Culture

What “The Future” brought

Evaluating Leonard Cohen’s 16-year-old prediction

Image
Leonard Cohen, Normandy, France, January 1988
Photo: Roland Godefroy
Geoff Carter

Here’s how I like to think that it happened. On the evening of April 29, 1992—shortly after the Rodney King riots began—Leonard Cohen huddled up in his two-story Los Angeles home. Disquieted, and unable to find comfort in his books or in his guitar, he lay down on a couch, closed his eyes and saw deep into time and space. Disconnected from his present, Leonard Cohen peered into the future.

Cohen, then 58 years old and dating actress Rebecca De Mornay, could have imagined something more positive than the violence ensuing outside his “tower of song.” He could have seen himself as a happier man, largely free of the depression that had plagued him most of his life. He could have compared Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” favorably to Rufus Wainwright’s. And he could have realized he was soon to earn a shit-ton of royalty checks from licensing his music to an Oliver Stone movie.

But he didn’t. Cohen saw the future as a desolated and violent time, a time without faith and order. “I’ve seen the future, brother,” he wrote. “It is murder.”

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And now we’ve caught up with him. Cohen’s “The Future,” the gospel-infused track that closed Oliver Stone’s hyper-violent romantic comedy Natural Born Killers, celebrated its 16th birthday on November 24. And though it’s not entirely fair to judge how accurately Cohen predicted the spirit of our age—for all its prognostications, “The Future” is really about the Canadian-born Cohen’s fear of present-day America—it’s almost eerie how much of it he got right.

Give me back my broken night

My mirrored room, my secret life

It’s lonely here

There’s no one left to torture

How could Cohen have known that torture would be something we would speak of in almost cavalier tones? That the United States would adopt waterboarding as a national pastime? Cohen imagined a world in which medieval punishments were handed down in a bored, perfunctory fashion, and Abu Ghraib surpassed even his most colorful nightmares.

Give me crack and anal sex

Take the only tree that’s left

Stuff it up the hole

In your culture

A bit of guesswork here on Cohen’s part. While crack isn’t the hot commodity it once was, anal sex never goes out of style. Still, the “only tree that’s left” bit could be easily applied to the climate crisis, and the “hole” forming in our culture is in the process of opening up under Detroit.

Give me back the Berlin wall

Give me Stalin and St. Paul

Here, Cohen’s narrator expresses a possibly sardonic wish for order and structure; he doesn’t much care where the trains are going, as long as they run on time. It’s hard to tell if the singer of “The Future” believes what he’s saying here, or if he’s simply throwing up his hands in surrender. The second occurrence of this verse seems to bear out the latter theory, as he follows it with the end of the world: “Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima/Destroy another fetus now/We don’t like children anyhow.”

Your private life will suddenly explode

One of the reasons I haven’t gotten an iPhone is because I detest the way AT&T rolled over for the National Security Agency by handing over all international and domestic calling records before a warrant was served. But that’s peanuts compared to the damage we do to ourselves: putting private information on networks than can be easily hacked, maintaining personal profiles on MySpace and Facebook, using Twitter to document our lives right down to the bathroom breaks. Cohen was right to place sticks of dynamite under our privacy, but I doubt he imagined we’d be the ones to light the fuse.

Things are going to slide,

slide in all directions

Not so much a prediction of an event, but of a feeling. Every day, we seem to drift further from the center.

The blizzard, the blizzard of the world

Has crossed the threshold

And it has overturned

The order of the soul

This line occurred to me as I watched Hurricane Katrina on CNN. Cohen wasn’t talking about the actual weather of the world, but if there’s a stronger metaphor for the upsetting of America’s soul than the drowning of New Orleans, I can’t name it. The planet itself is out to kick our ass.

There’ll be fires on the road

And a white man dancing

America’s infrastructure is crumbling as we watch Mark Cuban cutting a rug on Dancing With the Stars. Regardless of what Cohen meant to say here, I think of this line whenever I look at the Yahoo! News page and see celebrity gossip placed evenly with national disasters. Yes, a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, so what, big deal. What’s Shia LaBeouf doing today?

All the lousy little poets

Coming ’round

Tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson

Brother, you ain’t kidding. At least Trent Reznor seems to be cheering up.

When they said REPENT REPENT

I wonder what they meant

During a 1992 interview with Paul Zollo, Cohen explained this line by comparing his society to masons who forgot how to build certain kinds of arches for hundreds of years. “So it is in our time that certain spiritual mechanisms that were very useful have been abandoned and forgot,” Cohen said. “Redemption, repentance, resurrection. All those ideas are thrown out with the bathwater.”

I’m not sure I agree with Cohen. We have become suspicious of religion, and we have come dangerously close to printing the axiom “never apologize, never explain” on our currency, but in November we elected a black man to this country’s highest office. America takes its sweet time in making amends, but it does make them. We only need to learn to compress the timeline, to bring the future closer to us.

For his own part, Leonard Cohen seems to have made peace with the world and his place in it. After a brief flirtation with antidepressants, a stay at a Buddhist retreat and the forging of a new romantic and creative relationship with longtime collaborator Anjani Thomas, he seemed to find a place of comfort and, yes, even happiness within himself.

“I feel tremendously relieved that I’m not worried about my happiness,” said Cohen in a 2005 interview with Kari Hesthamar. “There was a kind of mist, a kind of distress over everything, but that lifted.” Later in the interview, however, he sounded a weary note: “Basically I understand that the creation took place, and there was a problem about food, so God said everybody will eat each other.”

Somewhere, right now, Oliver Stone is writing a zombie movie.

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