Alan Light is a veteran music journalist having been a critic for Rolling Stone and editor-in-chief at VIBE and Spin and authoring books on Hip-Hop, The Beastie Boys, and Tupac Shakur. In March he released My Cross to Bear with Gregg Allman and next week his new work, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” will be released. Today he takes a few minutes from his busy schedule to talk to us about the book and music journalism.
Music Tomes: What is it about “Hallelujah” that inspired you to examine it so deeply?
Alan Light: As hokey as it sounds, as I recount in the book, I was sitting in Yom Kippur services two years ago – the holiest day of the Jewish calendar – and at a climactic moment, the choir sang “Hallelujah.” And it was clear that everyone knew the song, you could see people weeping and reacting, and it really struck me that this song had attained a very rare status in the world. I started thinking about its history – this was the same year that Justin Timberlake sang it on the “Hope for Haiti” telethon after the earthquake, and kd lang sang it at the Olympic opening ceremonies – and as I went farther and farther back, I realized that this song really had a trajectory unlike any other song I could think of. Other songs that were true modern anthems – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “Imagine” – were embraced right away, whereas “Hallelujah” took about 15 years and a very tangled journey to reach this kind of prominence.
MT: Are their particular challenges to writing about a song as opposed to a single artist?
AL: It’s a different kind of story to tell, and honestly when I started, I wasn’t sure whether there really was a full book in here. But each step of the way, it kept surprising me by opening up more doors, leading down more paths, becoming richer and richer a story the more I looked at it. I guess unlike the history of a single artist, “Hallelujah” was unfolding in multiple directions at the same time, gathering momentum over the years, and allowed for many different perspectives for me to address as a writer.
MT: With the rise of digital self-publishing and blogs, what changes have you seen, both good and bad, in music journalism?
AL: It’s just a very different world. The good and bad are mostly pretty obvious – more access to more music, and the ability for more people to write and be heard, can only be good things. Not necessarily good things for the music business, or the magazine business, or any of the existing media, of course, and so we’re still a long way from seeing this shake out into any kind of sustainable structure. It’s not news that there’s too much sloppy reporting or repurposed press releases passing for journalism on the web, too much emphasis on short bits, and that it’s harder to find more substantive writing with fewer outlets that can pay for it and less space in those outlets. What’s hard for me is giving advice to young, aspiring writers now; I used to know what to tell them (“Find places to write and get published all you can,” basically), but now anyone can find places to write, or create their own, so it’s difficult to tell people how to get noticed or how to cultivate their skills and keep improving their work.
MT: What are you currently working on?
AL: Been a busy year – in addition to this book, I co-wrote Gregg Allman’s memoir, My Cross to Bear, which came out in the spring. So I’m trying to figure out what the next book project might be, while keeping the rest of my work going – I’m the Director of Programming for the PBS concert series “Live from the Artists Den,” and freelancing for various publications. And, of course, my favorite music is listening to my 9-year-old guitar-playing son as much as I can.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
AL: So many – first to mind are Mystery Train by Greil Marcus, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth, Bill Graham’s oral history autobiography, Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis biography, Nowhere to Run by Gerri Hirshey, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang, The Death of Rhythm and Blues by Nelson George, Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald…I could go on and on, because these are the books that have made me want to do what I do for a living.