I’m sentimental, if you know what I meanI 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….
“Democracy” is my favorite Leonard Cohen song, and in a way it’s almost exactly the opposite of “Hallelujah”: the latter is covered by just about everybody, and the former is…well, I don’t know if it’s been covered by anybody else. If so, I don’t want to know about it. I honestly can’t imagine this song sung by anybody else. For me, “Democracy” is perfectly suited to Cohen’s own growl. His performance of this song is…well, let me get back to that. Because it’s a Cohen song, which means we also need to talk about these wonderfully complex and emotional lyrics.
Cohen started writing “Democracy” after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and there’s some impressive lore about the song’s genesis. Cohen apparently wrote at least fifty verses for the song, crossing out this and x-ing out that, in a messy process that finally resulted in the more-than-seven-minute song that arrived on his 1992 album The Future. In an interview later, Cohen said this:
This was when the Berlin Wall came down and everyone was saying democracy is coming to the east. And I was like that gloomy fellow who always turns up at a party to ruin the orgy or something. And I said, “I don’t think it’s going to happen that way. I don’t think this is such a good idea. I think a lot of suffering will be the consequence of this wall coming down.” But then I asked myself, “Where is democracy really coming?” And it was the U.S.A….So while everyone was rejoicing, I thought it wasn’t going to be like that, euphoric, the honeymoon. So it was these world events that occasioned the song. And also the love of America. Because I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song. It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy. (via)
“Democracy” seems to point out a particularly American pathology: our tendency to assume that we’ve got it all figured out and that the rest of the world is trying (and much of the time, failing, sometimes hilariously failing) to catch up to us. Cohen seems to be pointing out that this isn’t the case, and this song–thirty years with us this year–now seems to be partly a prescient warning about the fact that there’s no guarantee when it comes to democracy. Because, by definition, if democracy is coming, then it’s not actually here yet.
Which may have been Cohen’s point all along. In the very first verse he sings this:
From the war against disorderFrom the sirens night and day From the fires of the homeless From the ashes of the gay Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s awfully hard to call our society a “democracy” when all these populations are hardly free, after all.
Cohen’s lyrics also sum up many of the contradictions that lie at the heart of this society of ours. Democracy is coming both “on a visionary flood of alcohol” and “from the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount”; it’s coming…well, here’s an entire verse:
It’s coming to America firstThe 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 USA
We’ve got the best and the worst; we’ve got the “machinery for change” and the “spiritual thirst”, but we’re also where “the family’s broken”. Cohen’s lyrics make clear that America is a giant mess of a place, and yet…democracy is coming.
Lest the lyrics of “Democracy” seem overly chiding–“I love the country but I cannot stand the scene”–there’s an undercurrent of optimism beneath it all. After all, it’s not “Democracy might be coming”, it’s “Democracy is coming.” And it’s not just coming in the large, societal way, but it will also be an intimate thing shared at the closest level:
It’s coming from the women and the menOh 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!”
That verse, right there? That wonderful sexualization of the idea of democracy? That’s why I can’t fathom anybody else singing this song. Cohen’s growling baritone takes on just the perfect mix of erotic joy there; you can see him smiling just enough, and maybe giving a wink of his eye. He’s partly singing to an audience and whispering to a lover in a darkened bedroom.
And for all of that, the song seems also to partly look back to Walt Whitman, with the constant refrain of “Sail on, you mighty ship of state!”
“Democracy” is one of those songs that rewards the more one hears it. While I was preparing this post I listened to it more times than I could count, and now I’m going to listen to it again. And so are you.
Here’s “Democracy” by Leonard Cohen.
Judy Collins (of course) sings it on an album with about a dozen other Cohen songs, some of which she had recorded on other albums. But I won’t link to it.
Hmmmmm. Judy Collins is great, so maybe I should give that album a listen someday…but I may skip her version of “Democracy”!
To the visitor from Newfane, VT: No, don’t think I will. Thanks for stopping by! (Your comments will not be approved, I have already marked them as spam, nobody will see them, and that includes me. Take your stupid little Internet feud elsewhere.)
(Oh, by the way, this person’s IP address is 22.214.171.124.)