Power Play: Brian Williams, Leonard Cohen, and “First We Take Manhattan”

In "First We Take Manhattan", Leonard Cohen recognized the shared appeal of extremism in politics and art as the allure of power.

“First We Take Manhattan” is undoubtedly a song about violence, absolutism, and the mindset that fuses them.

One night in April, as he watched footage of Tomahawk cruise missiles being launched from a Navy ship toward an airbase in Syria, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams intoned, “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.'” (Had he not been on-camera, Williams might have claimed he was on board one of those ships.)

“They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them… a brief flight over to this airfield,” he continued, edging close to outright personification of the missiles. One wonders if they’re not too preoccupied by their journey to admire the starry sky under which they sail before they smash into and mutilate…

Improvising odes to the awful yet spectacular yet mundane live images of war technology — images often scrubbed of sound, as they were behind Williams as he spoke, and showing only the bloodless American point of origin — is Gulf War-era broadcasting technique. Its ceremonial tone is an attempt to live up to the gravity of the moment. The formal façade of the hypothetical is shed immediately: like academics who respond to a question with “I would say that…” and then go right ahead and say it, Williams claimed he was “tempted to quote” Cohen and then did so without hesitation. The reach for the poetic, the pronunciation in Williams’ voice, and the quoting of a cultural icon were all gestures meant to glorify the moment, and to officiate it.

Even if you didn’t immediately recognize the lyric Williams quoted, an alarm probably sounded in your head if you knew anything about Cohen’s music. The Canadian bard, he of “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah” and “Everybody Knows”, excelled at gloom first and foremost, but ambiguity was a close second. His weary singing often undercut even his most exhortative lyrics. “Suzanne” may be a song of desire, but Cohen’s voice — even the young voice of his original recording — fills the performance with a frustrated idealism that circles back onto both Suzanne and the “you” in the song. In the seemingly straightforward “I’m Your Man”, the promises made by the singer come across suspiciously, blending eroticism, danger, and empty come-ons. The lyrics are desperate but the voice seems firmly in control: “If you want another kind of love,” sings Cohen, “I’ll wear a mask for you.” He sounds like he already is.

Watching Tomahawks trail off into the night sky five months after Cohen died, Brian Williams chose to quote from “First We Take Manhattan”. The opening track of the 1988 album I’m Your Man, the song has a strange little history. A year prior to its release, pop singer Jennifer Warnes included it along with the also unreleased “Ain’t No Cure for Love” on her Cohen tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat. Warnes had been friends with Cohen since the early ’70s; she had sung backup on numerous recordings and had contributed vocal arrangements. Known for “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman and “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing, Warnes follows the Hippocratic Oath on Famous Blue Raincoat, doing no harm but adding very little good to Cohen’s work. That said, the prototypically ’80s sound Warnes’ arrangement of “First We Take Manhattan” set the stage for Cohen’s grimier version a year later.

When I checked out the cassette of I’m Your Man from the public library I worked at as a teenager, I heard an odd mash-up of the typical synth-pop of the time and a voice that had wandered into the proceedings from a dimly lit bar I’d seen in a movie. In fact, it occurs to me now that I thought of Leonard Cohen back then not as a poet or a singer-songwriter but as a detective. It’s a suitable image, suitable enough, but listening now to “First We Take Manhattan” and the rest of I’m Your Man — the throbbing anaphora of “Everybody Knows”, the lecherous title track, the wistful “Take This Waltz”, the ghostliness of “Tower of Song” — it’s clear that Cohen had the devotion of a monk.

Where there was only the monk, as on “Ain’t No Cure for Love”, Cohen was at his weakest: too removed, too sure of his wisdom, too invulnerable to the heartbreak he sang about. (“Tower of Song” comes close to this, a statement which will get me egged by Cohen fans and my fellow songwriters.) At his best, however, the gloom and ambiguity of the poet, the sharp observations of the detective, and the Zen-like implacability of the monk played against each other and created layers of tension.

