Democracy (1992 - 1993)

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.

Leonard Cohen, Interview, 1992

These are the final days, this is the darkness, this is the flood. What is the appropriate behaviour in a catastrophy, in a flood? You know, while you're cleaning out your orange crate in the torrent and you pass somebody else hanging on to a spar of wood. What do you declare yourself ? "left wing" "right wing" "pro-abortion" "against abortion"?? All these things are luxuries which you can no longer afford. What is the proper behaviour in a flood?

Most of the time you cannot speak. Most of the time you cannot sing. Most of the time you don't have the words. Once in a while a word comes to you, "Democracy is Coming to the USA," one of my new songs. You may say "What are you trying to say, that the USA is not a democratic society now? Is it a criticism of the U.S., is it a dream, is it an optimistic projection? Is it a protest or an affirmation?" It doesn't matter because the times when something comes to you so strongly are so rare and precious that you accept them: "Democracy is Coming to the USA." It's as if someone holds out a sandwich to you when you are starved. You take it and maybe you don't like it. I don't particularly like "Democracy is Coming to the USA."

* Read the complete interview


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.

spoken additional verse

From the church where the outcasts can hide from the Masque
Where the blood is dignified
Like the fingers on your hand, like an hourglass of sand
We can separate but not divide
And I know your baby's missing, but we sited her today
She was cleaning her machine-gun, she was waving her beret

Democracy is coming to the USA

spoken additional verse

It ain't comin' to us European-style,
Concentration camp behind the smile;
It ain't comin' from the east
With its temporary feast
As Count Dracula comes strolling down the aisle.
And I know your baby's missing, but we sited her today
She was cleaning her machine-gun, she was waving her beret
Democracy is coming to the USA

Spoken additional verse

First we killed the Lord,then we stole the Blues
This guttered people always in the news
But who really gets to laugh behind the Black man's back
When he makes his little crack about the Jews?
Who really gets to profit?And who really gets to pay?
Who gets to ride the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?

Democracy is coming to the USA

Well it also came at this time when the world was so deeply involved in these hopes of a new order of a world of peace, of a decent world. Well that's always such a crazy idea and I always react to it rather violently. When I was presented in the 60's, I remember writing "Welcome to the book of exiles, you lucky son of a bitch". Well I had to contend with all the flabby liars of the Aquarian Age. I have always been deeply resentful of these paradise ideas, that ignore our myth, our central myth of expulsion from Paradise. So while Eastern Europe was liberating itself, and the Wall was coming down, and the Russian honeymoon was taking place, I said to myself "Is democracy really coming to the East ?". And I had to answer truthfully "No, I don't think it is !" And then I had to ask myself "Where is Democracy coming ? What is Democracy ?" It's a kind of religion of the West and like a great religion it affirms other religions and like a great Culture affirms other Cultures, that's what's behind it, some notion that there really is an equality of human enterprise. So I further asked myself, "Where is it? Where is democracy really happening ?" and that's when I came upon the line "Democracy is coming to the USA" which of course has an irony "What do you mean to say, that it's not there already ?" Well no. It isn't really there already, it isn't anywhere already, it is the ideal, it is the fate. But if it's coming any place, 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. And I feel that about America . I feel that it is the great laboratory of Democracy. And over there I've been….. I'm not American so I can speak about it with a certain objectivity . I'm not trying to just be a pro-American or some kind of apologist. They've been dealing with problems over there that Europe is beginning to confront now, the problem of alien population, the problem of Race, the real confrontations that used to make European intellectuals raise an eyebrow a few years ago but you're in it now, you're in the same deal and we're all in the same boat and I think that everybody can summon a blessing for that experiment that's going on over there, the great American experiment in Democracy.

I've got about sixty (verses). There are about three or four parallel songs in the material that I've got. I saw that the song could develop in about three or four different ways and there actually exist about three or four versions of "Democracy." The one I chose seemed to be the one that I could sing at that moment. I addressed almost everything that was going on in America. 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. But I had verses:

It ain't coming to us European style
Concentration camp behind a smile
It ain't coming from the east
With its temporary feast
As Count Dracula comes strolling down the aisle...


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. So I wanted to have that feeling in the song too. But I treated the relationship between the blacks and the Jews. For instance, I had:

First we killed the Lord and then we stole the blues
This gutter people always in the news
But who really gets to laugh behind the black man's back
When he makes his little crack about the Jews?
Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay?
Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


...verses like that.

interviewer : Why did you take that out?

I didn't want to compromise the anthemic, hymn-like quality. I didn't want it to get too punchy. I didn't want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense. There were a lot of verses like that, and this was long before the riots. There was:

From the church where the outcasts can hide
Or the mosque where the blood is dignified
Like the fingers on your hand
Like the hourglass of sand
We can separate but not divide
From the eye above the pyramid
And the dollar's cruel display
From the law behind the law
Behind the law we still obey
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.


There were a lot of verses like that. Good ones.

* Read the complete Interview

There are about 5 or 8 notebooks filled with verses for "Democracy". It took a long time to write the song. I started around 89 when the Berlin Wall came down. That's what really occasioned it 'cause I asked myself "Is democracy really coming to the East, to the Soviet Union, to Hungary, to Romania ?" I was very doubtful that democracy as we…. I think it is the religion of the West. It is the real thing that we have going and it's the American experiment. That version of it is the most vibrant you know, screwed up as things are. This is the place where they're confronting the problems that they're just beginning to look at in Europe now : racism, real confrontations.

Few years ago when the Berlin Wall came down there was a general sense of rejoicing throughout the world. I've been of course a gloomy chap and the sole exception. In those days there were slogans you know "Democracy is coming to the East, is coming to the Soviet Union, is coming to Hungary, Poland". And I thought to myself "that doesn't seem right, something doesn't ring true in this rejoicing", and among the many many verses that I wrote in the song you're about to hear, I asked myself that question: "Where is democracy coming ?" and country after country dissolved as an answer and there really only was one answer, that was "Democracy is coming to the USA".

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