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If you're a bit puzzled by this song, that might be the point. Cohen took a shot at explaining it in the April, 1993 issue of Song Talk. The Canadian singer/songwriter explained: "I felt for sometime that the motivating energy, or the captivating energy, or the engrossing energy available to us today is the energy coming from the extremes. That's why we have Malcolm X. And somehow it's only these extremist positions that can compel our attention. And I find in my own mind that I have to resist these extremist positions when I find myself drifting into a mystical fascism in regards to myself. [Laughs]
So this song, 'First We Take Manhattan', what is it? Is he serious? And who is we? And what is this constituency that he's addressing? Well, it's that constituency that shares this sense of titillation with extremist positions. I'd rather do that with an appetite for extremism than blow up a bus full of schoolchildren."
Before Cohen's own version was released, his former backing singer Jennifer Warnes recorded this on her Leonard Cohen covers album Famous Blue Raincoat. Other cover versions include Joe Cocker on his 2000 album No Ordinary World and R.E.M. on their 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan.