Meaning of First We Take Manhattan

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Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby Eskimo » Sun Jun 07, 2009 3:41 pm

lazariuk wrote:
Eskimo wrote: far as the groceries go, LC is the "grocer of despair"....
It that what you have been buying?
....sure - it can be found between cinnamon and fennel among other medicinal spices:

Let judges secretly despair of justice: their verdicts will be more acute. Let generals secretly despair of triumph; killing will be defamed. Let priests secretly despair of faith: their compassion will be true.
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First We Take Manhattan

Postby doran » Thu Jun 11, 2009 6:39 pm

Looking for insights on the meaning of this song.
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Re: First We Take Manhattan

Postby doran » Thu Jun 11, 2009 6:42 pm

Okay, I found a previous post--interesting, about an unrecognised singer awaiting acceptance. Thanks.
John Etherington
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Re: First We Take Manhattan

Postby John Etherington » Thu Jun 11, 2009 10:11 pm

Hi doran,

Check out the thread "A Poem's Meaning", which is currently a short way down this same page.

All the best, John E

---- and threads merged ---- Tom
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Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby Inna » Mon Jun 15, 2009 4:16 pm

Tom Sakic wrote: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 -

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 - ... ations.htm

Thank you so very much for this article. It has clarified a few things for me regarding Cohen's literary and cultural heritage: Klein and Layton - two very different Jewish post Holocaust poets. Although the article talk about Cohen's first three books of poetry, yet I can find similar echoes in his songs: speech vs. silence, heritage vs. originality. The only thing I would add is the influence of F. G. Lorca. Lorca's influence is evident already in Let Us Compare Mythologies. But, of course, the article is about the Jewish neurotic traditions, the Spanish ones is a separate matter.

Thanks for this engaging text.

"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
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Re: Meaning of First We Take Manhattan

Postby Innerarity » Sun Jul 05, 2009 7:30 am

Well, I haven't studied long enough Leonard's lyrics (as I intend to) but I can get a shallow glimpse of what "First..." might be about.

The sure thing is that it is somehow related to the Eastern German terrorist factions. But that won't sufficient to explain the whole of the song. Well, you should also consider Hydrot that in the moment of writing, and specifically when writing poetry, the amount of connections you make between several elements of your experience are so vast that the finalized "product" isn't only explainable by the examination of it's parts. In the literary process, you end up creating from many different matrixes the piece, but this selection isn't completely at random neither is completely at will. The author will include his own experiences and somehow relate completely different topics in the same creation, and somehow, by a process I really don't want to understand because I personally feel it completely blows the miracle of the arts, these opposite topics find a way to encounter things in common.

So, the sister whose demise becomes so painful to the speaker may have something to do with the image industry, with it's diet pills, it's focus on youth and physical beauty. Youth and physical beauty which are so deeply embedded on the hearts and minds of the wild spirited radicals who join groups like the Baader-Meinhoff, or The Red Army, or the IRA, etc. People who dream large, whose desire to seize all those glorious youthful sensations into a single blow, taking it a city at a time. And these people are determined, feeling as though they we're destined, guided by a signal in the heavens People with large idealism, in love with the feelings, in love with the arts, who wanna live through them Who get other youngsters like them to fall deeply in love, who like them as they are when they are bearded, smooth looking rebels, with no steady income, but who turn their backs the minute that handsome rebel accomplishes some of his/her dreams. ... And they do something awful, get thrown in jail, and they lose complete track of where their lives are headed to....

This is a very literal approximation if you want the truth. But I think that's where the whole point of the song lies. It's about the deception the person feels as time strikes them, as they see their ideals gone through the not very gold plated toilet of history. And, too, when they see the things they weren't quite right about, yet, they are too cynical now to feel remorse or to head themselves in another direction, just living for the day's end. I like to think that's what LC had in mind when writing this... just as I like to think all the revolutionary birds from the 60's 70' feel nowadays, looking back as to how things ended up, not quite as lovely as they wanted, not quite as clean as their movement wanted to move.

So, at in the end, the poem itself is a "matrix" where you put your own perspective, and you come out with your own interpretation afterwards. The whole point about poetry and literature is that it give a way wider margin of freedom to interpretate what you may want, and that way, repeat the same process the author deploys in the creation of the work. And the better the work is, the more the meaningful and insightful interpretations.

And don't forget to just enjoy it for a while, It's only poetry but it feels so good.
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Re: First We Take Manhattan?

Postby sturgess66 » Tue Jul 07, 2009 5:48 pm

hydriot wrote: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.
Just found this thread. Sounds good to me. Good post. :)
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Re: Meaning of First We Take Manhattan

Postby FredR » Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:15 am

I will have to respectfully disagree with the lot of you. I think, and this is just my personal opinion, that most of the lyrics are typical of writers under the influence of drugs. They seem like random statements, and I think to find a consistent meaning in them, you would have to be on an acid trip.
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Re: Meaning of First We Take Manhattan

Postby luigi » Sun Jun 30, 2013 5:28 pm

I feel as if Leonard Cohen with "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin" refered to the Russian revolutionary song "Budyonny's March" wherein a verse says something like (translations vary and different versions exist) "First we take Warsaw, then we take Berlin".

When in 1920 the Red Army was defeating the counterrevolution in the Civil War, the Red Cavalry had to counterattack the Polish Army which had invaded Russia.

At first the Red Cavalry was very successfull doing that and advanced irresistibly West.
Meanwhile everywhere in Europe social unrest was rising and strikes were called.

So Lenin made plans for the Red Cavalry to continue the advance right into Western Europe to bring it the World Revolution.
As the Red Army would march on, everywhere local proletarians would join and overthrow the capitalist regimes.
It was then that the song was created.

Eventually local people did not see the Red Cavalry as liberators and the Polish Army defeated her at the gates of Warsaw.

The World Revolution was lost and never again would seem nearer than in these few months.

I admit it is quite hard to comply with the rest of the lyrics...
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Re: Meaning of First We Take Manhattan

Postby swamishiva » Thu Nov 19, 2015 4:47 pm

thank you, everybody on this post.
after so many decades of being with LC, "keeping his songs alive" for the first time i found enough information about FIRST WE TAKE MANHATTEN
to understand it (more or less), especially through lazariuks interpretations.

still i`d like to highlight the beginning of the song, because this has been clear to me from the beginning:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom.
For trying to change the system from within....

to change the system from within: that is the system we`re living in. politically, socially, economically, everything,
and to change from within, certainly must be utterly boring.

from the outside it`s more juicy, then you`ll be a revolutionary, a rebell, a terrorist, whatever.

so that`s my very small contribution to this post, as a non-natural-english orator, now acting "as if" LC would read this i say:

field commander cohen.
keep going
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Re: Meaning of First We Take Manhattan

Postby garou » Tue Mar 07, 2017 8:53 pm

In Wikipedia page of the song the meaning says "Cohen explained himself in a backstage interview:[1] "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.'"....Jesus,Freud,Marx,Einstein alongside with Irving Layton are Jews.In my personal opinion this song is a manifestation of Jewish movement more like a philosophical terrorism movement against the common "west civilization".

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