Image: Rama (Creative Commons)

15/11/2016, by CLAS

Sail On, L. Cohen

I was thinking of Leonard Cohen on the night of November 8th, aka Election Day in the US. His song “Democracy,” from his 1992 album The Future, was playing on a loop in my head. I had just finished high school in the summer of 1993 when I saw Cohen in concert, the very last stop, in Victoria, BC, on what many erroneously believed to be his very last tour. We were impressed, then, at his stamina, his three-hour set with no opening act and no break, and encore after encore after encore.

Due to the well-publicised financial troubles brought on by the theft of his money by his former manager, there was a touring life for Cohen beyond The Future, beginning in 2008 and concluding at the end of 2013. I was lucky to see him perform again in Leeds in September 2013, a man just shy of his 79th birthday performing another mammoth set.

But despite the five albums Cohen made after The Future, it was “Democracy” I couldn’t get out of my head on November 8th. It was audacious and ironic when it was released in 1992: “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.,” that mighty nation that shouts the loudest about its democratic traditions undercut by the Canadian singer-songwriter who suggested perhaps those much-touted traditions hadn’t yet fulfilled their promise. “I love the country,” he sang, “but I can’t stand the scene.”

The world looked on anxiously throughout this presidential election campaign, and Cohen might have been, prophetically, invoking Trump’s America:

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

Trump’s election victory, despite marginally losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, would appear to many as a win for both reefs of greed and squalls of hate.

When I was singing “Democracy” to myself on November 8th, I didn’t know that Leonard Cohen had died the day before in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t know until the morning of November 11th, after he had already been buried in his hometown of Montreal. My social media feed was full of obituaries and tributes and quotations of Cohen lyrics, particularly the hopeful phrases of “Anthem,” also from The Future: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

“Anthem” shares its image of the crack with “Democracy,” which, Cohen told us, is “coming through a crack in the wall.” As much of the United States and the world beyond faces a Trump administration with grim anxiety, we will be looking out for the cracks Cohen taught us to value, reminders that whatever walls Trump may seek to erect, there will be fissures and fractures of resistance and hope that will lead and light the way to a better future.


Gillian Roberts, Associate Professor in North American Cultural Studies

Posted in American and Canadian StudiesUncategorized