“First We Take Manhattan” is a synth-pop song written and produced by Leonard Cohen, and was originally for his ex-backup singer Jennifer Warnes, for her 1986 Cohen tribute album “Famous Blue Raincoat”, which consisted of tracks written or co-written solely by Cohen. The song appeared on Cohen’s 1988 eighth studio album “I’m Your Man”, with a completely different sound.
Warnes’ original recording was more of a folk rock sound, with the lead guitar being played by Stevie Ray Vaughan, while Cohen’s version is more disco/funk influenced. This re-arrangement of the song was suggested by Cohen’s backing singers Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen during his 1988 tour. Cohen carried on performing this version during his 1993, 2008 and 2009 tours.
The song’s lyrics have been – like many of Cohen’s songs – analysed over and over by Cohen fans and music critics alike. As always with Cohen’s music, his lyrics are full to the brim with meaning, emotions, and stories.
“First We Take Manhattan” sees Cohen discussing human rebelling, rebelling against bigger systems, and a hypothetical scenario where bigger institutions are dissolved by the people. The lines “first we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” hold political meaning, as Cohen is essentially saying Berlin (that was still back when Berlin was part of the communist East, also known as the Eastern Bloc) and Manhattan are controlled by the same establishments; that the concept of Western superiority in comparison to other parts of the world is essentially nonexistent, that the West does not offer complete freedom.
In a backstage interview in 1988 after a concert in Toronto, Cohen partially explained the song’s meaning, but didn’t give too much away (a pattern with the singer when asked for the meanings of his songs):
“I think it means exactly what it says. It is a terrorist song.
I think it’s a response to terrorism. There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the physical plane – I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities – but Psychic Terrorism. I remember there was a great poem by Irving Layton that I once read, I’ll give you a paraphrase of it. It was ‘well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there’, he says. ‘But our terrorists, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein. The whole world is still quaking…”
The music video for the song was shot by Cohen’s girlfriend at the time, Dominique Issermann, and features black and white shots of Cohen singing the track on a beach, while a man and woman chase each other from place to place. Uploaded to Cohen’s YouTube channel in May 2011, the video had a total of 15.6 million views by the 7th October 2022.
The song has been covered by R.E.M., Enrique Morente, Cookies n Beans, Sirenia, Tyskarna Från Lund and Joe Cocker.
Read the lyrics to “First We Take Manhattan” here.
*All information accurate at the time of publishing.