Wow In Music – First We Take Manhattan
Editor | On 18, Sep 2019
With 20/ 20 hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Jennifer Warnes’ exquisite 1986 album, Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, became a critical and commercial success. After all, Cohen is now widely regarded as one of the great songwriters and poets of the modern era, and the always-underrated Warnes was enjoying a hot streak that included singing two Best Original Song Oscar winners—“It Goes Like It Goes,” from Norma Rae, and her inescapable chart-topping duet with Joe Cocker on “Up Where We Belong,” from An Officer and a Gentleman—and another nominee, “One More Hour,” from Ragtime.
But in early 1986, when work began on Famous Blue Raincoat at Hollywood Sound, no major labels wanted to touch it. Cohen had almost no profile in the U.S. at the time—he was, and still is, most popular in Europe, though the U.S. has finally caught up in recent years. And a few high-profile songs notwithstanding, Warnes had not exactly been burning up the charts with her solo albums.
The idea for the album—which became known, colloquially, as “Jenny Sings Lenny”—had been germinating for several years. Warnes went way back with Cohen—she was a backup singer on his 1972 tour, remained close friends with him, and then worked on Cohen’s 1979 album, Recent Songs, his world tour of that year (which played Europe, but not North America) and on his Various Positions album in 1984. The Recent Songs album and tour also brought the other main force behind Famous Blue Raincoat into Warnes’ orbit: bassist Roscoe Beck and the Austin-based jazz/fusion group he was part of, Passenger. The band backed up Cohen for a number of tracks on the album, and then formed the nucleus of Cohen’s backing group on the tour (captured well on the Field Commander Cohen live album, released in 2001).
Warnes and Beck became close over the course of the tour, and it was on long bus rides between cities and in hotels all over that the seeds were planted to someday make an album of Cohen’s songs, couching the songwriter’s lyrics in more challenging and imaginative settings. “I thought the lyrics deserved elegance,” she says today. Over time, those discussions evolved into something more concrete, but the proposed album still lacked a home.
“MCA said, ‘Who would buy that?’ and the truth is I didn’t know,” Warnes says with a laugh. “But then this small indie label, Cypress Records, took it and, even though we had a very, very small budget to work with, we got it rolling. It was the first record that Roscoe or I had ever produced, separately or together, and we just said, ‘We can do this… can’t we?’ And we did, with the help of some of the finer people in the city; we managed to pull it off. Roscoe and I felt it doesn’t matter if you haven’t done it before if your vision is clear and you’re committed.”
It helped that both Beck and Warnes were very well-connected in L.A. Warnes had been recording there since the late ’60s and worked with many of the city’s A-list session players, and the more recent L.A. transplant Beck had also established himself as a musical force around town; in fact, he regularly played at local nightspots with a group of session heavies that included guitarist Robben Ford, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and keyboardist Russell Ferrante—all of whom turn up on Famous Blue Raincoat, along with a couple of Beck’s former associates from Passenger, pianist/arranger Bill Ginn and saxophonist Paul Ostermayer. Other local luminaries who helped out included synth titan Gary Chang, keyboardist/arranger Van Dyke Parks, percussionist Lenny Castro, bassist Jorge Calderón, guitarists Fred Tackett, David Lindley and Michael Landau, and a host of backup singers associated with Ry Cooder—Willie Greene, Arnold McCuller, Bobby King and Terry Evans. Signing on to engineer was Bill Youdelman, who was well-known for his expert live recording work, as well as his studio chops, having worked on such projects as Sting’s Bring on the Night, Warren Zevon’s Stand in the Fire and Weather Report’s exceptional live album, 8:30.
Warnes, Beck and Youdelman were determined to record the album as “live” as possible in the studio. “There was something about the feeling of ‘live’—as Ry Cooder called it, ‘the goddamn joy!’— that really took me by the throat,” Warnes says. “I knew that record had to have the feeling that there was a place where it was recorded and there were real people playing and we were capturing some magic in the studio.”
