Friday, 24 October 2014

First We Take Manhattan by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen is a bit like Bob Dylan, if Dylan was a grizzled ‘Nam veteran who had seen far too much.

The vibe:
This is so aggressively synth-pop that, should they ever need one, this could be the Pet Shop Boys’ war cry. The verses are undoubtedly sinister, with Cohen’s tones so ominous they serve less as a musical friend and more as a spectre haunting your ears, or a local small town trader in a horror B movie warning a young person not to explore something that they’re inevitably going to explore.  

Female backing vocals only haunt further, but in the Cohen-less chorus’ they lift the mood somewhat, adding a sprinkling of cheese to something of an otherwise grey Eastern European stew. Nonetheless you can hardly let loose and start dancing - you remain on constant guard, like when playing a suspiciously quiet level of a 90s first-person shooter set in a haunted house.

The Album:
I’m Your Man (1988)
Note: While researching for this very article, I discovered that the song was originally written for Jennifer Warnes for her Famous Blue Raincoat album, featuring songs entirely written or co-written by Cohen. Just so any pedants know that I know that. 

Very much in keeping with First We Take Manhattan, sinister and ominous remain the themes of the day. Even if you disregard the lyrics, Everybody Knows is the musical equivalent of someone drip-feeding you emails of every embarrassing story, photograph, video and secret of your life, copying in an additional family member, friend or senior work colleague with each line. If I’m Your Man is a declaration of romantic intent designed to sweep a lady off her feet, then it seems likely only to work with the types who send letters to serial killers in prison.

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
I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin
I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons
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


And I thank you for those items that you sent me
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
Remember me, I brought your groceries in
Well it's Father's Day and everybody's wounded
1980s Berlin is unlikely to fall without a fierce fight 
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Cohen sets out an ambitious two-stage military strategy, which consists of the initial capture of the economic and cultural hub of the United States of America followed by an assault on the capital of the then German Democratic Republic (East Germany), although he doesn't specify whether he plans to invade East, West or both. Although Cohen does not expand further on the strength of his forces, neglecting to reference any allies he may have in this endeavour (other than a female companion who emphasises many of his points), he does confirm that whatever coalition of the willing he may be part of, they do possess ‘weapons’. Seemingly at ease with declaring details of the plan publicly, the offensive is to be carried out on Father’s Day, which is either late June or 40 days after Easter, depending on whether he is looking at a North American or German calendar.

Cohen’s main motive is one of retribution and revenge for a series of misdemeanours and gripes he feels wronged by, presumably blaming the US and German governments for their occurrence: a particularly bizarre political prison sentence, distaste for one male individual’s clothing enterprise, the diet pill industry overall and an unspecified incident with his sibling. Although appreciative of both an exotic pet and a cheaply constructed musical instrument bought for him while serving his sentence (the monkey is presumably a WWF style remote adoption), this is not enough to placate his territorial ambitions. While miscarriages of justice are undoubtedly painful, and while 20th Century capitalist culture may have seemed distasteful to many, Cohen seems unable to grasp that violence in the face of his adversaries’ undoubted strength is a counter-productive measure, likely only to result only in further penal punishment.

Cohen’s accomplice takes advantage of his absence on the chorus to discuss other matters, informing a romantic partner that, although she’d like to, she is unable to move in with him due to the nature of her commute, expressing annoyance that she is repeating this.

He may look cool, but his strategic
planning leaves a lot to be desired 
Cohen is muddled and confused as to tangibly just how he plans to carry out this insurgency, relying
on a combination of divine intervention, anomalies on his skin and the aesthetically pleasing nature of his sides’ aforementioned weaponry. The only indication that he has thought the plan through properly is his late admission that he intends to take advantage of a situation in which ‘everybody’s wounded’, perhaps a terrorist incident or natural disaster of some kind; nonetheless, even if every single member of the US and German’s combined 1.5m active personnel were incapacitated in some way, one would still presume that they, the general population and their allies would have the wherewithal to defeat a Canadian folk singer. Bear in mind that in February 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev’s faltering Soviet Union, with its teetering economy and political instability, would have been in no position to assist in any military adventures against their Cold War foe. Furthermore, with the Berlin Wall still a year from coming down, the divided German capital would have been host to a great deal of military activity and heightened security - whether attacking from west or east, he could expect fierce resistance.

Yet at no stage does Cohen reference the difficulties he might encounter by going toe-to-toe with the world and Europe’s strongest nations, making no contingency plans for a successful defence of the territories, nor the inevitable international condemnation that would follow the attack. Indeed, the very fact that his first two missions involve assaults on heavily protected cities of symbolic significance and not softer resource-rich provincial targets suggest that he is at best a naïve military commander. With the invasion having never come to fruition, one can only assume Cohen was successfully talked out of the folly by a more astute lieutenant general. 

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