortunate enough to have his archive at my disposal, I pored over decades of correspondence, reams of unpublished poems and stories, and scores of journals, trying to capture not so much Cohen’s chronology but his emotional and spiritual preoccupations and his growth as an artist. I also read, watched, and listened to any interview I could get my hands on, although I wish I had the benefit of Jeff Burger’s excellent book [Leonard Cohen On Leonard Cohen by Jeff Burger - see review]. Secondly, I interviewed at length a few of Cohen’s collaborators and friends, from his close childhood companion Morton Rosengarten to his sometime producer John Lissauer, all of whom were extremely helpful in illuminating Cohen’s work. Finally, because my book’s focus is on Cohen’s ideas and their cultural resonance, I immersed myself in the intellectual background that forged his worldview. I read the works of the men who had been his mentors and friends and who had shaped his early writing—Irving Layton, A.M. Klein—and studied everything from the words of the Biblical prophets to the abstractions of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. I hope all three avenues of research inform the book and its insights.
5. A number of books about Leonard Cohen have been published in the past few years and more than a half dozen are scheduled for publication in 2014. How does your book differ from other books about Leonard Cohen?
First of all, let me tell you how happy I am to see so many new books about Cohen coming out. Because I consider him, like I know you do, a major artist, I look forward to the day when I can walk into a bookstore and browse as many books about Leonard Cohen as there currently are about Bob Dylan or the Beatles. As for my own book, it is interested primarily in Cohen’s ideas, particularly the ones informed by his religious and spiritual beliefs, and in the way these ideas—one is tempted to say these old ideas—have shaped so much of contemporary culture.
1. The first line in the Preface of A Broken Hallelujah is “This is not a biography of Leonard Cohen.” You go on to elaborate on that idea, but why is this point so important that you open your book with it?
I think anyone picking up a book with Leonard Cohen’s name and picture on the cover is going to have a reasonable expectation that the book would tell him something about Cohen’s life, and I wanted to make sure such a reader knows right away what kind of trip they’re getting into with A Broken Hallelujah. My book does contain bits of biography, but its main focus, again, is Cohen’s work, the ideas that inspired it, and the affect they’ve had on popular culture. For sheer biography, one can hardly ask for anything better than Sylvie Simmons’s tremendous I’m Your Man [see review].
2. What are the most common and most important fallacies about Leonard Cohen addressed, directly or indirectly, in your book?
I don’t know that I would call it a fallacy, but one misconception I’ve always held, and which my research proved absolutely wrong, was that Cohen, like Dylan, stumbled into his themes and preoccupations as he went along. Reading his unpublished work and his letters, I was amazed to discover a young man who had not only clarity of vision but the courage to pursue it. When he realized poetry was too inadequate a vessel with which to deliver his ideas, Cohen abandoned it, throwing away a successful and lucrative career. When novels failed to capture his range of beliefs, he abandoned them, too, and that despite being compared to James Joyce. From his own rabbi, Federico Garcia Lorca, he learned that the only art worth making was that devoted to the duende, or the deep soul; he was a mere teenager when he made that realization, but for that moment on, he resisted the temptations of technical mastery or earthly rewards or critical praise and went on looking for the one way he could be true to his own passions. He found it the moment he picked up a guitar and started writing songs, and he remained true to it even when the singer’s life took its toll.
3. A major theme in your book is the significance of Leonard Cohen’s Jewish heritage, an issue that has been frequently addressed in the popular press and scholarly articles. How would you summarize the role Cohen’s Jewishness played in the development of his art?
I believe Judaism played an immense part in shaping Cohen’s worldview. Having grown up listening to his grandfather, the rabbi, read passages from the prophets out loud, Cohen, I think, realized his core preoccupations early on. And they are very Jewish preoccupations: one of my book’s set pieces is a description, based on Cohen’s own notes, of a lecture he gave in the Jewish Library in Montreal in 1964. After decrying his community’s obsession with wealth and might, Cohen, sounding every bit like a modern-day Isaiah, makes a distinction between priests and prophets. While the former, he says, are here to serve the status quo and keep us all in check, the latter have no choice but to chase the truth, no matter what form it chooses to take or how wild it may seem. Cohen concludes his talk by saying that his role was to become a prophet, and that it was a duty he could undertake only by going into exile—only the lonely are free to pursue the spirit in its purest form, unencumbered by commitments to family and friends and employers. And a prophet he became, espousing, I believe, a very Jewish worldview. Unlike the Christian messiah, the redeemer by whose grace alone the faithful are delivered from their primal sin, the Jewish messiah is an odd cat: he will only come, the rabbis tell us, once all the Jews are pious and kind to each other; but once all the Jews are pious and kind to each other, we won’t, of course, need the messiah. This is the earthly vision that Leonard Cohen had always advanced, urging his listeners to forget the perfect offering and realize instead that the crack they’re eager to mend is actually how the light gets in. That’s a profoundly Jewish idea.
4. You examine Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre in the context of pop music. How does his music fit in or stand apart from rock & roll cultural history?
