R.E.M. - First We Take Manhattan
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
So it turns out this is the song I have the most (distinct, non-remix) versions of to hand in my library: Jennifer Warnes’ version, Cohen’s own take, Warren Zevon’s live cover, and this. It’s one of those songs I tend to glean a lot of personal meaning from, and its durability accounts for why I tend to keep coming back to it in its various permutations.
But what is it actually about? According to Cohen in the April, 1993 issue of Song Talk:
"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.”
So is it a song about terrorism? Your guess is as good as mine. For me, the song works in the parallels struck between the personal and the political, evoking the Cold War as it does in the titular refrain. Besides, everybody’s motivated by some form of ideology, even if they won’t admit it out loud.
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