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 said: "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 the song on her 1986 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
Bassist and longtime Cohen associate Roscoe Beck produced the cut. He recalled to Uncut: "I was working on Jennifer Warnes' record of Leonard's songs, Famous Blue Raincoat, so I called him in Montreal to ask if he had any new material for it, and he played me, 'First We Take Manhattan.' I was stunned. Leonard had written on keyboards since the early '80s, but this was a much more heavily synthesized, Eurodisco approach."
"I was also taken aback by the lyrics," he added. "They scared me. The singer's character seemed mentally unstable, and I wondered what the song was about. Leonard says it's someone who's an outsider, demented and menacing. I had an eerie feeling about it."
Leonard arranged his version in Montreal, and he and I finished it in LA," Beck concluded. "He'd stacked female backing vocals that were quite a surprise. The song was such a departure from the folkiness of his past. It was a fresh start."
The Jennifer Warnes version starts out with some spoken German radio about a Berlin disco in which some US servicemen were killed only a few months after they recorded the song. Beck commented: "It seemed prophetic of that, and 9/11 too."
Stevie Ray Vaughan played guitar on this track and appeared in the video. The connection was producer Roscoe Beck, who knew Vaughan from their days in Austin, Texas. When Beck found out Vaughan would be in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards on February 26, 1985, he booked studio time and commandeered the guitarist after the ceremony. Vaughan didn't bring his guitar, but he was happy to help out, using Beck's Stratocaster to play his licks in a session that went into the early morning.