A GUEST POSTING FROM ECHORICH &
JONNY THE FRIENDLY LAWYER
I’m A Stranger Here Myself
Echorich kicked off this series with a stellar set aptly titled “Coming of Age in NYC.” It was a great survey of the music banging out of the downtown scene that inspired us, performed by our local heroes from the city. This time out it’s a collection of songs about NYC by artists from much farther afield. Natives are proud of the city and we love how people from other places are so taken with it, so impressed by it, and how they see it in so many different ways. This set presents a few of our favorite alien perspectives.
1. Statue of Liberty – XTC
JTFL: TVV readers may remember my fondness for Swindon’s finest (see ICAs 26 and 79). Here the boys serve up a bouncy post-punk tribute to Lady Liberty, who’s been welcoming foreigners to the Big Apple since 1886 from her star-shaped plinth in the harbor. This was the early incarnation of the band, and maybe their first great single. Energy, pace, melody and something clever to say — everything you need to get around town.
ER: I approached XTC from the middle with Drums And Wires and backwards educated myself quickly. White Music fit right in with the emerging New Pop music coming from the likes of Costello, Squeeze, and dare I say even The Police. I remember hearing Statue Of Liberty occasionally on WNYU College Radio even into the early 80’s. I always thought that the Statue Andy is singing about might just be a hooker, or maybe just some latent teenage sexual angst set to music.
2. New Amsterdam – Elvis Costello
JTFL: “A bewildered lad, alone in New York, except for his rhyming dictionary,” sez Elvis’s liner notes. I like the trademark wordplay but I especially love the imagery of an exiled soul, alone with his thoughts down by the docks surrounding the island. People forget that Manhattan is only two miles wide; you’re almost always in view of the East River or the Hudson on the west side. Couldn’t tell you if the docks look like Liverpool or not. One of the few songs on an EC & the Attractions LP on which Elvis played all the instruments himself.
ER: New Amsterdam is one of my all time favorite Costello track and Get Happy! is far and away my favorite EC+A album. Listened to as a New Yorker, New Amsterdam sounded like another world altogether. Alienation can come in many forms – physical and emotional.
3. You Said Something – PJ Harvey
JTFL: This songs captures EXACTLY the vibe of the city at night. There’s not a lot of open space on the ground so it’s common to find yourself up on a roof — my years there were filled with rooftop parties, conversations, fights, trysts and general reflecting. PJ starts out in Brooklyn at 1 in the morning (not sure where she can “see five bridges” — at most she’d be able to see the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and maybe the Queensborough bridges). She gets wistful about her far off homeland, wonders how she arrived in this remarkable place, and drifts with a lover up to the eighth floor of an apartment across the river. Along the way she discovers something important. Perambulant assignations, going where the city will take her. Beautiful.
ER: I come from what are derided by Manhattanites as one of the outer boroughs – Queens in my case. If you lived, worked and played in Manhattan you took a very possessive stance on being a true New Yorker, but the real beauty of New York is to see Manhattan from across the East River in either Queens or Brooklyn. It’s like having a front row seat at an amazing panoramic film. Just watching the lights come on in Manhattan at night you get a sense of the buzz that’s beginning to come from the streets and out of the bars and clubs and restaurants. But if you take the time to cross the East River to Brooklyn or Queens or the Harlem River to Da Bronx, you will find that same twi-night hum that builds into a sort of roar. This is why Doo Wop comes from the streets of Da Bronx and Brooklyn, why Queens gave birth to a Latin Music scene that has been vibrant and colorful for decades and kids could go from practicing 3 chord guitar songs in garages to global recognition via small, dirty Lower East Side Clubs.
4. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues (with Kirsty MacColl)
JTFL: NYC has a deep Irish heritage. St. Patrick’s Day is always a good time, whether you stick around for the parade or not. There used to be a Blarney Stone on every second corner where they sold little glasses of Rheingold for fifty cents (and sometimes corned beef and cabbage if anyone could be bothered to clean the steam table). I knew a guy that tended bar in one of these Irish dives, gathering material for his hopeful career as a writer. I came in one day and asked if he got anything good. He told me he had just now broken up a fight between Bruce and Robert, two decrepit regulars who’d stepped straight out of a James Joyce story. Turns out the pair came to blows over what day of the week it was. “And they were both wrong,” said my friend the bartender. The Pogues and the late Ms. MacColl make the city their own on this classic.
