A dark anthem for the post-American century


Expanded from the 6-23-2002 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

A few weeks ago, I got a letter from someone on the staff of the department of journalism and communication at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn. She brought up a subject near and dear to me, as longtime readers and erstwhile radio listeners will attest.

"While surfing around, searching for the meaning of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen's 'First, We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin', I found your website," she wrote.

"At the risk of sounding ignorant, please can you tell me the intrepretation of this song?"

As deadline for this column approached, I put together a late-night jotting of potential topics. Alas, it was the same laundry list I've carped about to little effect for years. Sometimes, even the greatest complainers get tired of complaining. How many ways can you write and re-write tales of social and legal injustice?

The motel children of Reno's east and west Fourth Street have now borne a second generation of waifs who will grow up on pockmarked asphalt parking lots strewn with needles. Nevada retains her shameful standing among the cruelest states for those not wealthy, white and well-connected.

I found myself out of prose with which to protest. Time to look to the bards.

I first became aware of Cohen's dark composition when he performed it on "Saturday Night Live," probably when the album "I'm Your Man" was first released in 1988. I remember a guy with an angular face surrounded by a sexy chorus.

In 1990, Cohen's "Everybody Knows" from the same CD became the featured theme of "Pump Up the Volume," a teen angst motion picture starring Christian Slater as a high school pirate radio host. I was so enthralled with the song, it became an alternating theme for my radio show in several markets and the source of oft-quoted excerpts in newspaper columns ever since.

After September 11, the dark vision of "First We Take Manhattan" has played in the back of my head like a necromantic funeral dirge. Here it is.


First We Take Manhattan

   They sentenced me to 20 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 the 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, I told you I was one of those.

   You loved me as a loser, now you're afraid I just might win.
You have the way to stop me, but you don't have the discipline.
   How many nights I've prayed for this: to let my work begin.
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

   I don't like your fashion business, mister.
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 and now I'm ready.
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

   Remember me, I used to live for music.
Remember me, I brought your groceries in.
   It's Father's Day and everybody's wounded.
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.



As the son of a family of immigrants, I never could have afforded a college education had not the California State University System been expanded to accommodate post-WWII G.I. Bill students and the Baby Boom generation. By the time I got to Fresno State, the four-year school was affordable, especially for California residents. Unlike today, a student like me could work a job or two while attending class full time and look forward to graduating debt-free.

By the Sixties, the Golden State's three-tiered university system had become the greatest educational institution in the history of the world. In 1968, the year I graduated, Ronald Reagan was elected governor and he began the still ongoing campaign to degrade and destroy it.

How good was it? My freshman literature professor was Philip Levine, a skinny little guy with Coke-bottle glasses, a long, impish face and a bird's nest shock of curly hair. Even in his 30s, Levine was already a rumpled professor, always looking a bit uncomfortable in a linty sportcoat and wrinkled slacks.

I took every class he taught at Fresno State because he was the best standup comic I've ever seen. His humor made learning a pleasure. His book of poems, "What Work Is," won a National Book Award in 1991. In 1996, he achieved the Holy Grail, the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

One time, a student complained that interpreting poetry was too difficult. Mr. Levine promptly quoted Robert Penn Warren: "Do not understand me too easily."

You should have to work a little to understand great art, Levine taught us. The process will involve you with the work and draw you into it. Levine taught us that great art can survive — indeed, demands — many interpretations at many levels.

For instance, a listener can take Don McLean's rock classic "American Pie" at its primary and most obvious level, a lament on the 1959 death of singer/songwriter Buddy Holly. It's also a history of the first two decades of rock 'n' roll. You may further view it as a metaphor for the disconnection from the affluent society which Baby Boomers felt as they grew up. Or you can expand your thinking to the big picture, an indictment of the direction of the country at the height of the Vietnam War.

Back to Manhattan.

Verse one of Cohen's piece may be taken as a reflection of the simmering anger of a frustrated student looking at poor prospects in the world of work. Does he just fantasize about revenge for all that learning for nothing, or is he serious? Think of that student for a moment as Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School. [1]

Uproot that student from west to mideast. The criminal profile of your average terrorist is a disaffected young Arab man who sees no future after serving his sentence of 20 years of boredom.

Taking Manhattan makes Cohen look like a psychic 14 years before 9/11. Taking Berlin can be interpreted on several levels. At their most superficial, these lyrics may be viewed as insider sarcasm about the hassles of the pop music business.
The Beatles had their first hit in Germany, which gave them much-needed credibility back home. (A prophet is without honor in his own country.)

Deutschland today has a substantial immigrant Moslem population. Islamic extremists kidnapped and killed a dozen members of the Israeli wrestling team at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Several of the 9/11 hijackers lived in Germany. The British royal family is predominantly of German extraction. Pick whatever suits your taste from the artist's buffet.

Verse two sings to every unpopular ugly duckling steppenwolf of any shade who was ever bullied on the playground. Viewed from the standpoint of a disaffected Palestinian youth, it becomes even more poignant. Islam is a peaceful religion. So-called holy men really have to stretch for an interpretation to justify war in the name of their god. Without a signal from the heavens, no true believer can kill. American Taliban John Walker Lindh told his superiors he could find no authorization for war in the Koran.

Cohens' female-voiced chorus is even more fascinating. On one level, they can be a rock star's groupies. On another, the chorus lyrics portray racism, hatred and prejudice. Imagine young lovers separated by religion, ethnicity or skin color. In the final line, picture a young man watching his Brown Sugar board a train for Auschwitz as hate deals love an excruciating death.

Verse three contains the critical line of the song: "You have the way to stop me, but you don't have the discipline."

Does anything better tell the story of how the most powerful nation on earth remains incapable of defending itself against fanatical zealots? The same line applies to all the failings which led to the U.S. debacle in the Vietnam War. All over the world, fast-moving guerrillas still fight effectively against the Corporate Colossus of the West.

Do not understand me too easily.

I'll leave the final three verses up to you with a few hints. Get into the minds of warriors. One observer said the most beautiful sight he ever saw was composed by the colorful banners and the sunlight bouncing off the gleaming weapons of Confederate soldiers under Gen. George Pickett — just before they were annihilated by Union troops at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Think about Adolf Hitler in his salad days, contemplating the beauty of his weapons; his fascination with strong, slender women; his frustration as an artist. Think of Father's Day in the Fatherland. First we take Berlin. Then we take Manhattan.

Just like the Beatles.

Your comments will be welcome in this space and at Lehigh University. Please send your interpretations and predilections.

Be well. Raise hell.


1. In all the tons of newsprint and hours of media time expended on the Colorado massacre, I saw not one mention of the irony inherent in the high school's very name. In the Victorian language of flowers, columbine stands for "I will not give thee up." Little wonder that columbine is a mainstay in the landscaping of graveyards and thus an occasional metaphor for the end of life or a relationship. Columbine is also the Colorado state flower.

"Columbine comes from the word 'columba,' meaning 'dove,' because of the supposed resemblance of the flowers to the head and neck of a dove, or because the spurs of the flowers look like a cluster of doves drinking at a fountain," according to the University of West Virginia. Ever see doves used in funereal settings? Ever seen a mortuary or graveyard named Columbine?

"First We Take Manhattan" copyright © 1988, Leonard Cohen; from "I'm Your Man," CBS Records, New York, NY. | U-News | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
Guinn Watch | Deciding Factors


© 2002 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 33-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.

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