"First We Take Manhattan" as written by and Leonard Cohen....
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


Lyrics submitted by bambi3k

"First We Take Manhattan" as written by Leonard Cohen

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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  • +5
    General CommentWell, I thought a lot about the meaning of this song, and my conclusion is it has very little to do with terrorism, unless you call the music of Britney Spears and her kind terrorism (and I must admit I'm inclined to).

    To me this is a song about a guy who's realized he can't run from his destiny, and his true calling is music and poetry:

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

    Singer/songwriter ignored by the know-it-alls. Could even be he's talking about Bob Dylan or probably himself.

    "I'm coming now I'm coming to reward them
    First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin"

    He's back, he's better, and he's ready now (which he also states later on in the song).

    "I'm guided by a signal in the heavens
    I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin"

    It's his destiny. He was born into this world to change it through his art.

    "I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons
    First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin"

    Music is his weapon. Today his country, tomorrow the world!

    "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 I told you I was one of those"

    He'd like to settle down, but life on the road is his way. He doesn't have the mind of a settler, husband, whatever.

    "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"

    He's starting to get recognized. She knows that this means he'll be on the road even more often, and it's easy to stop him by giving him an ultimatum, but she feels it's not right.

    "How many nights I prayed for this: to let my work begin
    First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin"

    He's practiced, he knows what people want, he knows what he wants, and so it all begins. Finally the masses will hear his message.

    "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 your system
    First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin"

    He doesn't care much for the pop industry where image is everything.

    "And thank you for those items that you sent me
    The monkey and the plywood violin"

    From "mere" poetry to song lyrics/music. He has certainly developed a lot.

    "I practiced every night and now I'm ready
    First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin"

    As said before, he's ready to spread the word.

    "Remember me, I used to live for music
    Remember me, I brought your groceries in"

    He tried to be a regular man in the street, but it's not his way. He used to live in his own little musical world, and now he's come out into the real one.

    "It's Father's Day and everybody's wounded
    First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin"

    He'd like to stay at home, but it's really not his way. He has to follow his calling.

    Well, there you have it - my interpretation of this excellent song. I apologize if my thoughts are hard to follow sometimes, but after all I am Norwegian. ;)
    crazypoeton June 30, 2008   Link
  • +3
    General CommentI am getting a completely different take on this song. Rather than analyze the entire song, I'll just leave a few notes. For some reason, when Leonard talks to someone intimately in song lyrics, I imagine he is speaking to Joni Mitchell. I know she is just a straw man at this point (no offense, Joni), but it gives me a point of reference.

    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....

    This is a sad truth about Leonard Cohen's life. In at least one of Joni Mitchell's songs, she refers to him as "the priest." Cohen has foregone many of the pleasures in life to remain dedicated to his music, and to the tremendous proliferation of his body of work. But he seems to be weighed down by his monk-like existence (literally, for five years he went into seclusion in a monastery near Los Angeles, adopting the name "Jikan," which means "silence,"). The reduction of his entire life to being someone standing in line at a train station emphasizes his very somber and contemplative observation of the world around him. He is a lonely sentry, bearing witness to the machinations of those with social power today.

    The "twenty years of boredom" probably refers to his many years of being a troubadour, a less strident voice. But Leonard is nothing if not serious as a heart attack. His true calling is as an iconoclast, rather than as a conformist.

    I see parallels in my own life. I spent more than twenty years being bored to tears in the office world, but still, I learned a great deal about people and social politics, which informs my writing now. I even had a dream once where I was deemed a silent angel, and this dream has always haunted me, because I see so much more than I speak of. So, of course, I relate to this song on a very personal level.
    Ewizobethon April 07, 2014   Link
  • +2
    General CommentCan we just clear up this sister/system question? Sister is correct (I've got the album and it's on the lyric sheet). However, unlike the lyrics above, it's "my sister" not "your sister". If you don't believe me, take a look at the following website, the Leonard Cohen Files, which Mr Cohen himself contributes to:

    leonardcohenfiles.com/

    Here, the relevant verse reads as follows:

