By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But in the late '70s and early '80s, Cohen found himself increasingly out of favor. There were no more novels. Records such as New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), Death of a Ladies' Man(1977), Recent Songs(1979) and Various Positions(1984) attracted less and less notice. Cohen did continue to publish poems. Since he was now thought of as a singer, however, critics felt free to ignore them. Unfortunately, he was being ignored as a singer, too. It wasn't that the quality of the work had deteriorated; on the contrary, it had steadily improved. Some of his greatest songs -- "Field Commander Cohen," "Paper-Thin Hotel," "The Gypsy's Wife" and "Hallelujah" -- were written during this period. But a consensus had developed that his work was maudlin, suitable only to slit your wrists by.
Cohen still had loyal fans, particularly in Europe, but by the time he sat down to write the songs for I'm Your Man, he was broke and beginning to feel marginalized and desperate. Sitting at his kitchen table in L.A., he started to write songs unlike any he had written before. Until this stage in his career, he had set most of his lyrics to acoustic guitar, writing music that owed as much to the French chanson and the Jewish minor key as it did to folk or rhythm and blues. The accompaniment was sparse and the tone intimate, very much one-on-one.
I'm Your Manand The Future changed all that. Composed on the synthesizer and set to an ironic Euro-disco beat, both records featured songs in the form of "demented political manifestos." His voice had grown deeper and his lyrics had a harder, more ironic edge. "They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within," he intoned on "First We Take Manhattan," I'm Your Man's opening salvo. Usefully dramatizing his own feeling of having been "eliminated from the landscape," Cohen wrote the song from the viewpoint of the leader of an imaginary government-in-exile, bent on revenge. There were lines for a terrorist to savor:
I'm guided by a signal in the heavens. I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin. I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
Cohen's fascination with religion of all kinds served him well on these records. He seemed to be tuned into two frequencies -- the religious and the secular. The result was a televisual vividness, a CNN of the soul. (On "Ain't No Cure For Love" he sang of "rocket ships . . . climbing through the sky" while "the holy books are open wide.") But it was in two songs on The Future, the title track and "Democracy," that Cohen's political vision received its richest, most sophisticated expression. In the spirit of Norman Mailer, Cohen calls himself a "left-conservative" and has generally maintained a very positive view of the U.S. "In the hearts of the world some kind of prayer is being said for American democracy everywhere," he told an interviewer in 1993. "This is where the eyes of the world are turned. Is it going to work? It's here the experiment unfolds."
Both the optimism and doubt went into "Democracy." Set counter-intuitively to a martial drum-and-fife beat, the song was a genuinely complex and moving hymn to a political experiment teetering on the edge of banality and chaos. Despite its title, the song's central conceit was that true democracy had yet to arrive in the U.S. A new, more radical democracy was entering the country "through a hole in the air," "through a crack in the wall," "from the sorrow in the street":
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.
Unlike your average pop singer, Cohen had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the world. As a result, his political songs were based on close observation rather than the naive idealism usually found in the entertainment community. Like most Canadians, he had learned to study America the way women study men -- as a force to be reckoned with -- and he had also traveled the globe. He spent much of the early '60s living on the Greek island of Hydra, and he was in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs crisis. This wasn't someone likely to pen an anthem along the lines of "We Are the World." On the contrary, if you take as dim a view of the universe as Cohen does, then an outbreak of love and peace can only look like an anomaly. Given his conservative instincts, you suspect that he was as troubled by much of what he recorded in "Democracy" as he was moved by it. It's good that hearts should open, but as Cohen no doubt realizes, there's often a streak of fundamentalism to that "fundamental way."