March 10, 2017

Leonard Cohen: First He Took Manhattan, Then He Took Berlin


Leonard Cohen, one of the greatest writers of our time (poet, novelist, songwriter) has died at the age of 82….but let’s recall one theme in his music…

“Give me back the Berlin Wall.” Of course, Leonard Cohen, who at the age of 82 has just released one of his greatest and most popular albums, didn’t really mean that, a quarter-century ago.   He sang in the guise of the unreliable narrator in his classic, and scary, song “The Future.”   Other Cohen lyrics from that little ditty, written just after the 1989 fall of the Wall, call for the return of Stalin, more people to torture, and another Hiroshima, among other horrors.  “I have seen the future,” Cohen croaked, in warning, “it is murder.”

That’s not the only Berlin and/or Wall lyric from Cohen. Another famous song, “First We Take Manhattan” promised, “then we take Berlin.”  Cohen over the years has offered various explanations for that line, some tied to the city’s divided and troubled history, some not; some claiming it is about terrorism, others that it reflects an artist’s wish to break out.  One time he claimed, “It’s just the voice of enlightened bitterness. [it] is a demented, menacing, geopolitical manifesto in which I really do offer to take over the world with any like spirits who want to go on this adventure with me.”

But let’s consider this, thinking of Herr Trump, especially with the alt-right neo-Nazis on his side:

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

Then there’s one of his most famous lines and images, not necessarily about the Berlin Wall but evoking it, from “Anthem”–and it profoundly captures the designs of the escape heroes (who dug under the brutal barrier in the 1960s) of my new book The Tunnels:   “There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”

Finally, there’s “Democracy,” from the same era.  While that, he hopes, is “coming to the USA,” he clearly has global ambitions for it, and he explicitly mentions  “a crack in the wall”–or is it the Wall?  In any case, Germans made use of the song in a moving video depicting the night the Wall fell, 27 yeara ago this week, and also covered in my book.

Cohen, however, told an interviewer, that when he wrote that song, “This was when the Berlin Wall came down and everyone was saying democracy is coming to the east. And I was like that gloomy fellow who always turns up at a party to ruin the orgy or something. And I said, “I don’t think it’s going to happen that way. I don’t think this is such a good idea. I think a lot of suffering will be the consequence of this wall coming down.’….So while everyone was rejoicing, I thought it wasn’t going to be like that, euphoric, the honeymoon. So it was these world events that occasioned the song.”

U2 may be most associated with the fall of the Wall because of the 1992 video for their song “One” set in Berlin and including images of that brutal barrier and the reunification of Germany.   But, a few years earlier, as I show in my book, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen helped bring down the Wall.  Bowie’s performance at the border in the West in 1987, when he sang his “Heroes” (inspired by the Wall), was witnessed by a huge audience across the border.  The following year Springsteen starred in with one of the first concerts by a Western rock star permitted in the East, drawing his biggest crowd ever.    A German historian, Gerd Dietrich would comment: “Springsteen’s concert and speech certainly contributed in a large sense to the events leading up to the fall of the wall.”

Leonard Cohen never played East Germany but he seems to carry his experiences in West Berlin with him to this day.  Since he is a world-class poet he no longer mentions the city or the Cold War by name.  But consider the lines from “Different Sides,”    off one of his recent albums:   “We find ourselves on different sides/ of a line nobody drew/ Though it may be one in the higher eye / Down here where we live it is two.”  And:  “Both of us say there are laws to obey / But frankly I don’t like your tone.”  He never did, contemplating leaders who kept citizens enslaved.  He also may have anticipated the Trump victory with his famous line: “I have seen the future, brother / It is murder.”

Greg Mitchell’s latest book is The Tunnels:  Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Crown).  Click on links or on book’s cover at upper right to learn more or order.