For my money, that’s what happens on “First We Take Manhattan”, this kind of overall ambiguity of identity, a mystery that leaves room for the listener. The tempo of Cohen’s version is a hair slower than Warnes’, driven by a rubbery synth-bass and drum machines. If only Warnes had sung the bridge, as she did in her cover, instead of the up-shifting backup singers who shut off the song’s electricity as they swing the lines “I’d really like to live beside you, baby / I love your body and your spirit and… your clothes”. Otherwise, it’s one of the few songs in Cohen’s body of work in which he sounds threatening, even if it’s a kind of stunt on the obsession that drives political ideologues.

In the song’s story of a man who was “sentenced… to twenty years of boredom / for trying to change the system from within”, Cohen plays the comeback hack, the loser who’s climbed his way out of the gutter and now is about to set upon the countryside like Daenerys and her three dragons from Game of Thrones. It is undoubtedly a song about violence, absolutism, and the mindset that fuses them. Here’s the stanza containing the lyric that Williams quoted:

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

Do you hear Cohen smiling sardonically as he sings this? It’s that quality in his voice and his delivery of the lines which create the ambiguity. On a textual level, the vague (superstitious, ridiculous) inspirations in the first two lines are followed by the more pointed means-justify-the-ends reasoning of the third. We’ve got missiles, let’s see what they can do. Cohen’s voice, though, fills these words with admiration, menace, irony, and a lead-footed resolve all at once. Listen to the song on repeat and you can hear different songs, different personae.

If Brian Williams recognized this ambiguity, he didn’t let on. Neither did the Twitter dogpile. In our cultural memory, Cohen remains a romantic figure of poetic tranquility and wisdom who was certainly against war and violence — and sure, he was. Thus it seemed that Williams had not only glorified war but co-opted the recently deceased Cohen for a purpose the singer-songwriter would have found repulsive. Again, that’s more or less a fair criticism. But it’s complicated by the fact that in November 1988, Cohen said this about “First We Take Manhattan”:

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 material 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…”

Or that, in a 1992 interview included in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting, Cohen reflected on the song again:

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. [laughs] 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.

While clearly against the violence of terrorism, Cohen is nonetheless at peak hipster languidness here. (Who says “I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities”?) The implication of a not-alive-in-1992 Malcolm X is bizarre and mischaracterizing. Still, in the latter interview Cohen bears down on the ambiguity of the “First We Take Manhattan”, the way it allows listeners to find their own position in the situation. We can identify as the speaker or the constituency.

But the crucial question is what “that” refers to in “I’d rather do that with an appetite for extremism…” Various clues here and there in those interviews offer up clear answers: poetry, music, art.

Always beware of passages taken out of context, even long ones, like the 1988 interview excerpt. Prior to Cohen’s direct comments on “First We Take Manhattan”, he was asked if he had a particular strategy in his songwriting, if there was a specific “quest” involved. He responded, essentially, “No.”

I don’t have a spiritual strategy. Occasionally your back is against the wall and you cry out for help and that becomes a kind of song. Events surround you, you develop a sense of resignation: that becomes a song like “If It Be Your Will”. You’re provoked, you’re feeling somewhat demented: that becomes a geopolitical manifesto full of menace like “First We Take Manhattan”. But these things develop within a sense of immediacy, although the process of refinement is very long. The impulse for the work is immediate and stunning.

That impulse not only urged “First We Take Manhattan” into being, it’s also what the song is at least partly about: art’s power, its suddenness and totality. A song’s ideology, the portrait it paints of the world, or the emotion it conducts can seem, at times, like the only sense in the world. Think of it as the intensity of a performance. Or an album you play over and over for a week or a month. Or the way a song yanks you back in time. For me, “Famous Blue Raincoat” leads back to 1998, a claustrophobic year in an upstairs apartment next door to a Congregational church in a small town. A song can’t possibly dominate or shape a memory entirely, can it? But then you actually listen to the song, and the walls conform, the lights hush, the curtains sigh.

