First We Take Manhattan

Album: I'm Your Man (1988)

Songfacts®:

  • 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.

Comments: 10

  • Rupert from Blue Mountains, Nsw, Australia All very interesting to hear other people’s views. I always interpreted the song to be about the Jewish people with references to the fashion industry and the taking of the financial centre of the world (Manhattan) followed by taking the capital of the former NAZI Germany with “the beauty of our weapons” alluding to the extensive contribution to culture by Jews. Could be wrong, but I enjoy the fantasy :)
  • Keith from BaltimoreI think this is one of those songs that fits a social and/or political angst of any given time. For me, it rings true of George Washington and his generals as they were cooped up in Connecticut. In order to gain a foothold in the war effort (to 'ring the bell' so to speak) it was thought they needed to oust the British from Manhattan. It didn't quite work out that way, as they wound up realizing successes in NJ/PA and upstate NY before finally having the British relinquish Manhattan at the close of the war...But the 'Then We Take Berlin' part...that to me resonates as a 'and the message will go forth as a blueprint as to how to foment and exact a revolution of the people, by the people. Of course, it was realized next in France, but that's for another day.
  • Gino from Boston, MaDid Cohen mean "First we take Manhattan and then we take Boston?"
  • Scott from Tucson, AzA friend of mine told me that this song was playing on loop while he was imprisoned (and beaten) at the Maskobiyeh Detention Center in West Jerusalem. He also said it was now one of his favorite songs-that might tell you that it's relevance is unpredictable. He ended up writing a fairly amazing account in a book called Son of Hamas. You couldn't imagine such a narrative and it also lends a weird and almost profound aspect to this song. I can guarantee you'd never listen to it the same way again...
  • Ed from Lebanon, NhThe (full) song title is one of my favorite song lyrics of all time. Also, the Jennifer Warnes version features Stevie Ray Vaughn on guitar, which helps make that version special, too.
  • Yaniv from Ta, IsraelRobert, check out the live version in his recent "Live In London". it rocks. I don't like the original either but it's amazing live, really cool hammond and stuff. better then REM in my opinion.
  • Robert from Milan, MiFirst of all, the lyrics are some of the best ever. However, LC's version is as hokie as a song gets. Everytime I hear it, i get embarassed for the man. Then I heard R.E.M.'s version. It is a godsend. The anger is captured in the guitar and Stipe's vocals are powerful to say the least. Thanks Mr. Cohen for a great song (lyrically). Thanks R.E.M. for the cover. Oh, I still am weary of the true meaning of the song. Anyone have Leonard's number?
  • Senorita from Canada, Canada"First We Take Manhattan" is rife with anger, but not at a political system so much as on a social system, a system which instead of being amenable to change from within, has ostracized and cast out the people who don't quite fit in.
  • Yariv from Ramot Hashavim, IsraelThis, to me, is about globalisation from the point of view of someone from the under-developed part of our world. If you read the lyrics as if spoken by someone like Osama Bin Laden, you'll be amazed to see how accurately it fits.
    The song (1988) has a prophetic quality, like some other songs by Leonard Cohen.
  • Zoe from Montreal, CanadaI love love love this song. It makes me feel like leading a revolution. Whenever I get annoyed with the materialistic world, I listen to this.
    I feel like it is about a man who is trying to change the world, yet he is inlove with "one of those", who he is trying to convert.
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