[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

September 2007

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 this ain't exactly real,
or it's real, but it ain't exactly there.
From the wars 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 USA

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 USA

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 USA

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, 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 USA

It's coming from the women and the men.
O 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 USA

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 USA

Through a Hole in the Air: "Democracy" by Leonard Cohen

From his first LP in 1968 with the stunning "Suzanne" and others covered by well-known singers, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has moved listeners and wielded enormous influence. Cohen combines clarity with mystery, like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, David Byrne, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and other geniuses of song. He’s also a successful novelist and poet. No superficial popularity seeker, he’s brought melody, lyricism, depth, and sometimes-frightening precision to universal topics like love, sex, eroticism, the human soul, war, mercy, even what it’s like to be a martyr -- Joan of Arc, not a spurned teenage lover.

The Future, released in 1992, is a peak Leonard Cohen album. Far beyond early material that made him an icon of rainy-Sunday-morning self-contemplation, the title song and a few others on The Future rock as well as anything since Professor Longhair. The others also have rich, inventive backup. And the songs are long, ambitious, and consistently superlative. "Democracy" stands out as a meditation on the sociopolitical nature of our country. Like some of Bob Dylan’s and Joni Mitchell’s songs, Paul Simon’s "America" and "American Tune," David Byrne’s "The Big Country" and "Don’t Worry About the Government," Bruce Springsteen’s "Youngstown" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad," and others, "Democracy" reveals a unique, specific vision of this mysterious land that can only be fully articulated through the song’s particular configuration of detail and form.

"Democracy" opens with a few marching-drum measures reminiscent of the American Revolution -- dr-r-r-ra pa-pa-pa, dr-r-r-a pa-pa, dr-r-r-ra pa-pa-pa -- then settles into a soft-rock beat that begins to sound like a locomotive engine or other machinery building momentum. Reading the lyrics, you can see how these rhythms are consistent with the song’s main themes.

Don’t we already have democracy?

There would be no point to ending each verse "Democracy is coming to the USA" were it not to urge the listener to consider that democracy might not yet exist. The song at times sounds like a prayer for democracy. Ambiguity about what is and isn’t ironic makes the song especially intriguing. Much public discourse assumes we already have democracy. How else can we spread it around the world, as is so often claimed? If we don’t already have it, that possibility and many details suggest the listener might need to play a part -- or might already be playing a part -- in bringing democracy to the USA.

Of particular interest about democracy’s many venues according to the song is that they don’t include government, any part of it, or anyone in it, including the military, or any laws, regulations, or policies, neither the Constitution nor its Bill of Rights. The means by which democracy is coming to the USA are nearly all human acts and interactions unrelated to the civics-class version of democracy. The one deliberate, organized effort for democracy the song says is bringing democracy to the USA? "[T]hose nights in Tiananmen Square" -- events in the People’s Republic of China!

What’s going on here? Didn’t we get democracy from the War of Independence and the Constitution? Didn’t we expand it with emancipation of the slaves, women’s suffrage, popular election of senators? And isn’t China a communist dictatorship morphing into a capitalist dictatorship, with a one-party system, no free speech, no rights? Yet we’re supposed to think democracy "is coming to the USA" from there?!

The song doesn’t say the Chinese government or political system is a model for the United States. "[T]hose nights in Tiananmen Square" refers to pro-democracy demonstrations by a large number of young people at China’s Tiananmen Square. Replicas of the Statue of Liberty were displayed. Millions and millions of people in the US and throughout the world watched footage of the demonstrations on television. Particularly heroic and immediately famous worldwide was one young man who stood alone, unarmed, in front of a military tank, causing it to stop.

The singer’s persona is "neither left or right / …just staying home tonight, / getting lost in that hopeless little screen" (last verse). Several of the song’s details refer to things known through television. Since what is televised is "on the air," one of the multiple meanings of "It’s coming through a hole in the air,/ from those nights in Tiananmen Square," is that even if the screen is "hopeless" and "little," TV provides images of people standing up for democracy. Comparing his stubbornness to "those garbage bags that time cannot decay" -- known from TV -- the singer says he might be disposable and merely a consumer to the mass media and its advertisers, but his humanity will defeat efforts to oppress him or to distract him with programming and advertisements. He stands up to television as the Chinese student stood up to the tank.

