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Leonard Cohen: "The Other Side of Waiting"
The legendary singer-songwriter-poet, in a 1994 interview.
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?
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
have chosen to live in L.A.
What does the future feel like there?
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.
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
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.
you see yourself as having a kind of prophetic voice, or is that just
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.