The plot against Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan" has been threatening to destroy a great song for almost twenty-five years. The plot was hatched in 1987 via Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat album where her vocal is accompanied by a Nazi-ish male voice ranting in German. Her follow-up video augmented this interpretation with louder rant and an array of sinister images. For Warnes, Cohen's song is about a 1980's-style Red Army Faction terrorist, about to launch a campaign to conquer the world through catastrophic violence.
According to Cohen biographer Ira Nadel Warnes "disliked" several stanzas previously recorded by Cohen and tried to get him to rewrite them. Although Cohen participated in the Warnes video and subsequently in a similar video by Dominique Issermann his comments on Norwegian radio shortly after Warnes album was released suggest that he understands that his song operates via a suppler metaphor and subtler dynamic. After acknowledging the seductive nature of extremist ideas, he ably describes his lyrics' true focus:
"…there is some kind of secret life we lead in which we imagine ourselves changing things, not violently, maybe gracefully, maybe elegantly in a very imaginative way and with a shake of the hand. The song speaks of longing for change, impatience with the way things are, a longing for significance; we deal in the purest burning logic of longing."
Nothing in Cohen's comment then, or the original song as he continues to sing it today, suggests that the narrator is a German terrorist, although his grievances are deeply felt, and their expression emotionally powerful:
I don't like your fashion business, mister
And I don't like these drugs that keep you thin
I don't like what happened to my sister
Cohen and his lead backup singer Sharon Robinson exchanged sympathetic glances as they sang those lines in Oakland, California during their 2009 worldwide tour, and the audience erupted with approval at the call to action: "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin!"
How does the song's narrator plan to redress his grievances and alleviate the "twenty years of boredom" he has suffered "trying to change the system from within"? Listen to the lyric! He is not going to bomb the cultural capitols of America and Europe. He is going to take them!
That little four-letter word is essential to the meaning of Cohen's song because it comes with a long history of theatrical connotations. From rock stars to opera divas, the desire to "take Manhattan" (or other major city) via a triumphant musical performance is universal. Jenny Lind, Edith Piaf, Luciano Pavarotti, and The Beatles are just a few of the many performers who (newspapers tell us) "took New York," and Leonard Cohen is no exception. (The Winnipeg Sun's headline for an article on his 2008-2009 tour, which began in New York City, reads: "First, he took Manhattan.")
The fairy-tale objects that the narrator says he is "guided by" indicate that his mission is not a violent but an artistic and prophetic one. The "signal in the heaven" suggests inspiration from the Muses. The "birthmark" on his skin reminds us of the Latin proverb poeta nascitur, non fit ("a poet is born, not made"). The clincher is the fact that the narrator is "guided" by the "beauty" of weapons that turn out to be—not Uzi's or WMD's—but a "monkey" and a "plywood violin."
Not only does our narrator explain that he has prepared for his mission by practicing this instrument "every night"; he gives listeners a strong clue as to where his "first" performance is likely to take place:
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you I told you I told you I was one of those
Anyone who has taken public transit has seen and heard Cohen's narrator—with fiddle or guitar (dog or cat at his side)—performing for commuters. Cohen's narrator is leaving his corporate position and dropping his yuppie lifestyle and fashionable lover to mix with the lonely crowd. The monkey and violin place him in the politically subversive hurdy-gurdy street-musician tradition. Throughout the centuries in Eastern Europe and Russia such performers were considered dangerous undesirables and were frequently persecuted (in the 1930's the Soviets felt threatened enough to round up and execute 300 such itinerant minstrels).
The elegant Jennifer Warnes so objected to the monkey and plywood violin that she dropped the stanza entirely from her version. Had she sung it, her characterization of the narrator would have been exposed as the reductive imposition it so obviously is.
Around the same time Cohen was writing "First We Take Manhattan" he was writing another song featuring "take" in its title which also involves a European cultural capitol. "Take This Waltz" (loosely based on a Garcia Lorca poem) uses the word in the sense of please accept this gift—that gift being Viennese music reeking with the stench of T. S. Eliot's deadland. The sense of accepting and trying to locate oneself in a decadent culture also pervades the "taking" of Manhattan and Berlin.
Cohen is aware that audiences do not buy the plot against his song, having observed that it "became so popular in Athens that people were greeting each other in Greek by saying 'First, we take Manhattan,' the other person replying with 'Then we take Berlin!'" On the Leonard Cohen Live in London DVD the audience cheers and one fan even shouts "Right!", making it clear that they are with the narrator all the way.
