Leonard Cohen Wants to Take You on a Trip
Reading the lyrics of “Democracy” before playing the song, it is impossible not to be struck by Cohen’s still-developing talent as a writer — each word and line is perfectly weighted to give a momentum independent of any melody or arrangement, each image makes its point with astonishing precision. “You’ve no idea how that is music to my ears,” says Cohen of the observation.
“I don’t do anything else — this is the front line for me. I try and keep my human associations going, but this is my pledge and my consecration. And though it’s not necessary to talk about it in such high-falutin’ terms, it’s all that’s going on for me. I’m a miniaturist. I’m trying to do what the microchip has done — find a form in which deep experience can be manifested with brevity, so that a six-minute song can have the qualities of a novel, can really take you on a trip. And I think I’m on the edge of doing it.”
Leonard Cohen in an interview with Alan Jackson about his album The Future from “Growing Old Passionately,” Observer, November 22, 1992.
Leonard Cohen’s Reflections on His Music…Part 5
TOWER OF SONG
Definitive late Cohen: a mission statement, a song about songwriting and ageing (I ache in the places where I used to play), set to a regally understated backing.
I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing, all night long
A hundred floors above me, in the tower of song
Cohen: “I guess it expresses the predicament of the songwriter in his middle fifties living in Los Angeles, at he end of a long tradition. It was done on a very early version of the Technics synthesiser, the cha-cha setting. Jennifer Warnes’s vocal really brought it to life.
“I do like the line about Hank Williams. He was the kind of songwriter I always wanted to be and wasn’t; he wrote great songs in half an hour. Something I never reached was a deep simplicity, a simple emotion clearly and magically presented.”
Cohen marches to a different drum: a state-of-the-union address (Democracy is coming…to the USA) set to a thumping military beat.
I’m neither left nor right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that stupid little screen
Cohen: “That was begun in Montreal and interrupted when my son had a serious automobile accident. He’s OK now, he’s walking and dancing… I had about 50 verses, so then I had to decide what kind of song to make. I’m kind of happy with it, especially the last verse [above].
“It’s hard to find what the real politics of the thing are. I wanted it to transcend a political stance. There was a right-wing talk-show host who used it as his theme, so he saw it as very much pro-American democracy. It was used by Ralph Nader in his presidential campaign tune, representing a critique of American democracy. Don Henley sang it at one of the parties for Bill Clinton’s inauguration, so he saw in it some promise of American democracy.
“Some people have suggested that it’s prophetic. It’s hard to get behind that, to wear that mantle. But when you’re writing, your antennae go up, and you’re sensitive to nuances in the air. I wrote it before the riots, or the uprising as some people call it.”
Leonard Cohen quoted by Tim de Lisle in “A Light-Hearted Apocalypse,” Independent on Sunday, 12 October 1997.
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 G-d in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. From the song “Democracy” from The Future by Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen Explains Democracy
I think the song transcends the obvious irony of the hook, democracy is coming to the U.S.A. ‘What do you mean, there isn’t any democracy there?’ Well, there isn’t any democracy anywhere. America is as good an experiment in democracy as there is any place. Europeans used to look, until very recently, very skeptically on America, a very ironic take on America, a very superior take, I might say, about America. America has been dealing over the past century with problems that the northern European industrial democracy is just starting to confront, the conflict of races, the conflict of cultures. In America the confrontation of men and women is there, the confrontation of sexual orientation, gay against straight, is there. There are all kinds of intense and urgent confrontations that are being faced up to in America that are just at the start of being recognized in Europe. The laboratory of democracy that America really is deserves our good will, our affirmations and our blessings and I think the song gets to that place. But it gets to that place in the style of a big city. A big city is not a Sunday school, people are not continually going around affirming the divinity of man and the divine spark in all human beings and the sanctity of the individual. It’s a little more cynical than that. It has the style of big city speech. But it says that it’s not coming from above, it’s not being imposed, it’s not the domain of a particular administration or ideology. This faith we call democracy, that this new faith we call democracy has a chance in America and it’s coming from unexpected places, through a crack in the wall, through a hole in the air, imperial, mysterious, in amorous array.
Leonard Cohen in a 1993 interview with David Fanning on “The D-Files,” an Irish radio program.
You can listen to the entire audio interview here.