ER: There is no Christmas without Fairytale of New York. While I would never consider myself a big Pogues fan, I am a huge Kirsty MacColl fan and this was just a pairing made in heaven. There will never be another like her and Kirsty is the only one who could put Shane McGowan in his place. Part of growing up in NYC was finding your way to your first bar – for points it was all about how young you could claim to have been when you had your first drink in a bar to be precise – 15 here, by the way… More often than not either the hardest or easiest place to get that first, illicit drink was going to be a neighborhood Irish bar (or “pub” if the place REALLY traded on the Celtic connection.) My first Irish bar was Mullaney’s Bar in Queens. I can remember that the jukebox in that place had every Irish drinking song you could imagine, a few stray Folk songs, Sinatra and Elvis. It was more curiosity piece than an active jukebox. There always seemed to be a Mets game on or Hockey on the the TV.
5. New York Morning – Elbow
JTFL: I’d forgotten all about Elbow, truth be told, until a recent guest post by S-WC found its way onto this blog. It led me to catch up on the band which in turn led to the discovery of this gem. And just like PJ nailed the city at night, Elbow captures the feeling of waking up in the big city, full of promise and possibility: “Oh my God New York can talk/Somewhere in all that talk is all the answers/Everybody owns the great ideas/And it feels like there’s a big one round the corner”.
ER: I can’t profess to be much of an Elbow fan. They seem to wear their Peter Gabriel influence on their sleeve most of the time. New York Morning does carry some really important truths in it. New York is a land of dreams achieved and missed, a place where everyone has a great idea and the opportunity to make it real. But what makes NYC function are the men and women toiling to keep it running.
6. Chelsea Hotel – Lloyd Cole
JTFL: REM recorded ‘First We Take Manhattan’ for the Leonard Cohen tribute album “I’m Your Fan”. But this song from the same LP gets the nod because of its references to the Chelsea, an inimitable city landmark. Home to writers (Dylan Thomas, Burroughs, Sartre), artists (Oldenberg, Mapplethorpe, de Kooning), and countless musicians (Dylan, Lynott, Nico etc). Sid killed Nancy in Room 100. Warhol films were shot there. The Chelsea is on 23rd between 7th and 8th Avenues; I lived on 23rd between 9th and 10th for six years, so I passed it on a daily basis. My sister lived there for a couple of months after some itinerant globetrotting. The lobby was filled with masterpieces by long time resident Larry Rivers and many others who often had to pay their rent with art when they had no cash. The friendly owner, Stanley, never booted anyone out so it was great place to meet someone downtown, or just kick back on a comfy couch surrounded by priceless treasures. Nice version of a NYC song written by a Canadian and performed by a Brit.
ER: Mic drop Jonny – with just a bit of VU feedback…
7. New York City – Cub
JTFL: New York can be a heavy place, what with all the history and money and violence and drugs and Socioeconomic Inequities and everything. But it’s also FUN, immensely FUN, and if you can’t have a good time in New York you’re in a very sorry state. This super-light pop song by Vancouver trio Cub dances around town without a care in the world. It’s all about how much fun it is to come to the city to see the sights and just hang out. (It’s also where this series got its name.) There’s an adorable video that accompanies this song, too. I love the tight girly harmonies. When the band sings “everything looks beautiful when you’re young and pretty” I think about my daughter, already a native after just a month. She sends me texts and photos of what she and her friends are getting up to in the city. I always text back, “have fun, sunshine” but I’m always thinking “I wish I were you.”
ER: Having just gotten back from a short trip to NYC to see The Bunnymen slay the crowd, I can tell you that it is absolutely impossible to get the City out of this New Yorker. Getting out of Laguardia Airport on a sunny, humid and hot Sunday afternoon, I just breathed a huge sigh and smiled all the way to the bus that would take me to the subway into Manhattan. Once in the city, it was like a kid being let into a candy store before all the others. I just kept looking up at the tops of buildings and across the avenues filled with people rushing in that certain New Yorker way from point A to point B. I just jumped into step with the crowd and was on my way.
