Llewellyn Kriel
Llewellyn Kriel

Democracy is coming

FROM the moment Leonard Cohen entered my life back in 1970, his poetry and his music have profoundly influenced me. They have haunted my conscience, pestered my self-awareness and influenced my writing. You probably have similar influencers — painters who guided your expression, writers who moulded your experience, leaders who formed your social consciousness, preachers who animated your beliefs, philosophers who reshaped your world view.

This is normal. And it’s quite alright. In his TED talk, musicologist Kirby Ferguson says “Everything is a remix”. He goes on to show how Bob Dylan “remixed” older folk songs to create “Masters of War”, “With God On Our Side” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”. Dylan even admits he probably heard older songs and forgot about them until they bubbled up some time later and became his. Woodie Guthrie did much the same thing with “This Land Is Your Land”. Successive generations build on the work of their ancestors, who built on the work of their ancestors, who …

Because it spoke so tangibly, so evocatively to me of something that remains so incomprehensibly elusive in South Africa, I remixed Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” off his 1992 album, “The Future”.

[With deep apologies & deeper reverence to Leonard Cohen]

It’s coming through a hole in a chair
From those nights in John Vorster 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 war against corruption, from the sirens night and day
From the huddles of the homeless, from the bashers of the gay
Democracy is coming
to the RSA.

It’s coming through the cracks 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 siessies working every day
From the sea-bleached heart of that island in the bay
Democracy is coming
to the RSA.

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
From the battlefields 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 a shanty here and the dryness far away
Democracy is coming
to the RSA.

Sail on, sail on
Oh 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 South Africa, the cursed,
The cradle of the first and the worst
It’s here they have arranged the philosophy for change
And it’s here they have the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken and it’s here the people say
That the heart has got to transform in a fundamental way
Democracy is coming
to the RSA.

It’s coming from the women and the men
Oh, baby, is it raping-time again?
We’ll be going down so deep that the desert’s gonna weep
And the river’s gonna shout, “Amen!”
It’s coming through the tidal flood beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, victorious in shoulder-puffed array
Democracy is coming
to the RSA.

Sail on, sail on
Oh 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.

I’m patriotic, if you know what I mean,
I love the country, but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left nor right I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those shopping bags that time cannot decay
I’m drunk, but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming
to the RSA.

Will it happen, can it happen any day?
Is ubuntu real or just a thing they say?
Can Africa shed its slavery like a condom in the lavatory
begging bowls and pangas by the way?
Great yellow eyes and lofty dreams don’t comprehend today
they’re just hanging out on corners or in parliament’s array
Democracy is coming
to the RSA

The thoughts are mine, the poetry isn’t …

Tags: , , , ,

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    • http://libsa.wordpress.com Trevor Watkins

      Absolutely brilliant! I too am an old Leonard Cohen fan. I know the words to almost every one of his songs, and love them all. His poetry is genius, and the fact that he puts it to music then sings it himself is just incredible. Do you know he was singing to packed houses at the age of 80? I have the DVD.
      I think he would be proud of your rendering of “Democracy”. He would identify with its sadness, pathos and regret. And its tiny element of hope.

    • MLH

      Describes our situation so completely (for me)…good for you, Llewellyn. It would be great to see similar ‘remixes’ from others with different perspectives, so that we could gauge where the similarities begin and end.
      We are, indeed, all the product of our experiences, our likes and dislikes, which makes age a more likely factor for similarity, than race, I suspect! That means we are reflections of those we most admired during our most formative years,

    • Stephen

      Excellent. Haunting. Poignant. What can I say, you’ve poetically framed out RSA today. Thanks to both of you. S.

    • impedimenta

      Well done. Leonard Cohen has a gift with words and you’ve captured the SA experience. Now I want to hear it sung!

    • Sandra Botha

      I saw him perform 2 years ago and was still mesmerized. Your poem is lovely.

    • Jan Swart

      “There is a crack, a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in….”

    • Jan Lourens

      Great!! what more can I say, Tx for sharing it

    • Heinrich

      Good stuff, Llewellyn.

    • Maria

      Wonderful, Llewellyn! Leonard would approve, methinks. In a different vein altogether, there was a post on TL some time ago that celebrated Leonard Cohen’s music:


    • ConCision

      Your introductory first paragraph is as evocative as your poem, Llewellyn – and as beautifully expressed.’ ..
      ” …haunted my conscience, pestered my self-awareness, influenced my writing ….
      … guided your expression … moulded your experience ….. formed your social consciousness …..animated your beliefs … reshaped your world view.

      What a pity
      Our ‘democracy’
      Has demonstrated
      It’s fatuity, inequity
      And notoriety
      As a ‘demockery’

    • Charlotte

      Incidentally, it is doubtful whether Leonard Cohen would have expected any ‘apology’ ….
      He would have been proud to have been honoured in the way you presented this poem..