Most of the basics for the album were tracked live (with Warnes even singing a couple of keeper vocals with the group), but that was not the case with this month’s Wow feature, “First We Take Manhattan.” The song was one of three Cohen songs introduced on Famous Blue Raincoat—the others were “Ain’t No Cure for Love” and “Song of Bernadette” (which Warnes co-wrote and, unlike the other two, Cohen never recorded). Like so many Cohen songs, “First We Take Manhattan” is quite cryptic lyrically—you’ll find fan and critic interpretations that say it is about political and/or psychic extremism, the dispossessed, or, 180-degrees from that, about the perils of the music business. Warnes has her own ideas, but notes, “Leonard works from a stream-of-consciousness sometimes, and I don’t always know what the lyrics mean. I just need some seed of truth to be there.” Cohen himself, who recorded the song himself after Famous Blue Raincoat came out, has been heard to say of the lyrics, ‘I think it means exactly what it says. It is a terrorist song. I think it’s a response to terrorism. There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the physical plane – I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities – but Psychic Terrorism. I remember there was a great poem by Irving Layton that I once read, I’ll give you a paraphrase of it. It was ‘well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there’, he says. ‘But our terrorists, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein. The whole world is still quaking.'”
Beck says, “The first thing recorded in 1986, once we were officially making the record, was a click track and a sequenced bass for ‘First We Take Manhattan,’ which I hurriedly constructed after hearing the rehearsal the day before our first tracking date, and having the uneasy feeling that it wasn’t going to happen the following day. Vinnie [Colaiuta] had set up the night before and got his sounds, so I asked if he would do a favor and play to this click track and sequencer (Principle 20). Jennifer went into a booth and did a vocal, as well. Vinnie was familiar with the song because we had rehearsed it previously. He played that drum track in one take and I just smiled real big and said, ‘There’s my drum track.’”
The next element to be added to the song was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s loose, bluesy guitar part, which contrasts so nicely (Principle 37) with the metronomic drive of the main rhythm. Beck knew Vaughan from Austin, and each had sat in with each others’ groups in the past, so when Beck heard that Vaughan was going to be at the Grammy Awards in L.A. in February 1986, he tracked him down at his hotel and asked if he would play on “Manhattan” that very night. Vaughan had not brought a guitar to L.A., but agreed to use one of Beck’s Stratocasters. A session was booked at the Record Plant, with Tim Boyle engineering, and in the wee hours of the morning, Vaughan laid down several takes for Beck and Warnes.
The slightly unsettling (Principle 17) passages of spoken German at the beginning and end of “First We Take Manhattan” was an idea of Lewy’s—“We wanted to snag people’s attention, and that was Henry’s call,” Warnes comments.
When the album was released in late 1986, “Bird on a Wire,” “First We Take Manhattan” and “Ain’t No Cure for Love” garnered considerable radio play on different formats, and the album as a whole was embraced by Cohen’s followers, Warnes’ fans and also, more generally, audiophiles who were impressed by its deep and pristine sonics. The record breathed new life into Cohen’s career in the U.S., and also helped establish Warnes as a serious artist in ways that her previous chart triumphs had not. Coincidentally, in 1987 she also scored a Number One hit with her duet with Bill Medley from the mega-popular soundtrack for Dirty Dancing, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” (another Oscar winner!).
Famous Blue Raincoat continues to earn respect and new fans with each passing year. It remains perhaps Warnes’ crowning achievement.
“When you have the proper alchemy and all the secret good wishes of everyone, fireworks can happen,” Warnes says, in true Principle 38 fashion, “and you know you’re on to something. About midway through the record, we knew it was great. Nobody was shouting about it at that point, but Roscoe and I knew we were sitting on something fantastic.”
For me I’d say the album is one of the records I’ve played the most over the years. For a long while, I didn’t know why I kept coming back to it. Sure, it’s a really well-done record and Cohen’s songs – lyrics in particular – are as good as pop or rock music ever got, but why does the spoken German intro and Vaughan’s amazing guitar work still give me a thrill every time I hear it? The answer, I now think, is in the three-way contradiction between Cohen’s brutal words, Warnes’ sweet voice singing them, and Vaughan’s bluesy ahead-of-the-beat-behind-the beat guitar fills. Watch the video for First We Take Manhattan and we see it features all three. We also see that they never meet. The combination shouldn’t work. But, ultimately, the fact that it shouldn’t means that it does. Beautiful contradictions, beautifully solved.