First We Take Manhattan – Leonard Cohen

So Long Leonard Cohen

This has been an incredibly tough week. Donald Trump’s winning of the US elections against Hilary Clinton has been a shock for the whole world, and now we all stand powerless, unable to take this back. As the world tries to figure out a way to avoid collateral damage, and many on social media try to find some hope and light in the cracks, we hear of Leonard Cohen’s passing.

This morning, we were woken up with the news that the Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist died at the age of 82. Born in Canada, Cohen started as a writer, and after seeing failure in pursuing an economic stability, he moved to the United States in 1967 to pursue a career as a folk singer. There, he recorded his first album that same year, Songs of Leonard Cohen, and became known in the Warhol’s Factory in New York. A blossoming career began.

Cohen’s songs often explored themes of political and social justice, especially his latest album The Future, where songs like Democracy social and political issues in USA:


Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
It’s coming through a crack in the wall;
on a visionary flood of alcohol;
from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all.  


War is also present in Cohen’s work. It is reported that in 1974, challenged over his serious demeanor in concerts and the military salutes he ended them with, Cohen remarked, “I sing serious songs, and I’m serious onstage because I couldn’t do it any other way…I don’t consider myself a civilian. I consider myself a soldier, and that’s the way soldiers salute”. Cohen lived fully, lived many lives, and loved all of them. Born a Jewish, he was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1996, having also been attracted to Scientology for a short period.

In First We Take Manhattan, released in 1987 in the album I’m Your Man, Cohen discusses extremism, which is rampant these days in USA after the newly elected President was announced on Tuesday night. In a backstage interview in 1993, Cohen tried to explain the song:

“I felt for some time 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)”

Sadly, as we are seeing all over Europe and in United States, extremism is still driving politics and society, and it is a too common response to today’s burdens. The refugee crisis coupled with economic failure, has brought a wave of racism and extremism in Europe, where more extremist right wing movements are becoming more popular.

Cohen also added on another occasion:

“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.’

Very in line with 80s new wave style, and certainly very different from his original folksy style, this song was written during the cold war, and the references are more than obvious.

Today we mourn his death and celebrate his life.  Man’s attraction to extremism (extreme consumerism, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, racism and more) is actually something we should acknowledge and study, understanding where it comes from and how we can avoid it. The answer to Trump winning the election might seem like it coul donly be extreme, but we cannot always find solutions in extremism.

They sentenced me to twenty 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 (guided, guided)
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin (guided, guided by)
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons (guided)
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

(I’d really like to live beside you, baby)
(I love your body and your spirit and your clothes)
(But you see that line there moving through the station?)
(I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those)

Ah, you loved me as a loser
But now you’re worried that I just might win
You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

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’d really like to live beside you, baby)
(I love your body and your spirit and your clothes)
(But you see that line there moving through the station?)
(I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those)

And I thank you for those items that you sent me, ha ha ha
The monkey and the plywood violin
I practiced every night, now I’m ready
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin (I am guided)

Ah remember me, I used to live for music (baby)
Remember me, I brought your groceries in (ooh, baby, yeah)
Well, it’s Father’s Day and everybody’s wounded (baby)
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Sounds from the Bucket
Virginia Vigliar

Virginia is a freelance journalist and editor based in Barcelona, consults for Oxfam in Spain and the Netherlands, and she is the Chief Editor of WIB. She is a passionate advocate of human rights and freedom of speech. And a meme enthusiast. She has worked in the development sector in Malawi and Kenya and Somalia before returning to Europe, where she gained experience in the United Kingdom, Norway, and Spain. To see her work, look at her website here:
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Words In The Bucket is a team of global citizens with the common goal of raising awareness and information about issues related to human rights protection, social inclusion, development and environment.

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