    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

    Above, losttango refers to a website that has gathered together Mr Cohen's comments on his own songs. I don't know if Leonard Cohen Files is that website, but I'll have a look and get back to you all.
    Strawsonianon November 15, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General CommentCohen has definitely said that this song is about the terrorist mindset. There's a website (sorry don't have a link) which has gathered together all of his comments on each song. The line moving through the station is I think prisoners being transported from one jail to another (I saw this once in Italy - home of the Red Brigades).

    I do think it's about Cohen going on tour as well. These songs will rarely be pinned down to a single interpretation. The monkey and the plywood violin I take to be a self-deprecating reference to his body and his musical talent.

    Incidentally, the lyric above is incorrect - the line should read "my sister" not "your".
    losttangoon November 05, 2007   Link
  • +1
    Song MeaningI’d say it’s about terrorism, without any Nostradamus-style crystal ball.

    9/11 were not the first terrorist attacks to happen. The original music video from 1987 (youtube.com/…) begins with a radio announcer’s voice saying "Was die Attentäter betrifft, die in Berlin den Anschlag auf die deutsch-arabische Gesellschaft verübt haben, ist die Polizei einen Schritt weiter gekommen."
    b-ray has already translated this statement. The attack mentioned happened on March 29, 1986, one year before the song was released.

    Leonard Cohen himself is quoted (pagesperso-orange.fr/pilgraeme/…):
    “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.”
    and
    “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.

    This website might be the one that losttango was talking about.

    So I guess it is a song about terrorism; however, songs like “First We Take Manhattan” or “The Future” don’t make him a Nostradamus-like prophet. It just shows his ability to envisage what society could look like in the future, in the same way George Orwell did, or H.G. Wells and Jules Verne did concerning technology.
    pallando14on April 04, 2009   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationCohen hooks phrasing and seemingly wordless messages into a poetic/singing experience. Like all good poets he expects you to tell him what he’s talking about. So, it’s my turn. This is a verse about revenge. What the German people allowed Hitler to do to the Jews is, in our day, inexcusable.
    But the purging of Jews is nothing new to the history books. Manhattan represents Hollywood, Las Vegas, and anywhere else the communications gods can thrive. Jews are masters of communication and own these towns. Next in these appropriations is Berlin to prove that guy Goebbles was just an amateur. .
    RohnEnghon March 17, 2013   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThough the "modern" arrangement and production of the time gives this song a cheesy veneer, it's still pretty cool. The music alone gives me visuals of Jim and William Reed riding a convertible at night, looking like Miami Vice but still retaining their Psychocandy-era haircuts. I guess the lyrics are about fascism (or so i've read somewhere).
    mr.mr.onbrokenwingson June 23, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI think the words are cooler than the actual song, but its still rockin
    pikachu1559on January 29, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis one was a powerful comeback hit, not least on the airwaves. I was in college at the time, doing an exchange year in France, and remember hearing it on the radio night after night the winter of '88-'89, myself deep over my books. The lyrics semed strangely foreboding, but in just one or two years, they'd sound prophetic.
    Lines such as "Do you see the line there, moving thru that station" or "You know the way to stop me, but you don't have the discipline" seemed to have presaged the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet union. In fact, the lurics are somewhere mid-80s i think. Jennifer Warnes' powerful version came out in '86.

    Both versions are very strong, but different; the futuristic synth beat of the "I'm Your Man" take fits the song like a glove.
    tinderboxon June 19, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI always thought that this song was somehow about terrorism, though it's really hard to say for sure. I think it's because the Jennifer Warnes version starts with a sample of a news reporter who says (in German): "Regarding the assassins resposible for the attack on the German-Arabian Society in Berlin, the police have made some progress..." before being drowned out by the instrumental intro.
    b-rayon August 27, 2006   Link

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