Cohen recognized the shared appeal of extremism in politics and art as the allure of power. When there is no middle ground, no alternatives, it’s easier to be faithful to your path; if you’re faithful, you need “no alibis… no compromises.” You hardly need to think. Cohen recognized the danger of this, too, the real violence it creates, yes, but also the cruelty, insufferable pride, delusional relationships, and feelings of invulnerability that can infect the poet, the detective, and even the monk. “The truth,” says the narrator of Albert Camus’ novel The Fall, “is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone.”

In music, though, and especially in performance, extremism can be thrilling. Arguably the entire enterprise of getting up on stage and commanding the attention of hundreds or thousands is an extreme act. A power play. Touring in 1988 after the release of I’m Your Man, Leonard Cohen had a bit of stage patter to introduce “First We Take Manhattan”. One night in San Sebastian, Spain, it went like this:

You’ve been very kind and very warm, but it doesn’t matter, because no matter how kind and warm you are, it will not divert me from my appointed task, which is, first, to take Manhattan, and then Berlin, and several other cities, and do with them as I will.

The audience responds with only a smattering of applause — probably because they don’t know the song yet, but maybe also because the Spanish know a thing or two about this kind of rhetoric. And yet the performance is irresistible. The frequency of the synth-bass is low; if its texture in the studio recording is rubber, here it’s become a wet sponge. The seductive synth melody of the recording is played live on a trumpet, hard and demanding. Cohen drags the lyrics behind the beat seductively. You keep waiting for the next word, and the next. As a performance, this claim to power is a form of play; it’s temporary but meaningful, and as an audience, especially in a live setting, we want it to happen.

All musicians, I think, sense this power at some point in time. In live performance, even scant attention paid to you can be enormously self-engorging. The volume of your voice alone can dominate a club. The amps, the drums — nothing can compete with their ability to make noise. (Though some audiences try.) The great musicians achieve this power again and again. Sooner or later, they question what it means, how to wield it, and whether or not to absorb it back into themselves or reflect it into the audience. No matter how egotistic they might be, the great ones always find a way to give some of that power back.

Satiating the audience’s appetite for extremism may be in a musician’s job description, but it’s never guaranteed to happen on any given night. Like it says in the fine print, results may vary. The possibility that it might happen exists in the music’s performative dialogue. On record that dialogue exists intimately; in concert, it’s public. (And quite possibly a shouting match.) No matter how fervently musicians assert their power and totality, and no matter how much the lone listener or the amassed audience want to be swayed, subdued, or dominated, the real power of music exists in the relationship between them. In the flux.

Cohen, like any other musician, had his hits and misses. We could spend all night debating them, but here’s what it comes down to: “First We Take Manhattan” may not be one of his best songs (I maintain that the bridge is crap), but it is one of his most generously performative songs. It’s too ambiguous to be the work of the monk, too sinister for the romantic poet, too playful for the detective. Its power derives from neither Cohen as a subject or an object nor from his wisdom or his art with a capital “A”. It comes into being from the dynamic, real and imagined, between him and us, the dialogue we can have with his performance over and over again.

Suffice it to say, that dialogue doesn’t exist when a zealot drives a van into a crowd of pedestrians, or opens fire in a church, or murders schoolchildren.

Or when a missile is launched from a Navy destroyer.

The problem of quoting music in a context like the missile strike against Syria isn’t just that we get its meaning wrong, but that we claim a simple, one-sided meaning. We shut off the dialogue between the performer and audience. There’s usually no way to even bring the sound of the music into the conversation, at least, not in real-time.

When Brian Williams recited that lyric from “First We Take Manhattan”, he used Cohen’s art for the purpose of closure. He tried to make a statement. Good art never stops asking questions, though, and if Williams was hell-bent on bringing art into the moment, he would have been better off asking the questions that Cohen asked of his own song, questions that aren’t just about the point of origin but also the possible destinations: Who is speaking? Is this person serious? Who are we, this constituency, and do we share a sense of titillation with extremist positions? If we’re guided by the beauty of our weapons, where will they take us?


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