First We Take Manhattan

Flicking through my music library… across one of the most striking lines in a song: First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin. I had heard it the first time on Jennifer Warnes’ album Famous Blue Raincoat, with all songs written by Leonard Cohen.

There’s also a later version by Cohen himself, with extended lyrics, but I prefer the Warnes’ one, it’s way more to the point, and it has the wonderful guitar play of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

For me, the meaning of the lyrics was beyond doubt, right from the first time I heard them. Consider the first two verses:

They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

I’m guided by a signal in the heavens
I’m guided by the birthmark on my skin
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Straight forward, right? Later, I discovered discussions about the meaning, and was baffled. What?! Of course, poetry is always open to interpretation, sure. However, Cohen himself commented about the song:

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.

In the seventies, when we were really young, we entertained some radical ideas. I guess that’s a prerogative of rebellious adolescents. A pretty political bunch at times. We read the Little Red Book of Mao Tse-Tung. It was also the period of the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany, and the Brigate Rosse in Italy. On the one hand, violent times, but on the other, an air of possible fundamental changes.