It doesn’t fit in at all. And that’s the amazing thing about it. Roughly speaking, the history of rock n’ roll is the history of artists seeking wilder, freer takes at transcendence. We see it in the polite equilibriums of the 1950s giving way to the psychedelic ecstasies of the 1960s, and then to the libidinal thrusts of glam rock and the primitive howling of punk in the 1970s. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that rock is one protracted effort to break free of society’s constraints, applying different artistic sensibilities at each turn. And then there’s Cohen. Much more old religion than new age, he has no illusions about what it is that humans can and cannot do. Our only hope, he realizes, is, as he so beautifully put it, the minor fall and the major lift, namely the realization that human life is as sacred as it is profane, as unbearable as it is precious, as somber as it is joyous. While his contemporaries kept pursuing the rapturous, Cohen offered a much more sober vision. Redemption, he told his listeners, would take much more than merely ingesting some drug and holding someone’s hand and believing in peace and love and happiness. It would take a lot of work, work that’s unglamorous as it is difficult: being kind to each other, being forgiving, learning how to treat love not as a sport or a vice but as the most profound of our undertakings. No measure or faith—in a savior or a rock star or a deity—could get us there quicker; we are the ones who have to learn to redeem ourselves. I think this message, and the unadorned yet gorgeous music that Cohen composed to deliver it, was very hard for most Americans to accept, accustomed as we are to more cheerful and sunny stuff. But after the dust settled on rock n’ roll, after all of its messiahs had died prematurely and all of its lights dimmed out, we noticed that one man’s words resonated more than ever. That, to me, is the magic of Leonard Cohen.
5. You also look at Cohen’s place in Canadian poetry and the influences other Canadian poets had on him – and his impact on other poets. What insight does this perspective offer to Cohen’s poetry and his work in general?
Cohen arrived on the scene when Canadian literature was still very much busy being born, and became one of its most radiant practitioners. I think that in contemplating Canada—a nation struggling, then as now, to come together—Cohen found many of the themes that would later apply to his view of humanity at large. Canada, he said in one interview, “has an experimental side to it. We are free from the blood myth, the soil myth, so we could start over somewhere else. We could purchase a set of uninhabited islands in the Caribbean. Or we could disperse throughout the cosmos and establish a mental Canada in which we communicate through fax machines.” He was joking, but not only: this idea of people eager to find common ground, to create shared mythologies (and compare them, as the title of his first book suggests), and to bridge physical and emotional divides is both deeply Canadian and wholly universal. It’s also the reason why Cohen threatened to punch the Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler when the latter suggested that Canada ought to become a part of the U.S.: to Cohen, giving up your national identity, however precarious, however uncertain, meant giving up the essence of who you were.
6. The Prelude to A Broken Hallelujah comprises a detailed account of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, culminating in Cohen’s appearance there. Why did you choose this opening?
As I was preparing to write the book, I knew I wanted it to begin with a scene that captured all of its themes and its emotions. The Isle of Wight episode couldn’t be more perfect: here, after all, is rock n’ roll literally on fire, with half-a-million hooligans setting the stage ablaze. And here are all of rock’s icons—Morrison, Hendrix, the Who—trying to calm the audience down and discovering that when you’ve spent an entire career being wild, breaking boundaries, and preaching the absolute abandonment of restraints and inhibitions, you’re inevitably going to end up with violence and very bad vibes. And then, as everything’s burning, as people are about to run for their lives, Cohen takes the stage. He’s a decade or so older than all the other performers, and with his unkempt hair and safari jacket he looks more like Jim Morrison’s accountant than his peer. But calmly and courageously, he talks not at the audience—as all the other rock stars had done throughout the festival—but to them. And within minutes, half-a-million rowdy fans sit down, huddle for warmth, and listen. To me, that is the perfect embodiment of Cohen’s gift: he is, as I write in the book, a man whose pores absorb the particles of beauty and grief and truth that float weightlessly all around us yet so few of us note. Back in the day, we called men like him prophets, meaning not that they could foresee the future but that they could better understand the present by seeing one more layer of meaning to life. This is what makes the Isle of Wight festival such a powerful scene, and what still turns every Cohen concert into something very close to a religious awakening for so many fans.
7. A Broken Hallelujah carries two different titles for different markets.
7A. The North American version is “A Broken Hallelujah: Rock ‘n’ Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen.” What does Leonard Cohen have to do with “Redemption” in the US and Canada?
7B. The UK edition is titled “A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord .” What is this “Secret Chord?” Is it something that only Brits can hear?
I love this question, and am greatly intrigued by its premise, but have no way of answering it intelligently. Both subtitles were composed and approved by my respective editors on either end of the Atlantic, and as I cannot even begin to divine their intentions—both are giants from whose wisdom I am fortunate enough to benefit—I can only accept the subtitles as they stand, and trust that us Americans will seize upon redemption while our friends in the UK will indeed hear the secret chord meant just for them.
8. A Broken Hallelujah ends with these lines from Going Home:
I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
Why did you choose these lines as your book’s finale?
It felt right to me to let Cohen have the last word, and “Going Home” struck me as appropriate: having followed him through decades of struggling to write and produce and records songs, to perform them in front of audiences, and to keep up with a music scene that was not always kind to him, we finally get to see Cohen find his stride and win not only earthly rewards but also the calm and confidence that had eluded him his entire life. It took him 80 years, but he finally learned how to live with Leonard Cohen. Hallelujah to that.