8. Red Angel Dragnet – The Clash
JTFL: Many Clash fans follow this blog and I bet a few are wondering why this tune and not ‘Gates of the West’? I’ll tell you why: New York doesn’t have a south side. Chicago does; not NYC. I always found Mick Jones singing about “Southside Sue” really pretentious. That was 1978. By the time the band were recording Combat Rock at the end of 1981, they were living at the Iroquois Hotel, two blocks off Times Square. They were deep into the NY scene, having triumphed during their two-week residence at Bonds the previous summer. The “red angels” in the song are The Guardian Angels, a citizens watch group formed in 1979 to help keep the city safe. Strummer was now sporting a mohawk, just like vigilante Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’, whose lines are repeated in the song by the band’s MC, Kosmo Vinyl. But the Clash weren’t singing about keeping the streets safe from criminals; the song recounts the shooting of one of the Guardian Angels by a Newark police officer. Over here in the states there’s been an epidemic of cops shooting unarmed civilians, usually people of color. Seems like it happens every other day and underlies the increasingly prominent Black Lives Matter movement. Goes to show how on point The Clash were 35 years ago.
ER: Ok, nothing to add here except that this is one of two songs I heard the band listening back to at Electric Lady Studios on a winter afternoon when Kosmo invited a few of us in from the cold. I told Paul Simonon one night in 82 walking from NBC studios after their appearance on Saturday Night Live that I love his bass on this song and he said “one take mate!” Don Letts chimed in walking up behind us “Tell another one Paul…” Magic.
9. New York, New York – Ryan Adams
JTFL: I don’t know if folks overseas are familiar with Ryan Adams. Over here people seem to either love him or hate him. I don’t have an opinion one way or the other but I do love this song. And Mr. Adams’ love for NYC seems genuine. The dude gets around, covering ground from the summer in Alphabet City to the winter on the upper west side. Plus he pronounces “Houston” correctly, which deserves some props.
ER: Ryan Adams was a breath of fresh air at the turn of the Millennium. Sure, he has a sort of Gram Parsons Country/Rock background, but he fell headfirst into New York CIty once he arrived. Along with Jesse Malins he has kept alive a certain poet/folk/rock brand that seems to manage to thrive in NYC.
10. What New York Used To Be – The Kills
JTFL: New York changes really rapidly and it’s easy to get nostalgic about how things were. CBGB’s is now a John Varvatos store. The Meat Packing bays off 7th Avenue, where you’d see cleaver-wielding butchers in white smocks pushing bloody racks of steers, was replaced by an Apple Store and Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen boutiques. Chinatown swarmed across Delancey and shrunk Little Italy. You can even walk down Avenue D after dark! There’s a great website called evgrieve.com where people write in to reminisce and lament that the east village was totally usurped by yuppies. The Kills have no patience for that whining — they just want to get on with it. Either that or get run over because, love it or loathe it, NYC’s still FAST.
ER: I have to agree, New York thrives on its ability to create a kind of personal nostalgia for people, but the city is a living breathing organism that seems to shed its skin like a reptile every decade or so. But part of the excitement about NYC is anticipating what comes next.
Bonus Track: New York Skiffle – Half Man Half Biscuit
JTFL: The Sex Pistols took it to the Dolls in their song “New York”, and Johnny Thunders returned the insult with his track “London Boys”. But HMHB spoof both scenes on this tune. Smart New Yorkers, like smart folks everywhere, know not to take themselves too seriously. For those of us that sometimes forget, this song’s a friendly reminder to cut the crap.
ER: Every time I’ve heard this track I think, damn, John Lennon would have covered that, he would have had to.
Postscript from JTFL:-
The quintessential NYC song by any foreigner is “Shattered” by the Rolling Stones. It’s also got the best lyric: “Go ahead — Bite the Big Apple!” It’s not included here because Echorich and I resolved to limit our posts to music that fits within the parameters of this blog. Plenty of other places on the ‘net to listen to classic rock and read about major label bands. I also sometimes get the sense that liking the Stones may be a bit uncool. But I’m 53 and by definition uncool, so I don’t give a crap what’s cool or not. If I had to pick a single song, by anyone, that sounds like NYC, it would be this one.
Postings like these that make me realise just how lucky I am that there are talented people willing to make the time and expend the energy on being part of this little corner of the internet. So many of the guest postings are infinitely superior to what you’ll pay good money for out in magazine-world.
Delighted too, that I’m able to publish on a day when the Blue Jays take on those damn Yankees in a vital end-of season series over the next four days….made extra special by the fact that I’m going to be in the stadium watching it all unfold.
Oh, and I couldn’t let JTFL’s postscript just hang there:-
mp3 : Rolling Stones – Shattered