R.E.M.: First We Take Manhattan
[purchase Warnes’ version]
[purchase R.E.M. version, on a Cohen tribute album]
When I was young and knew everything, I knew that there was good music and bad music, just as there were good movies and bad movies, good paintings and bad paintings and good books and bad books. Now that I am older, I’m not sure anymore. I’ve come to the point where I think that there is some art that grabs you, emotionally, intellectually or in some other way, and others that just don’t. So, even if you can understand why critics or other people that you respect really like something, sometimes it just doesn’t resonate in the same way.
That’s the way I feel about the music of Leonard Cohen, and it is one of the reasons why I didn’t post early on Sunday, as has been my recent habit. I can recognize that he is a great songwriter and understand that he is a compelling performer. I understand that many artists that I really like, and people whose musical taste I hold in high regard, love the guy, but I can’t ever imagine deciding one day that I have to listen to Leonard Cohen. Which is not to say that if I decided to immerse myself in his substantial body of work, I wouldn’t emerge with a love of his music. But I don’t see myself being motivated to do that. I’m sure I’m missing out, but there is enough other good music out there to keep me occupied.
“First We Take Manhattan” is one of the Leonard Cohen songs that I like-there is a certain foreboding to its lyrics, supposedly about a German terrorist group. Jennifer Warnes, who I always sort of dismissed as a schlocky, film theme singing vocalist, until I noticed that she was actually quite talented (probably first when she sang on an Alejandro Escovedo album that I love), released the song before Cohen, in an excellent version featuring the late and lamented Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar. You can see him in the attached video. The later-released Cohen version has a synthy sound to it that I find a bit off-putting.
My wife and I were discussing situations where the cover was better than the original (“All Along The Watchtower,” for example). Here, although the “original” is a cover, I like Warnes’ version much better, and I apologize for not appreciating her.
I’ve also attached a version by R.E.M., which is also pretty good, from a Cohen tribute album.