Leonard Cohen’s ‘Democracy’ Has To Be The Soundtrack Of These Past Few Months

Written by | November 6, 2020 0:35 am | No Comments

Democracy by Leonard Cohen has to be the soundtrack

Black Lives Matter protests a few months ago


These past days the anxiety was high, and it’s still high for so many reasons, but there is a sort of relief watching these blue numbers slowly growing in several states because democracy in the balance. Anxiety is high because of the armed protesters in front of the ballot counting places, the threats of lawsuits by the president, the warnings to stop the counts, and the feeling that America’s democracy is hanging by a thread. These past few months have been at the image of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Democracy,’ days and weeks have been filled with hope and irony at the same time, we have become fully aware of America’s sins but eager to save her at the same time, while chaos took the streets and may continue soon.

Leonard Cohen died on November 7, 2016, just a few days after Trump became the 45th president of the United States, so it makes complete sense to think about one of Cohen’s songs at a moment when Trump’s presidency may well reach an end.

‘Democracy’ is a beauty, one of Cohen’s uplifting and dark tunes that starts with military drums and rises like a fist-in-the-air anthem. Cohen’s deep spoken voice conveys rich imagery, while harmonies and a harmonica bring some softness, but it’s definitively the type of song carrying the freedom flag at the head of an army on the march to liberate an entire country.

The song matches our current climate in an extraordinary manner, bringing together the world’s continuous struggles, and a strong feeling of hope, ‘Democracy is coming to the U.S.A,’ while acknowledging America’s bloody crimes and dark past. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Democracy’ has to be the soundtrack of these past few months.

Last month, there was a fire in a homeless camp in Venice, and my nights have been haunted by the sirens of COVID ambulances along with the howling of wild coyotes, ‘From the sirens night and day/From the fires of the homeless,’ sings Cohen. The summer of 2020 will be forever remembered for its many Black Lives Matter protests, the numerous violent clashes with law enforcement, the burning police cars, the riots and looting echoing Cohen’s lines: ‘those nights in Tiananmen Square,’ ‘the sorrow in the street’…

Do we have a real democracy when one of the candidates has a significant lead in the popular vote, but we still need to debate for days who is winning? Do we have a real democracy when it looks like a chess game with a never-ending counting game? Do we have a democracy when the losing president tries to stop the countings or encourages a civil war? The irony of the song precisely lies in the line ‘Democracy is coming to the U.S.A’ since America has always proclaimed itself to be the greatest democracy on earth… ‘This is what democracy looks like’ was the chant of the BLM protests this entire summer, but they still received tear gas and rubber bullets, and they still got arrested by hundreds. This summer, the streets became the place for a battle for democracy, a shared place by a rainbow-colored crowd fighting to be heard, storming against the greatest sins of our society, greed of course, but especially hate and prejudice. All summer-long, people were restless, tireless, and fully determined, nobody slept this summer, the nights were disturbed by constant fireworks and fights in the streets…‘Past the reefs of greed/Through the squalls of hate…’

In the middle of a deadly pandemic, we became fully aware of our cruel, wounded, and unjust past, as we have been many times before, a past still living in our present. People wanted to shake it off with an indefatigable enthusiasm for reforms, ‘And the machinery for change/And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst’ … ‘It’s coming from the women and the men’ … However, amid the confusion of this last season, it was easy to get mad at people looting the stores, spoiling the dream and destroying the hope for change. It’s was easy to give up, ‘I love the country but I can’t stand the scene/And I’m neither left or right/I’m just staying home tonight.’ Every line in this song echoes the summer/fall of 2020.

Last Tuesday, we were hoping for a blue wave, ‘It’s coming like the tidal flood,’ but people are now saying it didn’t come. I would say it may have been there, there was a record of ballots,  but it did battle another wave coming from the other side, America, so divided, America ‘The cradle of the best and of the worst.’

The song ‘Democracy’ was released in 1992, and is featured on Cohen’s album ‘The Future.’ 1992 was also an election year in the US, Bill Clinton defeated incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush, and Cohen said this during an interview at the time of the release of the album: ‘I began the song about democracy in 1988 and I didn’t get it out until 1992. Well by the time I got it out, the song was co-opted as a tool for the Democratic party. It was played on radio stations the week of the election. And it seemed to fit in with the president-elect’s program. But hopefully my songs, which last as long as Volvos – that’s 30 years. Hopefully, my song will outlast this administration. (..) I have about 50 verses of Democracy that I discarded. It examined many many themes. It was occasioned by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is a song where there’s no inside and no outside. This is just the life of the democracy. It isn’t imposed from above. It isn’t connected to a Democratic victory or a Republican victory. It’s coming through a hole in the wall, it’s coming through a crack, it’s coming imperial, mysterious in amorous array. It is the religion of the West. It’s just starting. We had this idea of democracy was going to be when the masses will quote Shakespeare and listen to Mozart. But that was popular while the … we know that one’s not going to happen. It is the beginning of a culture, a great culture, because it will affirm other cultures, and a great religion because it affirms other religions. It is part of the appetite for fraternity and for equality that we have that has been animated in our hearts by the whole experiment. But we’re just at the beginning, we’re just at the edge of it.’

If the song was inspired by the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it also embraces America’s current history in all its contradictions and broken dreams. It’s the vision of a critical eye from a Canadian outsider, Cohen is having a dream of democracy, in America. Tonight ‘It’s coming through a crack in the wall,’ a tiny crack, but we have to wait, there is hope tonight, hope for democracy.

‘Democracy’ by Leonard Cohen:
It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That it ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the war against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A

It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of state!
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on…

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A

It’s coming from the women and the men
Oh baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen!
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of state!
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on…

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
That time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
This little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A


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