Monday, September 14, 2009

Everybody Knows

Sometimes I'm interviewed by newspapers, and they ask me the meaning of my songs. And if the interviewers are French, they ask the meaning of meaning. This is my platform
- Leonard Cohen

Lately I have been listening to my Leonard Cohen collection and have become nostalgic for the darker decade of my childhood, the 1980s. The cynicism that oozes from the Leonard Cohen hit “Everybody Knows” is inherent in the song’s title. Written at the end of the decade, one politically dominated by the Republicans and marked by the collapse of popularized televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, “Everybody Knows” is Leonard Cohen’s tribute to America’s decaying religious and political figures - vocalized behind a sardonic smile. As the first decade of the 21st century winds to a close, I can't help but feel that the song remains the same. Wait, that was Zeppelin in 1976...well, history repeats itself or just insert some cyclical history cliche [here].

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over

The war Cohen is referring to is the Iran-Iraq war which ended in August of 1988. At the same time, Cohen’s allegorical sauce conjures associations with the domestic political war that ended when Republican George H. Bush defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis for the presidency.

Everybody knows the good guys lost

Michael Dukakis supported cutting the military budget and sought to scale back nuclear war. He is quoted as saying, “The way to stop the arms race is to stop building and testing nuclear weapons.” At the time, the estimates from the Iran-Iraq war reported 1.5 million people dead from the conflict. War has no winners.

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

In the 1988 election, Bush took advantage of his association with Reagan to propel his campaign to victory. At the same time, Iran-Iraq conflict was being fueled by outside interests: in its war effort, Iran was supported by Syria and Libya, and received much of its weaponry from North Korea and China, as well as from covert arms transactions from the United States. Iraq enjoyed much wider support, both among Arab and Western nations: the Soviet Union was its largest supplier of arms. Ultimately, Western Europe and the United States supported Iraq in response to Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti oil tankers traveling in the Persian Gulf.

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

Although the election brought about new leadership in Bush, Americans were faced with yet another Republican who echoed the policies of the Reagan Administration. A wealthy Texan, George H. Bush ran behind the slogan of “Read my lips – No new taxes.” Riding the coat tails of the Reagan Administration, which increased the budget deficit and saw high unemployment rates, Bush promised to unburden working class America. At the end of the Iran-Iraq conflict the material cost of the war--running into billions of dollars--drained the two countries' economies. America, China, and North Korea continued to improve economically.

That's how it goes

Bush later reneged on his tax promise. In fact, he signed the largest tax increase in history. Both Iran and Iraq emerged from the war financially, militarily, and as a people in much, much worse shape than they been in when they entered it.

Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking


The televangelist scandals began rocking the nation around 1988 as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker were convicted of crimes ranging from fraud to solicitation of a prostitute. The PTL had blown through $158 million of their ministry's donations.

Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

On the political front, a special commission appointed by President Reagan to investigate the Iranian arms deal released its findings: Reagan admitted that his administration traded arms for hostages, but asserted that the result was due to faulty execution. The original strategy was to improve relations with Iran but it deteriorated in its implementation into trading arms for hostages. As for the televangelist scandals, Bakker’s jury found him guilty on 24 counts, and he received a 45-year sentence along with a $500,000 fine. Bakker claimed from the beginning that his downfall had been orchestrated by enemies inside and outside his ministry.

Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose

Everybody knows

With millions of American bilked out of their dollars by false promises made by Bush and the televangelists, the economy hit a recession. Dazed and confused from Reagan era promises of a better America, people were left with 6.2% unemployment rates instead of the sweet and beautiful life they were promised.

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful

“The Jimmy Swaggart Telecast” attracted eight million viewers and earned $150 million annually at its height. In 1986, Swaggart took great joy in defrocking fellow Assemblies of God minister Marvin Gorman when Gorman conducted an extramarital affair with one of his parishioners. The following year, the PTL Ministry collapsed as Jim Bakker was paving the way for Swaggart's fall; Gorman paid a private detective to take photos of Swaggart with his Louisiana prostitute.

Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet

Without your clothes

Swaggart eventually confessed.

And everybody knows
Everybody knows, everybody knows

That's how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows, everybody knows

That's how it goes

Everybody knows

He was Jerry Lee Lewis' cousin after all.

And everybody knows that it's now or never
Everybody knows that it's me or you
And everybody knows that you live forever
Ah when you've done a line or two

In 1985, crack cocaine came into existence in the middle of Reagan’s war on drugs. While politicians battled the drug wars on one station, televangelists like Jim Bakker were preaching eternal redemption through Jesus while maintaining their energy through illegal drug use. In an interview with Larry King, Jim Bakker stated, “I would work three and four days with hardly any sleep, and finally my nervous system collapsed, and so the doctor put me on tranquilizers which set me up like a cat on a hot tin roof. And I couldn't live with them or without them.”

Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton
For your ribbons and bows

And everybody knows


In September 1988, a group called "Americans for Bush" launched negative attack ads against Bush's presidential opponent Michael Dukakis. The ads used the example of Willie Horton, an African-American Massachusetts convict who was released from prison on a weekend furlough while Dukakis served as Governor of Massachusetts. Horton used his furlough to travel to Maryland, where he assaulted a couple and raped a woman. The ads were attacked as demonizing African-Americans to further the Republican Political Party.

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast

1988 saw the rise of the AIDS epidemic and a national spotlight on the disease. Cohen alludes to this specifically in an interview in which he states, “The plague in the most physical sense is AIDS. But there's another kind of plague going on too, of which AIDS is one of the symptoms. If indeed disease does have ultimately a psychic origin, then there's a plague of alienation and separation and lassitude and panic; a sense of not being in control.” In 1988 Prozac was introduced as an anti-depressant.

Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead

But there's gonna be a meter on your bed That will disclose What everybody knows

The scare of AIDS sparked widespread concern over the promiscuity that was famous in the 1980s. Coming to pass were times of easy monetary redemption through Jim Bakker and the PTL, as well as the innocence of sex without protection or consequence.

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through

From the bloody cross on top of Calvary

To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart

Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows

And everybody knows


The proverbial wheels were coming off the wagon in the late 80’s, between the PTL scandal of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart’s infidelity, Reagan’s involvement in supplying weapons to Iran, Bush’s false promises in his campaign, and a general swirling of economic downturn. Leonard Cohen exhaled a sigh of heavy pessimism as the American people watched, incapable of enacting change. But then again…

Everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes

Everybody knows
Oh everybody knows, everybody knows
That's how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows


~guybrarian

5 comments:

anne said...

i didn't know you listened to leonard cohen as a kid too. you are a wellspring of surprises!

thanhtando said...

wow! i am impress by your interpretation of the song! congrats!
but i think you are giving more credit to Cohen he deserved:
1/ if this is the meaning of the song, then why don't Cohen tell us the meaning of the song when we ask him its meaning?
2/ why is the meaning of some of the sentence in the song of straight forward (the poor stay poor, the rich gets rich) and the meaning of some of the sentence in the song of unclear ( as you pointed out in your interpretation where one have to know the political situation and the politician at the time, and the politician connection to celebrities at the time) to know the meaning of that sentence.

again you are giving too much credit to Cohen: you dont know what Cohen means unless he tells you, and he won't ever tell you/us because why? because maybe his meaning of the song might be not as deep as the credit you give him.

Why is that? why don't artists tell us what the meaning of their song? I think its because they dont know themself, they got some good lines (the poor stay poor the rich get rich) but then the other lines are just rubbish.

Anonymous said...

That's a lively interpretation, but to my ear, the song is timeless. It could have been written in 1907 or 2015. The themes of class boundaries, deception and corruption are eternal.

What's more, to my ear, there's a smugness that hints of irony. When "everybody knows" something, maybe we're being too cynical for our own good. Sometimes people figure out ways to defy all these difficulties and get something unexpected and worthwhile accomplished.

Tudor said...

Authors don't explain the art work because, if you can feel it via your personal experience and believe the meaning you feel is the right one, there's no point in him striping you of this feeling. Art is as good as the feeling it gives you is.
Let me share with you the meaning I think it has. Nothing to do with anything that was said above. I feel a much simpler and apocalyptic meaning:
Cohen was a misogynist, not necessarily in the bad way. He never got married. He also sung "there is a war".
My feeling whenever I hear the song is that it sings about the lost power of men over women, an incredible, profound, social cataclysm that was already visible in 1998 in most of the western world.
In the very first part, the lyrics talk about a WAR which was lost by the good guys. At this point it's not clear that the war is the war between the sexes, but we get a hint at it next:
"Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long stem rose
Everybody knows"
What follows are indeed metaphors but the symbolism may not be so strong in those: COHEN lost the war like any other man, women have the power, and everybody knows it.
In the end, the apocalyptic ideas arise, as we are warn that "it's now or never". Soon any solution may come too late.
"the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past"
The naked man and woman don't exist anymore, the balance was lost, probably for ever, but certainly for COHEN since he cries: "Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows"

Anonymous said...

Many artists choose not to deliver an interpretation on the songs that they write because they want it to remain ambiguous. Not supplying a clear interpretation of the song gives individuals an opportunity to really think about the song and come up with a meaning that makes sense to them. Any interpretation could be true, but all cycle back to the same firm basis- corruption. The type of corruption being discussed in the song is completely up to the listener to decide. That is the beauty of Cohen's lyrics. They are thought-provoking and don't have just one true meaning.

I guess not everybody knows...