An autonomous force

"Democracy is coming to the USA" suggests that democracy is a force in its own right. No one in particular is said to be bringing democracy -- it somehow is just coming. The marching-drum beat that opens the song and occasionally returns is one beat democracy marches to. The engine sound is another -- suggesting "the range / and the machinery for change" through which democracy is "coming to America first" in verse four. The War of Independence might have initiated the process, a couple of centuries have passed, the process isn’t completed, an organized effort like the original War is lacking, but democracy keeps advancing through dynamics that started generations back.

Democracy is traveling from elusive spheres and from a wide variety of human sources, motives, and ideas -- "through a hole in the air, / … From the wars against disorder / … through a crack in the wall / on a visionary flood of alcohol …the Sermon on the Mount … the silence / on the dock of the bay, / from the brave, the bold, the battered / heart of Chevrolet … from the sorrow on the street … the homicidal bitchin’ / that goes on in every kitchen … 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…."

Could democracy be coming despite what we do as much as because of what we do? Or because of things we do because we are at liberty to do them under a system that enables democracy to advance, even though we don’t do them specifically to advance democracy? Quite a few things democracy is attributed to here don’t sound like ways of promoting democracy: "sirens night and day," "the fires of the homeless," "the battered / heart of Chevrolet," "homicidal bitchin’ / that goes on in every kitchen," the fact that "the family’s broken" -- to mention a few.

The concept of rights Jefferson, Paine, and some of the other Founding Fathers promoted included what we call "free enterprise" today, but being able to invent "Chevrolet" and "garbage bags that time cannot decay" was not the main purpose. It was to enable each individual human being to fulfill his or her (mostly his, originally) potential through reason -- not mere self-serving rational calculation but a melding of emotion, spirit, and logic in pursuit of enlightened self-interest -- self-interest that served the public interest and the common good for the long term. Key Founders believed in humans’ deeply flawed nature and ultimate perfectibility through reason, but not without struggle and mistakes. At one level, "Democracy" appears to portray a society made up of people exercising their liberty, suffering from their mistakes, misled and misguided at times, and ultimately prevailing through an eternal stubbornness at humanity’s core.

Democracy not really coming?

On another level, the song contains so much irony and double entendre that it is hard to avoid the possibility that "Democracy is coming to the USA" is sarcastic: Democracy really isn’t coming to the USA. America is a failed experiment -- we’ve blown it. Consistent with this interpretation is how many of the means by which the song says democracy is coming are undercut by their negative or selfish aspects.

Where it invokes the Sermon on the Mount -- referring to democracy’s being informed by Christian messages of compassion and justice -- the song says democracy is coming "from a staggering account of" the Sermon immediately after "It’s coming through a crack in the wall; / on a visionary flood of alcohol." Democracy is coming to the USA through people who can’t walk straight and who drunkenly, incoherently spew words about the Sermon?!

On the one hand it appears to say Christianity is taught by hypocrites to people unsuited to its teachings -- they’re drunk, their families are broken, they’re taken with slogans and amusements, not serious matters like democracy. On the other hand, there’s no escaping the incantation "Democracy is coming to the USA" -- it might not be sarcastic -- or that America is "the cradle of the best and of the worst." Liberty enables us to do bad as well as good, wrong as well as right. So, despite, or even because of, hypocrisy and evil, democracy is coming. It couldn’t come absent liberty, and human nature is such that liberty means there will be at least two sides to every coin.

What about the government?

As mentioned before, everything enabling democracy to come to the USA is at the level of individual humans, their desires, needs, perceptions, delusions, weaknesses and strengths. The only mention of the government or the Constitutional system, typically thought of as embodying democracy, is in the bridge, sung after the third and the fifth of the song’s six verses:

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 …

The capitalization indicates we should think of the "Ship of State" as the name of an actual ship, not just as the common metaphor it plays on, and that "the Shores of Need," "the Reefs of Greed," and "the Squalls of Hate" are names of actual places and in the case of "Squalls," specific named gusts of wind like hurricanes, but less destructive.

