“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.
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.”
— Leonard Cohen, on the meaning of First We Take Manhattan
Well, that clears everything right up, doesn’t it?
Because his music was embraced by the counterculture and the folksies, Leonard Cohen has often be mischaracterized as some sort of hippie troubadour. In reality, his lyrics were frequently dark and threatening, which is one reason that a whole generation of listeners first discovered Cohen as a result of several of his song being included on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. In First We Take Manhattan, he sings from the point of view of someone who is ready to give up music and love and go to war. “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.”
Though Cohen wrote this song, it was first recorded by Jennifer Warnes in 1986. Cohen would not release his own version until two years later, when it was the first track on his album, I’m Your Man. The music video for Cohen’s version was directed by French photographer Dominique Isserman, who was in a romantic relationship with Cohen at the time. The video features Cohen on the beach, with the ocean standing in the way of his promise to take Manhattan and then Berlin.
In 2009, Cohen’s version of the song later played over the end credits of Watchmen.