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Listening to Leonard Cohen after the election


When I woke up the morning after the election, what popped into my head were some lyrics from the Democracy, written by that greatest of all poets of song, Leonard Cohen

“I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean/I love the country, but I just can’t stand the scene. And I’m neither left nor right/I’m just staying home tonight/getting lost in that hopeless little screen.” I suspected Wednesday morning that many people felt the same way.

Cohen wrote that song for an album called The Future, which came out days after the presidential election in 1992. He was not an overtly political writer, though I was told that there had been some thought of using Democracy, one of Cohen’ most optimistic songs, as the theme for Bill Clinton’s hope-inspiring presidential campaign.

In the end, they used Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow instead, which politically made much more sense. Cohen’s work is more like life than a campaign; brooding, dark, and laced with sardonic wit. After all, Cohen’s song says of democracy itself “It’s coming to America first/the cradle of the best and of the worst.” Politicians, we now know, get in trouble when they hint that some of their fellow citizens are among the deplorables.

Yesterday I went into a restaurant and saw two women wearing Clinton buttons, and crying. I thought sardonically that they probably wanted to stop thinking about tomorrow, and everything they feared it would bring.

And as I left, I listened to the refrain of Cohen’s song: “Sail on, sail on, o mighty ship of state/to the shores of need/past the reefs of greed/though the squalls of hate.

“Sail on, sail on, sail on.” I have heard Cohen perform that song three times in Detroit, and listened to it more than once this year. A few days ago, I thought we might manage to come though those squalls of hate pretty much unscathed. But I was wrong.

Less than three weeks ago, Leonard Cohen’s final studio album arrived, shortly after his 82nd birthday. The critics were near-unanimous that it was among his best. Cohen, again, was not a topical song writer. The closest thing to a political sentiment I ever heard him express was after another election, when he said he wanted to call down many blessings on the new young president and especially on his wife.

Her name then was Hillary Rodham Clinton. And while his new album has nothing to do with politics, some may find its title curiously appropriate: You Want it Darker.

When you listen to its stunning lyrics and lush arrangements, you don’t have to be a psychologist to know that this is a message of farewell from a man who was getting ready to die.

So I wasn’t really surprised when I learned last night that Leonard Cohen had in fact died, apparently yesterday. Nor would I be surprised or disappointed if it turns out he determined the manner of his own death. I have no idea whether he knew about our own political earthquake.

But I’ve been thinking about and listening to the final words of his song: 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.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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