“Democracy is coming to the USA”, takes one and two

So wrote Leonard Cohen, in 1992. Cohen joked that his songs were long-lived like Volvos, and this classic could hardly be more timely.

So wrote Leonard Cohen. In 1992.



The recording came after four years work and about 50-60 verses (depending on which interview you read):

[America] 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.

In an interview that year, Cohen said:

I began the song about democracy in 1988 and I didn’t get it out until 1992 (…) 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.

Then in 1993, Cohen observed:

I think [democracy] is the religion of the West. It is the real thing that we have going and it’s the American experiment.

About the Berlin Wall

In June 1945, the Allies began occupying Germany, with the eastern part of the country going to the Soviet Union and the western to the United States, Great Britain and France. Although Berlin was located entirely within the Soviet part of the country, it was also split into two parts.

The Berlin wall would not be born until August 1961. That’s when the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) began to build a barbed wire and concrete “bulwark” between East and West Berlin.

Before the wall was built, Berliners on both sides of the city could move around fairly freely: They crossed the East-West border to work, to shop, to go to the theater and the movies. Trains and subway lines carried passengers back and forth. After the wall was built, it became impossible to get from East to West Berlin except through one of three checkpoints… Except under special circumstances, travelers from East and West Berlin were rarely allowed across the border.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 there was euphoria throughout the west. Although East and West Germans were able to freely pass back-and-forth in late 1989, and citizens began tearing down parts of the wall, formal demolition did not began until 1990. And the wall did not finally “come down” until 1992.

However, tearing down a wall is easy compared to integrating the two countries into one democratic union:

In hindsight, the reunification of Germany and the expansion of the European Union were, while formidable outcomes, the easy part.  In most instances the raw materials needed to promote change— institutions, aptitude, and political will—were readily at hand. Not surprisingly, the transition towards more liberal economic and political systems has not been smooth or easy.


A new life as a spoken poem

The song/poem is in the news at the close of 2016: Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman recorded a version of “Democracy” as a fundraiser for PEN America. PEN America, like its sister organizations in PEN International, advocates for and defends the “freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas” while “mak[ing] it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.”


Album: The Future

Democracy is the sixth song on the 1992 Leonard Cohen album The Future, which charted gold, platinum, and double-platinum in Canada.


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 U.S.A.

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 U.S.A.

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 U.S.A.

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 U.S.A.

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 U.S.A.

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 U.S.A.


Featured image from Leonard Cohen Prologues.


By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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