Ambiguity In First We Take Manhattan By Leonard Cohen & Brian Williams’ Use Of “Guided By The Beauty Of Our Weapons”

The Brian Williams – Leonard Cohen Lyric Brouhaha

On April 6, 2017, the US launched dozens of Cruise missiles to destroy a Syrian military airfield. On his CNBC show, Brian Williams said he was “tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.'”

The inevitable response from social media, newspapers, magazines, etc ensued. As The Washington Post points out,

Brian Williams, covering the strike last night on MSNBC, was roundly criticized for repeatedly using the word “beautiful” to describe Pentagon-provided footage of the missiles, including a quote from Leonard Cohen’s song “First We Take Manhattan,” from his 1988 album I’m Your Man … The remarks drew backlash on Twitter, where some users seemed disturbed by Williams’s flowery language.

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

Now, more than a month later, this incident has precipitated a nuanced consideration of the implications of WIlliams’ use of the Leonard Cohen’s lyrics in media coverage of international conflict and of First We Take Manhattan itself.

Brian Williams, Leonard Cohen, and “First We Take Manhattan” by Robert Loss (PopMatters: May 15, 2017) is a thoughtful, insightful argument that, despite my own disagreements with many of the conclusions, I recommend reading. Excerpts follow:

On Brian Williams’ Use Of Cohen’s Words

…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.

On Leonard Cohen’s Ambiguity

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. 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

In Summary

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.

And Loss does support his theses with appropriate quotations from Leonard’s interviews and stage patter.

An Alternative View

Debating subjective preferences in or the musicological qualities of pop songs is a mug’s game. So, while my own perspective of Leonard Cohen’s music is at odds with the author’s evaluation on several points, I will limit my comments to two areas.

Leonard Cohen & War

The first is Leonard Cohen’s position on war. The following excerpt from the article aligns with the beliefs implicit in the criticism of Brian Williams in the press and social media;

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.

This oversimplification is – well oversimplified to the point that it is inaccurate. Because of its significance, I’ll discuss it in a separate post in the near future.

WTF – Where’s The Funny?

The second issue, which I will discuss in the remainder of this entry, is the failure of the article, Brian Williams, Leonard Cohen, and “First We Take Manhattan,” to consider Leonard’s use of humor (as Leonard put it “People say I’m a hoot to be with”).

Loss characterizes Leonard operating in Godfather of Gloom mode:

The Canadian bard, he of “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah” and “Everybody Knows”, excelled at gloom first and foremost, but ambiguity was a close second. [emphasis mine]

In an 1998 interview, Dave Fanning asked Leonard about his plans after taking Manhattan; the Poet Laureate Of Misery replied

I’m not at liberty to disclose the full details, but I can tell you it will involve a lot of new parking meters.1

Quite a response for the Godfather of Gloom, eh?

OK, Leonard’s parking meters wisecrack was issued during an interview (although it might have been a dandy line in the lyrics) so it only indicates that he had comic thoughts about this song.  But in fact, Leonard often consciously injected comedy into his songs to both offset and illuminate their impact. Speaking specifically about First We Take Manhattan in a 1988 BBC interview, he explained

I set it to a kind of Sergio Leone Clint Eastwood soundtrack which throws the lyric into some doubt; it throws it into some demented and somewhat humorous predicament – but not altogether

Incidentally, First We Take Manhattan was not a unique case. Consider an analogous contrast between lyrics and music in The Future:

If I’d just nailed the lyrics of The Future to a church door in Wittenberg, it would be a heavy and foreboding and sinister document – but it’s married to a hot little dance track. So the music dissolves in the lyric and the lyric dissolves in the music, and you’re left with a kind of refreshment, a kind of oxygen.2

Cohen himself explicitly noted that First We Take Manhattan possessed, simultaneously, “humorous and demented and serious:

My song was really political, a certain demented . . . manifesto, which addresses a constituency that really exists in the world, which cannot be defined by left or right, that is a radical perspective of a great many people, internationally, who feel that there is no . . . political expression that represents us, that the language, the rhetoric of politics today has become so divorced from anybody’s feelings and heart that it invites a new and radical rhetoric which in a kind of humorous and demented and serious way I touch upon in ‘First We Take Manhattan.’3 [emphasis mine]

Even throwing in the requisite dose of deconstructionism, I find Leonard’s analysis of First We Take Manhattan convincing.

Now, I am willing to stipulate that recognizing Leonard’s funny business as an ingredient – along with terrorism – in First We Take Manhattan wouldn’t have significantly altered the conclusions reached in the article. I do believe, however, that the the failure to acknowledge the comic elements of First We Take Manhattan is a significant omission in an otherwise thorough consideration of the complexities of Leonard Cohen’s songwriting and overlooks a key means by which listeners are, to use Leonard’s terminology,  “ravished by the song.”

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  1. Dave Fanning interview, 1988. This interview is no longer accessible. Cohen gave a similar answer on an interview for Norwegian TV broadcast in May 1988. []
  2. Melancholy Baby by John Walsh. The Independent Magazine: May 8, 1993 []
  3. Leonard Cohen, Personal Interview with Winfried Siemerling. 2 November 1990, North York. Unpublished. Quoted in Interior Landscapes and the Public Realm: Contingent Mediations in a Speech and a Song by Leonard Cohen by Winfried Siemerling. Canadian Poetry: No. 33, Fall/Winter, 1993. []