“Save the Last Dance for Me” by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman never fails to get to me. It’s a song that has resignation and resolve: the singer might be addressing the woman he loves as she whirls around the floor with another man, or it might be an inner monologue. Please, he could be thinking, don’t get swept away. The chorus begins with the words “don’t forget.” This is sung as a limited permission slip. Famously, the lyric was written by the wheelchair-bound Pomus watching his bride dance with other men at their wedding, and no matter who sings the song, you can hear the underlying frustration. Because the music sounds sweeping and romantic, it implies a happy ending. “Don’t forget who’s taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be,” and there’s a certainty in that “gonna.” But what if that’s not the case? What if, after the last dance, she goes off and leaves him alone?
Leonard Cohen was doing “Save the Last Dance for Me” for a while in concert, as a closing number, a bookend to his own “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Cohen had a lot of songs that were natural set enders. “Closing Time,” of course. “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Take This Waltz,” “Bird On a Wire.” What was it about his songs that so many sound like parting words, like after any one of them he could have bowed and shuffled off into the wings? “Tower of Song,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” (with its literal signature, “Sincerely, L. Cohen”).” “Hallelujah,” too obviously.
When he died suddenly, I was out at another artist’s arena show, and became wrapped up in all that spectacle and emotion, but when I came home, I had to put on Leonard Cohen’s music, even though I was tired, and in the morning I played his Live in Dublin album, the one that ends with “Save the Last Dance for Me.” The girl who didn’t forget who was taking her home was sitting next to me on the sofa, teared up and couldn’t really explain why. Maybe if this is, as seems possible, America’s last dance, we know we need people to count on and to cling to. I think of Cohen, gracefully leaving the stage before he got to see the calamity that a number of his songs predicted, before the new sheriff in town comes in to break up the dance. The audience sings it along with him, because everybody knows this song, everyone has felt its rapturous tug. No matter what happens, hold on tight to the person in whose arms you’re meant to be. So long.