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45 at 33: Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan. Next stop Berlin

It’s been covered by everyone from R.E.M. to Joe Cocker and the House Of Love, First We Take Manhattan is a moody slab of synth-pop by the high priest of pathos, Leonard Cohen and it’s spookily prescient. 

Leonard Cohen, like Bowie and Dylan, didn’t transition easily into the 1980s. Of course, it goes without saying that Hallelujah is something of an ubiquitous standard now, thanks to immortal reinterpretations of the song by Jeff Buckley, John Cale and k.d. lang. But at the stage of Cohen’s career during which it was released, it went mostly unnoticed. Its parent album, Various Positions, barely troubled any of the charts that matter either.

Armed with a surfeit of dry wit and nagging hooks, the follow-up, I’m Your Man, proved the perfect antidote to eighties extravagance, and sold better worldwide (a top fifty placing in the UK for the first time since 1977’s Phil Spector collaboration, Death Of A Ladies’ Man) and earned the Canadian singer-songwriter his share of “return to form” praise.

Only it wasn’t; leadoff track First We Take Manhattan — written by Cohen but first recorded two years earlier in a folky rock take by his former backup singer Jennifer Warnes plus axe cameo from Stevie Ray Vaughan — made it perfectly clear this was an entirely new form for the shades-wearing, banana-chomping troubadour.

This one still had the rakish, pitch-black wit, but was a bit glossier, a bit more modern; one with a studio full of synths instead of a dark room with an acoustic guitar and a pair of sunnies. 

I’ve read somewhere along the way that one of the reasons Cohen got into electronic music was because synthesizers gave him a possibility to play whatever he wanted the way he heard it in his mind. Like Bowie or even McCartney to an extent, not being musically literate in a formal sense meant whenever he recorded music with professional musicians, they often had the freedom to improvise and play what they wanted. In his twilight years, synth-based music gave this music maven some sort of creative freedom and control over his own songs.

Despite the pseudo disco/funk influences (and those Stock Aitken Waterman-esque backing vocals that have never sat well with me), First We Take Manhattan was still too weird, too austere to fit in so comfortably next to the shiny dance pop of late eighties MTV.

With his deliciously sinister half-croon, half-croak, it sounded like Yello had replaced their recent guest star Shirley Bassey with her dad. Or, the Pet Shop Boys had taken to substituting Neil Tennant’s tremulous tones for, not their then protégé Patsy Kensit — Eighth Wonder’s I’m Not Scared was released the same February ’88 week as Manhattan, amusingly — but her depressive sleazy old uncle.

In a parallel universe you can imagine the dictator deciding it would be a novelty hit in Germany, despite the references to “then we take Berlin” not because of them. The lines hold political meaning, as Cohen is essentially saying the then yet-to-be-reunified-Berlin of the communist East Germany and the capitalist island of New York 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.

As always with a former poet like LenCo, his lyrics are full to the brim with meaning, emotions, and imagery.

Lots of doomy, monochromatic imagery.

In a backstage interview in Toronto that same year, Cohen partially explained the song’s meaning, but in another trademark cat and mouse game he shared with Bowie, was careful not to give too much away.

“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…” 

Writing for The Guardian in 2015, Ben Hewitt drew attention to the apocalyptic nature of the subject matter and its threatening vision of enforced social collapse, imagining the narrator greedily eyeing world domination like a vengeful Bond villain. Indeed, a hideously unlucky thirteen years later, terrorists did take Manhattan on 9/11, with the World Trade Center its centrepiece. That pop duo I mentioned earlier even released a song they’d originally planned to call Suicide Bomber.

Nonetheless, Manhattan redefined a veteran artist’s career with a dark disco take on europop that felt a little iffy, a little dangerous, but above all reinforced that the previous generation’s heroes could still somehow stay ahead of the pack. 

So long Leonard Cohen.

Steve Pafford

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