Suitcases, Trains, & The Pied Piper of Hamelin – Dominique Issermann On Making Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan Video

Interviewer: You have made clips for … “First We Take Manhattan” …

Dominique Issermann: [Leonard Cohen] had asked me. I first tried to understand what this last song was saying – “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” – and I imagined this guy, a kind of charismatic leader who could lure the crowds, as the Pied Piper of Hamelin. This clip is a bit like that: he draws them after him, everyone drops their suitcases. In the end, he leaves them on the beach and these people go to nowhere, without anything.

Interviewer: There are also pictures of a train …

Dominique Issermann: Do you think of the trains that deported the Jews? I do not have a lot of Jewish culture, unlike Leonard who was raised in the Hebrew religion, but we did not talk about this train story at all. I was looking for ideas. But in Trouville there is a train. I like the station platforms, and I wanted the girl to be on a train at some  point. All this is very spontaneous, they are layers of images that are superimposed. But that surely makes sense …

Interviewer: The train, the suitcases, the beach, these characters in cloaks with just a suitcase going to nothingness: you could not avoid thinking about the deportation …

Dominique Issermann: You’re absolutely right: that’s what I thought, but I did not know it … When, at the beginning of the shoot, Leonard asked me, “What are we going to do?”, I told him replied, laughing: “Don’t worry, it’s a Jewish program, we’ll take you from Berlin and you’ll go to Manhattan, and we’ll go the other way!” But strangely I never thought precisely: well, we’ll put trains and suitcases. The suitcase is very present in my universe. I did a lot of pictures with people who carry them. Okay, that’s my legacy. But when people tell me, “Oh yes, you’re half Jewish,” I say, “No, I’m half non-Jewish.” But here, I realize that it is not so simple …

Interviewer: These suitcases also referred to the nomadism of your couple …

Dominique Issermann: Leonard is very attached to suitcases, he has an impressive collection. These are always the ones I bought him a long time ago, and that he still carries around. All brand Globe-Trotter, navy blue or black, cardboard or fiber, old-fashioned suitcases, with straps. He was still on his last tour, completely fucked. He said, “Look, maybe we should buy some more …”

Leonard Cohen – First We Take Manhattan
Promo video: 1988

Also See: Then We Take Trouville: Making Of The Leonard Cohen-Dominique Issermann First We Take Manhattan Music Video

From Ma vie avec Leonard Cohen : “Je l’ai entendu travailler deux ans sur ‘Hallelujah’” par François Armanet et Bernard Loupias (L’Obs: Nov 11, 2016). Interview originally published in “Le Nouvel Observateur” of January 26, 2012. Excerpt via computer translation with assistance from Coco Éclair. Images are screenshots from the First We Take Manhattan Video.

“First We Take Manhattan might be understood as an examination of the mind of the extremist.” Leonard Cohen

I’ve never known what “First We Take Manhattan” is about. Can you explain it a little? Do you think its meaning changed after the attack to New York? Would you sing it again in concert?

Every succeeding moment changes what has happened the moment before. In the stream of writing all that is written changes its meanings by what is written subsequently. First We Take Manhattan might be understood as an examination of the mind of the extremist. In a way it’s a better song now than it was before and I would probably sing it in concert if the circumstances were appropriate.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen

Online Web Chat October 16, 2001

Leonard Cohen’s plan after taking Manhattan: “I’m not at liberty to disclose the full details, but I can tell you it will involve a lot of new parking meters.”

They sentenced me to twenty 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

First We Take Manhattan by Leonard Cohen

From 1988 interview with Dave Fanning (no longer accessible). Cohen gave a similar answer on an interview for Norwegian TV broadcast in May 1988

Note: Originally posted Jan 21, 2014 at, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Video: Leonard Cohen’s Electrifying Performance Of First We Take Manhattan – Auckland 2013

Linda Sturgess writes about this performance:

Electric – Roscoe’s is “wired” from the kickoff to the end- J And Henry captures at 4:18 – Roscoe’s turns his bass into a percussive instrument.    And Sharon – she is always fully and totally into this song …

Leonard Cohen – First We Take Manhattan
Auckland: Dec 21, 2013
Video by Henry Tengelsen (aka Wirebirds)

Note: Originally posted January 8, 2014 at, a predecessor of Cohencentric

“This song is a direct response to the boredom, to the anxiety, to the sense of weightlessness, that I feel in my daily life.” Leonard Cohen On First We Take Manhattan

This song is a direct response to the boredom, to the anxiety, to the sense of weightlessness, that I feel in my daily life. I don’t know whether anybody else feels this way. I suspect some people do feel this way – that the world has disappeared, that the catastrophe has already taken place, that the flood has already come, that we don’t have to wait for the nuclear holocaust, that the world has been destroyed somehow. But you can’t take these ideas with you on the street.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


I’m Your Man, by Alberto Manzano (Rockdelux (Spain): May 1988)

Leonard Cohen Lays Out His Plan Once He Takes Manhattan And Berlin


But even your immaculate hospitality will not deter me from my appointed task which is to take Manhattan and then Berlin. And as soon as I take them, I’m going to give them back, because I don’t want them… unless they really insist. Just my way, that’s all. There’s no punchline to this joke. It just leaves you in a blue limbo of ambiguity, a landscape that I happen to know extremely well. I hope I don’t meet any of you there.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


Leonard Cohen, introduction to “First We Take Manhattan” at the April 28, 1988 concert at Jaahalli Helsinki, Finland, Originally posted Nov 5, 2014 at, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Video: Leonard “Happy To Be Here” Cohen Performs So Long Marianne & First We Take Manhattan – Amsterdam 2012

Well, you know that I love to live with you
But you make me forget so very much
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us

Highlights: Leonard skipping on and offstage, Alex Bublitchi’s solo in So Long Marianne, the enthusiastic audience reaction – but most of all, Leonard’s smiles.

Leonard Cohen – So Long Marianne & First We Take Manhattan
Amsterdam: Aug 22, 2012

Note: Originally posted Aug 26, 2012 at, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Leonard Cohen Employs Sergio Leone, Motown, Bubble Gum For A “Different Twist” On First We Take Manhattan

Without that Sergio Leone-Eastwood track it would have been truly demented geopolitical fantasy. But with that soundtrack and with the Motown chorus veering over to bubble gum, you get a different twist on the thingquotedown2

Leonard Cohen

Folk-Rock’s Poet Laureate Returns By Jeff Bradley. AP story, printed in Times Daily – Sept 3, 1988. Originally posted Nov 13, 2014 at, a predecessor of Cohencentric