Meaning of First We Take Manhattan

Ask and answer questions about Leonard Cohen, his work, this forum and the websites!
Sarah M
Posts: 2
Joined: Fri Jun 05, 2009 7:27 am

Meaning of First We Take Manhattan

Postby Sarah M » Fri Jun 05, 2009 7:40 am

I'm a new member of the forum, and I have some questions as I'm analyzing the lyric "First We Take Manhattan".

1-What is the main theme of the lyric? Is it about terrorism? Since I'm trying to write a theme statement.

2- What are Manhattan and Berlin referring to (any historical allusions?) ? And why is the line worded that way "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin"?

3- I'm lost on the part where it says "And I thank you for those items you sent me/The monkey and the plywood violin". What are these items referring to?

4- Why is this line included "I don't like what happened to my sister"? Why his sister?

Any other ideas or notes would help as I'm trying to annotate.

Thanks a lot
Last edited by Sarah M on Tue Jun 09, 2009 12:34 am, edited 1 time in total.
User avatar
hydriot
Posts: 878
Joined: Sun May 21, 2006 3:07 am
Location: back in the UK

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby hydriot » Fri Jun 05, 2009 1:52 pm

There are rarely definitive answers to anything Leonard has written (and indeed it is the purpose of poetry to invoke feelings and moods in people, even if the actual images conjured are completely different from one person to the next).

So, for me (and perhaps only for me):

1. It is certainly not about terrorism (which, anyway, wasn't a significant force in the world at the time the song was written). To me, the song is about artistry that for years is not recognised or appreciated, and then suddenly there is a breakthrough. Very many artists are not truly appreciated until well after their deaths. Never forget that in his life-time van Gogh sold just one painting.

2. Germany generally, and Berlin specifically, has always been the place where new bands go in search of recognition. John Lennon, for example, said that he was born in Liverpool but "grew up in Hamburg". I have always imagined that "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin" was probably something one of Leonard's early managers said to him, mapping out a plan of campaign (a tour) to promote him. To me, this phrase has nothing to do with military conquest, and everything to do with taking an audience by storm.

3. The items are the monkey and the plywood violin. A monkey is what an organ-grinder needs (remember an organ-grinder isn't a proper musician, but simply turns a handle that makes the pianolla play); a plywood violin is a toy. Thus, the items that have been sent to the singer are thinly-veiled insults (hence the hollow laugh), and his 'thanks' are sarcastic. Mockingly he goes on to say: "I practised every night and now I'm ready..."

4. I doubt this has anything to do with Esther.

So for me, the whole song is about a singer-songwriter who for most of his life has been ignored, has grown used to being dismissed, but is now just beginning to realise that he truly is about to break into the big time.
“If you do have love it's a kind of wound, and if you don't have it it's worse.” - Leonard, July 1988
User avatar
tomsakic
Posts: 5245
Joined: Wed Jul 03, 2002 2:12 pm
Location: Zagreb, Croatia
Contact:

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby tomsakic » Fri Jun 05, 2009 2:56 pm

hydriot wrote:2. Germany generally, and Berlin specifically, has always been the place where new bands go in search of recognition. John Lennon, for example, said that he was born in Liverpool but "grew up in Hamburg". I have always imagined that "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin" was probably something one of Leonard's early managers said to him, mapping out a plan of campaign (a tour) to promote him. To me, this phrase has nothing to do with military conquest, and everything to do with taking an audience by storm.
Ditto. Also, Leonard reportedly said that Berlin was always a hard city to him when he was giving a show. Also, Manhattan is first, as the site of music business (there was Columbia also, his label), and the economical capital of the world /what was proved on 9-11.../, and Berlin second, of course, also as symbol of the great divide between blocks. Not to mention that it was Berlin of Lou Reed, and later David Bowie, and in 1980s of Nick Cave (and Bauhaus, and Einsturzende Neubauten) so it was a artistic capital of Europe in the 1980s, something similar to hydriot's idea.