What is this all about? Well, the Ship of State is "mighty." Yet it is being exhorted to "sail on." That means it depends on winds for its direction. This is consistent with how the US government is designed and structured -- to have authority but not to dominate, to uphold the Constitution and its Bill of Rights and other amendments but to allow representatives of the people, an executive with little power, and a court system based on the rule of law, not of individual persons seeking to tyrannize. The winds of public opinion, shifts in values and priorities -- these are to direct the government, but without violating the Constitution’s provisions or individuals’ basic rights as outlined in the Constitution’s amendments.

To provide for the general welfare, as the Constitution’s Preamble says, the Ship of State must sometimes have to go "[t]o the Shores of Need." To prevent a plutocracy from dominating the entire society and violating people’s rights, the Ship of State must avoid getting stranded on "the Reefs of Greed" -- avoid governing based on bribery and undue influence of powerful special interests. To protect people against harm due to bigotry or racial or other prejudice -- failures of reason and conscience -- the Ship of State must sometimes have to navigate "the Squalls of Hate."

These all seem to me to be very precise uses of words carefully chosen to portray how the government must operate and refrain from operating if democracy is going to come to the USA through its people exercising their liberty and manifesting their vices and virtues.

One individual person’s offering

Where the singer compares himself to "those garbage bags …" in the last verse, he goes on to say "I’m junk but I’m still holding up / this little wild bouquet." I think the "bouquet" is the song itself -- "little" in its lack of capacity to advance democracy or to affect anything beyond the small part of the human mind any one song can occupy, wild in its spontaneity, its occurring naturally from one person’s heart, soul, mind, and experience, not being hybridized -- bred or dictated by others: one more illustration of the statement "Democracy is coming to the USA" -- hence the colon after "bouquet" leading to the final repetition of that line.

"Holding up" is more effective than other possible phrases for offering a bouquet would be. Coming after "I’m junk but I’m still…," it sounds at first like the end of a clause or sentence -- "I’m junk, but I’m still holding up" -- enduring. And since the bouquet is the song’s main assertion -- "Democracy is coming to the USA" -- and hence the song itself -- he is not merely offering the bouquet; he’s holding up -- upholding -- the belief or faith that democracy is in fact coming despite so many reasons to doubt it.

That’s why the verse begins "I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean: / I love the country but I can’t stand the scene." He sees America’s horrors -- "sirens night and day," people without homes, gay bashing (the song leaves out quite a few) -- but he understands its founding vision and has faith that it remains a guiding force and can possibly prevail.

Flowers only last so long

Born and raised in Canada, Cohen, like many other superb writers and thinkers, is perhaps better able than many Americans to observe an overall movement toward democracy through what look like its defeats or failures. Perhaps he’s also warning us that faith in the system alone won’t suffice. This superb song is nevertheless merely a bouquet -- a bunch of cut flowers. Seen and smelled by few and soon wilted and thrown out, a bouquet is a temporary gift without lasting impact. I think "Democracy" has staying power, or I wouldn’t write about it for this column. But like most of Cohen’s material -- and other writers’ sophisticated songs -- it is known only to a small percentage of Americans and is just one of millions of songs most Americans can choose from any time they wish to hear a song. There is much reason to believe its message will be little noticed -- like a bouquet of flowers -- and little heeded.

But Democracy’s coming to the USA doesn’t, according to the song, depend on people’s hearing or knowing or fully understanding the song. It depends on people’s continuing to exercise their liberty and to manage their Ship of State’s sails well despite many negative influences and human shortcomings.

It depends, perhaps, on our writing and reading about audio equipment, music CDs, DVDs, and details of particular songs -- and countless other bouquets our fellow human beings hold up.

...David J. Cantor

[SoundStage!]All Contents
Copyright 2007 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved