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Leonard Cohen: "The Other Side of Waiting"

The legendary singer-songwriter-poet, in a 1994 interview.

Cindy Bisaillon:  A song like
"First We Take Manhattan" has a kind of hard-edged, almost a subversive sound. Do you think of yourself as subversive in some way? 

Leonard Cohen: I think that any startling piece of work has a subversive element in it, and that’s a delicious element often. Subversion is only disagreeable when it manifests in political or social activity. In what we call art, it’s one of the most desirable characteristics. It pulls the rug out from under your feet, and you experience a kind of groundlessness, which I always find is a very agreeable experience, as long as it isn’t in the streets or in society. So in that sense, yeah.

In "Everybody Knows," there is a line that I found deeply moving, “Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton, for our buttons and our bows,” which seems to be a fairly heavy indictment of capitalism.

Well, whatever grip capitalism has on its constituents , it seems to be a more benign grip than any of the other systems that people have thought out. So I would resist, although not with a tremendous amount of interest in the matter, having it serve an anti-capitalist program.

I think that a good song exists in very modest terms and also in Himalayan terms. I mean, it’s a thing to get you through the dishes. It provides a sound-track for your courting and for your solitude. That’s the modest element. Then there is an element in song which provides deep comfort and deep solace and stimulation for the imagination and courage. You can’t use it for something as deliberate as a program. It could be, but it falls away. A good song slips away from its dogma.

Like any good piece of art.

Or conversation or action. Whenever something is too partisan or too specifically attached to a gesture or a position or an ideology, somehow the other element is diminished, that element of encouragement, or sustenance, or consolation.

Okay, so how do you explain a song like "Democracy"?

Well, you would be very hard press to discover either the nationality or the political position of that song, because it is a song that dissolves its position. Even the irony of the hook, “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.,” even that irony is dissolved by the conviction and the passion of the song.

So you admit to an irony…you’re not singing with absolute conviction?

It is an irony that is dissolved, that is transcended. But I have no reason to defend one element or another, because it has to work on a more mysterious and a more urgent dimension.

But do you believe that, do you believe that democracy is coming?

Well, my feeling is that democracy is the religion of the West, perhaps the greatest religion the West has produced, because it affirms other religions. Most religions have a lot of trouble affirming other religions. A great religion affirms other religions, and a great culture affirms other cultures.

Democracy is a faith and an ideal, and I think it is the greatest expression of our western experience. It can be set against anything that any other area of the world has presented, either religion or mysticism or anything else. This notion that there is this fraternity of men and women is a very, very high idea.

I think, as Chesterton said about religion, that it’s a great idea—too bad nobody has tried it. It’s the same with democracy: it’s just starting to manifest now. I ay in the song that it’s coming like the tidal flood beneath the lunar sway, imperial, mysterious, in amorous array, democracy is coming to the U.S.A. So it involves a deep, deep appetite that cannot be denied , and in that sense, one can be hopeful, although there is a sense of menace. The tidal flood is there, and it is overwhelming and extinguishing many of the landmarks and lights that one depended on that seemed to be indications of what we thought democracy or civilization were.

The Future is pretty heavy going, pretty apocalyptic stuff.

There’s a couple of good laughs in it too. If it were just nailed to the church door as a mnifesto, it would be pretty heavy and menacing, but it’s married to a hot little dance track. So the words dissolve into the music, and the music dissolves into the words, and a refreshment is produced, a kind of oxygen.

You have chosen to live in L.A. What does the future feel like there?

At a certain point, democracy was “The masses are going to learn Shakespeare, the masses are going to love Bach. We are going to teach everybody about our culture.” And I’m not sure that wasn’t a good idea, since I come from that proud elite which has, with a certain amount of difficulty and diligence, kept a certain flame lit from century to century, not a small achievement.

But regardless of the good intentions, democracy is just starting to be felt, the will of the people is just starting to be felt. It’s very frightening and it provokes a real critique of democracy: Is it really a good idea, is this what they really mean? You mean there are going to be people roaming around armed and dangerous?

In Los Angeles you do have the feeling of the end of things as we knew them. You definitely have the feeling that some lever has been thrown in the cosmos and nothing is really going to be the same as it was. The confrontation s are very, very tangible. Not apocalyptic. You have earthquakes and you have real expressions of social disorder, so you get the sense that this is the end of a chapter. There is a great deal of goodwill also, which indicates that a new chapter can be written and the book can be saved. But there are also indications that the whole thing is going down.

Do you see yourself as having a kind of prophetic voice, or is that just embarrassing?

Prophetic is a heavy word and of course will embarrass anybody who claims to have that quality. But just on the level of forecast, rather than prophecy, a lot of the things I’ve been talking about have unfolded in a certain way that some readers might claim—it would be a very modest claim—to prophecy. It’s more like reading, like a deep reading of things and events, rather than a gift. For instance, a song like The Gypsy Wife: I remember when I sang that song for people in ’75, ’76. People were saying, “What’s your beef? What final landscape? What are you talking about?” Well, the eyebrows don’t go up quite so high now when I talk about these are the final days, this is the darkness, this is the flood.

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