Leonard said in 1988: Here's a song I wrote 20 years after "Suzanne." I had been driven over the edge and I had decided to take matters into my own hand. This is a geopolitical plan. People have asked me what it means. It means exactly what it says.

(3) Monkey and plywood violin - street musician, playing cheap music. This goes well with the topic of the song as explained by hydriot ("remember me, I used to live for music?" - the man who was sentenced to 20 years of boredom. His first song, Suzanne, and first album were released in 1967/1968. Manhattan was written and released in 1987/88.)

(4) Sister is here, I believe, because it rhymes with "mister"...

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
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin


I know this sound stupid, but as the poetical image it does make sense - the narrator doesn't like the way of life today (in the late 80s?) - "your fashion business mister ... these drugs" ... "Sister" indeed is good rhyme with "mister" (as "keeps you thin" is with "Berlin"), but also, "keeping thin" (diet, aerobics) was very fashionable or still are) and the fact that "something similar could happen to my sister" is poetical image of saying how the world went wrong.

Another notice:
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those

is referring to Holocaust. (the narrator was supposed to be one of the Jews in lines for train...)

Generally, it's a song - as hydriot says - about an artist now coming into his prime-time, to conquer the world. He's even little mad because he was neglected for decade or so (and he does sound ready & guided by his inside voices & angry & ironic...)
User avatar
tomsakic
Posts: 5245
Joined: Wed Jul 03, 2002 2:12 pm
Location: Zagreb, Croatia
Contact:

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby tomsakic » Fri Jun 05, 2009 3:00 pm

Some of Cohen's words, from concerts and interviews, copied from http://pagesperso-orange.fr/pilgraeme/
Berlin April 9th, 1988
Berlin, at last, yes the final peace in my vast geopolitical jigsaw, Berlin at last, the worshippers of the bear, how happy I am to be among you.

Hamburg 14/4/88
Yeah, these are new songs, huh? Maybe lots of people think I didn't write anything after "Suzanne." But I wrote one or two songs after "Suzanne." Here's a song I wrote 20 years after "Suzanne." I had been driven over the edge and I had decided to take matters into my own hand. This is a geopolitical plan. People have asked me what it means. It means exactly what it says.

Antwerp 17/04/88
It's a curious song. I used to know what it means but I don't remember what it means anymore. And I think it was just a moment ago that I wrote it. I think I intended to take Manhattan and then Berlin.

London 01/06/88
Thank you so much, comrades. I do not concede the word "comrades" to the communists. I use it freely.Yes, why should they have special parts of the English language? And the extreme right too, why should they have blood and soil, honor, integrity, family? I like those words. I intend to use them freely. You're very kind and it's true, you are kind and very warm and it's not for me to stand up here and judge the people who come to see me. But I want to tell you that even though your hospitality is profound it will not detour me from my appointed task which is to take Manhattan, then Berlin and several other cities...

Toronto November 1988 Concert and backstage FM Interview
Oh comrades you're very kind and very warm but kind as you are and warm as you are, it will not deter me from my appointed task. Which is to take Manhattan and then Berlin and any other cities and do with them as I will.

Backstage Interview

I’m not sure of what it means right now because I had this long voyage from Chicago. 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 – buy 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...

Helsinki 29/04/93
I thank you for the items that you sent me. Those roses that you sent to my hotel this morning. Whoever the kind person was, I thank you very much. They were the reddest roses with the largest thorns that I ever did see. And you were so kind as to sign your name in such a manner that I could not read it. I deeply appreciate your sense of modesty. I thank you for the items that you sent me, the monkey and the plywood violin, and I practiced every night and now I'm ready. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

Gent (Gand) (Anti-racism Festival) 09/05/93
You know,they expected 10,000 people to come tonight.But only 5,000 came tonight,but it doesn't matter,it doesn't matter at all.This is a good number to begin with.This is a good number to begin,to make yourself strong and to make yourself cheerful and to enable yourself to take Manhattan,and then Berlin (..)...

San Francisco 03/07/93
I want to thank you for the items that you sent me. Very useful.I've been studying them very carefully, abstractionist as is the style of the city, refracted through certain obscure and subtle lens of a position that is not easily discerned. Nevertheless [not] without a certain compelling charm, especially when viewed through several glasses of an excellent Bordeaux. I am sincerely grateful for the notes; for the missives; for the few broken tiles, no doubt from some street battle long past and lost to the memory of mankind, nevertheless a certain historic significance; slivers of cobblestone from unknown conflicts. I really don't know what they stand for at all but I'm deeply grateful that my dressing room is heaped with this kind of debris from many other positions of course, but my own. I love every precious shard. I thank you for the monkey and the plywood violin and I've practiced every night and now I am ready....

Boston 16/07/93
Oh thank you so much for your gracious welcome this evening and thank you for those letters, actually that letter you sent me backstage. I read it very, very carefully. Thank you for those demo tapes. I'll listen very, very carefully to them. There is nothing wrong with sending a demo tape to an artist that has hardly established himself in this country. I will do what I can to forward your career. I have barely managed to get a photo of myself in the marketplace but nevertheless, we thrive on these dreams. And in regard to those darker place of the psyche and for those more ambiguous gifts, always grateful friends, always grateful. The monkey and the plywood violin. I practiced every night and now I’m ready. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

Chat 2001, for the release of "Ten New Songs"
Answering a fan about the meaning of the song

Ever succeeding moment changes what has happened the moment before. In the stream of writing, all that is written changes its meanings by what is written subsequently. "First We Take Manhattan" might be understood as an examination of the mind of the extremist. In a way it's a better song now (*) than it was before and I would probably sing it in concert if the circumstances were appropriate.

(*) The Chat took place one month after the terrorist attacks in NYC and Washington D.C.
Sarah M
Posts: 2
Joined: Fri Jun 05, 2009 7:27 am

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby Sarah M » Sat Jun 06, 2009 4:55 am

Thanks Hydriot and Tom

Your insights are really beneficial, and Cohen's words clarified many things for me. I was totally off track with my understanding of this lyric!

I have couple more question. Who is Leonard Cohen referring to by saying "They sentenced me..." then saying "I'm coming to reward them". Who are "they" and "them"?

What system was Cohen trying to change "For trying to change the system from within"?

and also, What's the significance of the last stanza, especially the last three lines?

Remember me, I brought your groceries in
Well it's Father's Day and everybody's wounded
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin


Thanks
Last edited by Sarah M on Sun Jun 07, 2009 8:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.
User avatar
tomsakic
Posts: 5245
Joined: Wed Jul 03, 2002 2:12 pm
Location: Zagreb, Croatia
Contact:

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby tomsakic » Sat Jun 06, 2009 12:56 pm

Winfried Siemerling wrote two scholar works on this; one in the tribute anthology "Take This Waltz", and another in THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE LEONARD COHEN CONFERENCE, published in the Canadian Poetry journal (No. 33, Fall/Winter, 1993) which is available online: "Interior Landscapes and the Public Realm: Contingent Mediations in a Speech and a Song by Leonard Cohen" at http://www.canadianpoetry.ca/cpjrn/vol33/siemerling.htm
User avatar
Inna
Posts: 229
Joined: Thu Jul 10, 2008 11:01 am
Location: Israel

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby Inna » Sat Jun 06, 2009 1:39 pm

Tom

Thank you for this article. Very interesting.
"climb on your tears and be silent, like the rose on its ladder of thorn."
Paris 07/07/09, Tel-Aviv 24/09/09, Salzburg 27/07/10
User avatar
tomsakic
Posts: 5245
Joined: Wed Jul 03, 2002 2:12 pm
Location: Zagreb, Croatia
Contact:

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby tomsakic » Sat Jun 06, 2009 1:53 pm

Fan,

Klein/Cohen connection and question of their Jewish identity is also discussed in the other article by Winfried Siemerling (along with full transcript of Cohen's controversial speech about Klein in front of Jewish community in Montreal), in the book TAKE THIS WALTZ - http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/book3.html

Another important and great article on this topic (not Manhattan, but Cohen-Klein-Judaism) is online in the Canadian Poetry (No. 38): "Neurotic Affiliations: Klein, Layton, Cohen, and the Properties of Influence" by Michael Q. Abraham - http://www.canadianpoetry.ca/cpjrn/vol3 ... ations.htm
User avatar
hydriot
Posts: 878
Joined: Sun May 21, 2006 3:07 am
Location: back in the UK

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby hydriot » Sun Jun 07, 2009 3:40 am

Sarah M wrote:Who is Leonard Cohen referring to by saying "They sentenced me..." then saying "I'm coming to reward them". Who are "they" and "them"?
Leonard has often commented wrily on the lack of support he received from his label Columbia in the early part of his career. I have always assumed 'they' to be the executives of Columbia. 'Reward' is of course ironic, just as a slap in the face is a reward for bad behaviour.
What system was Cohen trying to change "For trying to change the system from within"?
I would assume the music business. Van Morrison is also very critical of how it is run.
and also, What's the significance of the last stanza, especially the last three lines?

Remember me, I brought your groceries in
Well it's Father's Day and everybody's wounded
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin


Thanks
The boy who delivers groceries from the store is one of the most poorly paid and least acknowledged workers in the world, exactly the sort of person whose face you wouldn't ever remember. I have often wondered if this may be a reference to the 19-year-old Spanish immigrant who started to teach Leonard the guitar ... but after giving three lessons, committed suicide.

Leonard's father died when he was young, so I imagine Father's Day must have been a very lonely time for him.
“If you do have love it's a kind of wound, and if you don't have it it's worse.” - Leonard, July 1988
lazariuk
Posts: 1859
Joined: Sun Oct 02, 2005 5:38 am
Location: Montreal

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby lazariuk » Sun Jun 07, 2009 3:50 am

I think that the song is about us little people taking back the world . Applying the same amount of thinking and cooperation that went into harmful things into life affirming things.

Manhattan was where we thought about and developed the Atomic bomb and Berlin was where we came up with the idea of the Holocaust and how to carry it out. I think he is saying that we are capable of big ideas and it has been demonstrated that the thoughts can lead to real results and so lets turn it around and think and act bravely and wisely and in a very big way toward life rather than death.
First Manhattan because it is best to first focus on making sure everyone is included just as those bombs had the ability to destroy the whole world, and then Berlin because it is only after everyone is safe that we would want to place particular attention to our own tribe or nation or whatever.
something like that
Manhattan is also advertising that can be turned from propaganda toward education and Berlin is industry that can become in sync with the only engine of survival.

In the introductions to the song that I saw above he seems to me to be saying. "I'm here, I'm ready I will keep doing my part but I'm just like you, we don't need leaders, I'm not trying to lead you but when you find your way to the task I will cooperate in my own little way, you won't find resistance in me"
Everything being said to you is true; Imagine what it is true of.
Eskimo
Posts: 269
Joined: Wed Mar 12, 2008 3:49 am

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby Eskimo » Sun Jun 07, 2009 5:18 am

LC in Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo:
"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."

