A broken Hallelujah

Liel Leibovitz, Sandstone Press; 256 pages, $25.95

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 Cohen did not mention that he'd already won a prize for his earlier writing defines him, Liel Leibovitz argues. All that matters to the singer is his work; and on that alone should he be judged.

"A Broken Hallelujah : Leonard Cohen's Secret Chord" opens with a gripping account of Cohen's appearance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 before jumping back to his Jewish upbringing in 1930s suburban Montreal. Leibovitz explores the influence of poets, such as Federico García Lorca, A.M. Klein and Irving Layton; the impact of Bob Dylan; 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.

Cohen's own writings are preoccupied with the search for redemption, "the one theme that, with slight variations, would consume him throughout his career," Leibovitz writes. This started after his father's death when Cohen was 9. Mourning one night, he scribbled a few words on a slip of paper. He then took his father's favorite bow tie, slit the fabric and inserted the note before burying it in his garden. This, Leibovitz argues, began Cohen's writing career and placed him in the tradition of writers who destroy their work. Cohen later said: "I've been digging in the garden for years, looking for it. Maybe that's all I'm doing, looking for the note."