Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

  • Music:

[MUSIC] "First We Take Manhattan"

If I may be so bold, Leonard Cohen's song "First We Take Manhattan", off his 1988 I'm Your Man, is a fucking brilliant song. I can still recall the chills that ran down my spine when I began to play that borrowed LP in the media room at Robertson Library four years ago and heard that introductory synth line, even before Cohen's gravelly intonations. I feel that even when I hear the more-than-capable cover versions of Jennifer Warnes and R.E.M.

Cohen gained his fame first as a poet, and a reading of his song lyrics as poetry is merited. What is "First We Take Manhattan" about? Imminent transformative doom in the late-modern technosphere, for starters.

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

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

There's that chorus, with its hints of mutual desire unrequited:

I'd really like to live beside you, baby
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those

Cohen is singing to a listener, to some kind of interlocutor he has abandoned: "Ah you loved me as a loser, but now you're worried that I just might win/You know the way to stop me, but you don't have the discipline/How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin." He hates that "fashion business," and, he sings, "I don't like these drugs that keep you thin/I don't like what happened to my sister." His vengeance will be coming, for "I practiced every night, now I'm ready/First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin." The American citadel of modernity then its European counterpart, perhaps? He's committed.

Ah remember me, I used to live for music
Remember me, I brought your groceries in
Well it's Father's Day and everybody's wounded
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Cohen has adopted, in this song, the persona of a warrior committed to a fight. Cohen is an insurgent against the established powers, perhaps even a violent one, certainly a dissenter in the fields of culture and art. Anyone who sings this song has to consent to this persona's dominance, and anyone who hears it has to recognize this inevitability. "First We Take Manhattan" is not a complacent song, and we love it for that quality.

(I've a feeling that the German-language police bulletin that's audible on Jennifer Warnes' version might be crucial, might even be some sort of seminal document. Can anyone confirm this?)
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