I am not sufficiently familiar with Irving Layton's work to be sure about what poem Leonard paraphrases in the quote posted by Tom Sakic but Zoroastrian seems like a good candidate:

I want nothing
to ever come
between me and the sun

If I see a jetplane
I shall shoot it down

Philosophies
religions:
so many fearful excuses
for not letting the sun
nourish one
and burn him to a cinder

Look at the skeletons
of those oaks:
the proud flame of life
passed through them
without their once having heard
of Jesus or Marx

....as far as the groceries go, LC is the "grocer of despair"....
lazariuk
Posts: 1859
Joined: Sun Oct 02, 2005 5:38 am
Location: Montreal

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby lazariuk » Sun Jun 07, 2009 5:37 am

Eskimo wrote: ....as far as the groceries go, LC is the "grocer of despair"....
It that what you have been buying?
Everything being said to you is true; Imagine what it is true of.
John Etherington
Posts: 2540
Joined: Sat Sep 18, 2004 10:17 pm

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby John Etherington » Sun Jun 07, 2009 12:34 pm

There's not a great deal that I can add to the thoughts above, but there are a few key points I would like to make. The concept of Leonard as a jew taking Berlin (the capital of Germany) is particularly significant, as it was the key city that Hitler defended. It was also the city where Nico (who had rejected Leonard in a different way) first found her work as a model. Since "First We Take Manhattan" was the opening track on "I'm Your Man" it was a statement of bravado for Leonard. His previous album "Various Positions" had not been released in America, thus it seems appropriate that he should want to conquer the city that is the centre of America's cultural life. As Jennifer Warnes points out in the "Songs from a Life" documentary, the "weapons" that Leonard is referring to are musical weapons. The idea of the underdog re-affirming their value occurs repeatedly in Leonard's work. For example "They locked up a man who wanted to rule the world/The fools they locked up the wrong man" and (from "Die Gedanken Sind Frei" ) "and if the tyrants take me and throw me in prison/my thoughts will break free like these blossoms in season”. Leonard has also placed much emphasis on the necessity of discipline in his work, and of conducting affairs like a military strategy. This has never been more evident than in the way he has undertaken his "never-ending" tour.

There are two quotes from Leonard on "First We Take Manhattan" in Jim Devlin's compilation "Leonard Cohen in His Own Words"

"It's a kind of outsider speaking, it's somebody who never thought much of what he got. I can't identify with it completely. In the context of the song it's just the voice of enlightened bitterness. [it] is a demented, menacing, geopolitical manifesto in which I really do offer to take over the world with any like spirits who want to go on this adventure with me" (LC 1988).

"The chorus refers to all those newsreel pictures we've seen of the dispossessed moving through the train station, the bag people on the most obvious level, the homeless on the most obvious level, the refugees on the most obvious level, but even those people in apparently more secure or profitable situations who feel that they have not yet arrived at any significant situation" (LC 1988).

The final line of the song “it’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded” is particularly significant, as the loss of Leonard’s father can be seen as the root of his “woundedness” , even though he makes light of it (in “Everybody Knows”) when he sings “everybody’s got that broken feeling/ like their father or their dog just died”.

All good things, John E
User avatar
tomsakic
Posts: 5245
Joined: Wed Jul 03, 2002 2:12 pm
Location: Zagreb, Croatia
Contact:

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby tomsakic » Sun Jun 07, 2009 12:48 pm

John Etherington wrote:“everybody’s got that broken feeling/ like their father or their dog just died”
The trauma of losing father at your young age indeed informs whole Cohen's work, according to Nadel's biography Various Positions.

The dog is Tovarish - his childhood dog who died and, according to Nadel, was 2nd big loss for a small kid without father. LC never again had the dog after that childhood trauma - until Nova, his daughter's dog, in late 1990s and 2000s (I believe Nova is still around).

Both experience - the death of the father, and the death of the dog - are also reworked as Lawrence Breavman's experiences and childhood memories in Leonard's first novel The Favourite Game.
John Etherington
Posts: 2540
Joined: Sat Sep 18, 2004 10:17 pm

Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby John Etherington » Sun Jun 07, 2009 12:55 pm

...underlining the fact that "The Favourite Game" seems to be far more autobiograhical than Leonard would intially have people believe!

Return to “Comments & Questions”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 2 guests