Democracy is coming to the USA

by Gautam Raja

This is my first cuff since the US election, so let’s talk about Canada. Well okay, let’s talk about a Canadian, a famous one we lost on November 7. Leonard Cohen was 82 when he died in his sleep after a fall in the night. His last album ‘You Want It Darker’ had been released just two weeks earlier, and though quite ill, he had been at a highly creative period of his life.

Commiserations travelled quickly through a small group of friends. Growing up on the outskirts of Bangalore, India, we had a high number of people who loved oldies. (Just hum the opening bars of Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ at a dinner party to blow the roof off.) Leonard Cohen’s work, famously described as “music to slit your wrists by”, was favoured by a sub-group of brooders and readers, whether writing out the lyrics of ‘I’m Your Man’ for a special someone, or marveling at the moonlit desolation of ‘Take This Waltz’.

Leonard Cohen spoke to an inchoate wisdom in us. We dreamed of meeting our own ‘Suzanne’, or, depending on gender, dreamed of being her, and of leading or being led, to her place by the river.

Today, though we have music playing nearly all the time at home, my wife and I have very little common on our playlists. I introduced her to Cohen a long time ago, and he’s probably the only musician whose entire discography we agree on. “He’s someone who really brings the power of introspection to music,” she said, as he lived on through our speakers the morning after news of his death. We had both dreamed of seeing him live, and knowing time was short, checked his website regularly for a tour schedule that didn’t appear. We’ll have to make do with his live albums. Luckily they’re wonderfully recorded, and he works with great singers and musicians. (Listen to Sharon Robinson just slay “Boogie Street” on disc two of Live in London.)

Cohen’s most famous song is, of course, “Hallelujah”, one that’s better known in cover versions than the synthetic, almost thrown-away original. As I write this, I’ve played the original, from the album Various Positions, back-to-back with the beautiful Jeff Buckley version. It’s tempting to call the latter the better song, yet, something in Cohen’s time-trailing phrasing projects his images like stained-glass in my mind.

The day after his death, with Trump news dominating our feed, I had Cohen’s song “Democracy” running ironically through my head. The track, from the album The Future has a marching chorus that goes, “Democracy is coming, to the USA”. The way it’s sung, democracy sounds ominous, almost retributive. It was the perfect soundtrack as I puzzled over details of the electoral college versus the popular vote. Hillary Clinton got more votes, but didn’t win? It sounded very little like democracy to me.

But the day I write this, November 18, the Los Angeles Times ran a story called “L.A. Lays Out Its Trump Battle Plan” in which the city was “vowing to push back against efforts to deport people in this country illegally”. In it, the mayor was concerned that mass deportations would negatively affect the state’s economy. I read again the heartwarming term “sanctuary city”–cities in which people are not prosecuted for their illegal immigration status.

Reading about people around this country and even around the world sitting up, rallying round, and speaking up, I’m starting to wonder if Trump might work as a trigger for good. That if his office does continue his toxic promises, democracy will come, like a tsunami, to the USA.

First published in Gulf News, November 22, 2016