The "narrator" is, after all—us. We are taking Manhattan and Berlin. The song expresses our frustration with "the system"; our joy each time we anticipate changing politics and culture via the song's mantra. Our joy is qualified by the fact that Cohen's "we" includes a performing monkey who mocks our Audenesque inability to make things happen in the manner of the fool mocking King Lear.
Why, then, did Cohen acquiesce in the plot to misrepresent his own creation?
In 1987 Jennifer Warnes' album of Leonard Cohen songs—Famous Blue Raincoat—sold 1.5 million copies. "Several critics," Nadel notes, "have suggested that without this album Cohen's re-emergence on the American scene could not have occurred." Since Warnes' German terrorist "take" on Cohen's "take" helped re-energize his career it's understandable that Cohen would be reluctant to throw a "monkey" wrench into his re-anointment. Two years after his carefully nuanced commentary on his song he was referring to it as a "demented manifesto."
Cohen went on to become an active co-conspirator, appearing fleetingly in Warnes' video of her recording and more prominently in the Dominique Issermann video which features Cohen in a black coat walking along the beach, carrying a sinister black briefcase. As the video proceeds Cohen multiplies into many figures carrying briefcases, moving towards a hazy outline of Manhattan, the implication being that the briefcase contains a trigger mechanism for a nuclear device.
Even less convincing is Cohen's own video in which he gets off a plane (presumably from Germany) and heads towards Manhattan in a limo to accomplish his evil mission. Why, one might ask, would a German terrorist "first" travel to the United States to bomb New York—then return to Germany to bomb Berlin? Didn't Hitler "take" Berlin "first" before invading Poland? Isn't the route ass-backwards? All of these videos dishonor the song's supple, infectious spirit by shackling it with a kitschy mad-bomber scenario.
May I suggest an alternative video, more in keeping with the song's words and music?
Scene One: A well-dressed, middle-aged man is sitting on a couch in a well-furnished apartment playing a violin. A monkey leaps onto the couch; the man puts down his violin and pets it affectionately. Scene Two: As Cohen begins singing the song, we cut to the same man in an office with a sweeping view of Manhattan. He is cleaning out his desk, then looking at the city through binoculars, zooming in as the song proceeds on crowds "moving through" [Grand Central] "station." Scene Three: Back in his apartment the man stares sorrowfully at the photo of a beautiful, smartly dressed woman. As "I told you I told you I told you" is sung for the second time he brings his fist down, smashes the frame, and tosses the photo into a wastebasket. Scene Four: As Cohen sings about the monkey and violin the man emerges from a brownstone in worn jeans and tee shirt with both "items" in tow and smiles. Scene Five: The man is in a subway station, his monkey desperately bidding for the attention of men and women hurrying by. As Cohen sings the final lines, the man starts to play "Hallelujah"—but his violin is drowned out by the sounds of the city. The Video ends with a close-up of the monkey's stricken face.
Leonard Cohen is by no means the first writer to promote misinterpretations of his own work. Robert Frost indulged misguided beliefs that he hated walls and "took the road less travelled by." Presumably Cohen signed off on the liner notes for the DVD Leonard Cohen Live in London with its bald assertion that "First We Take Manhattan" is "sinister" and "the narrator is insane." If true, he is no more so than the narrator of "Tower of Song" who is "tied" to "a table"; hears "funny voices"; warns that "there's a mighty judgment coming"; and is about to be moved by attendants to "the tower down the track." Surely he is not as crazy as the narrator of "The Future" who calls for the return of Stalin and the Berlin Wall and suggests that he is the "little jew" who wrote the Bible!
"Insanity" is a recurring metaphor in Cohen's songs, going back as far as "Suzanne" who attracts us partly because she is "half-crazy." The question is not whether or not Cohen's narrator is "out of touch with reality"—he could be so either as terrorist or street performer. It is the quality of our narrator's "insanity" that makes the difference—whether his "imbalance" is benign and cathartic or spiteful and destructive; whether, in short, we are with him or against him.
Does it make sense for us to stamp and cheer for a terrorist intent on blowing our brains out? The fact that we do cheer suggests that our surer intuition sees through the misguided attempts to out-think this darkest of Cohen songs. We savor the humor in the narrator's obsession precisely because it is self-deprecating to our own idealistic aspirations. The song is Cohen's way of acknowledging both the compulsion and the hopelessness of our Quixotic quest to change political, social, and artistic culture with poetry and music. Despite persistent attempts to shackle "First We Take Manhattan" with a cartoonish "message," the song insists on providing us, in Cohen's words, with "the purest burning logic of longing."