I happen to like New York
I happen to like this burg
and when I have to give the world a last farewell
and the undertaker starts to ring my funeral bell
I donít want to go to heaven
Donít want to go to hell
I happen to like New York.
Cole Porter, "I Happen to Like New York"(1930)
New York is more than a city of concrete and steel. Itís also a kind of a dream metropolis, a place constructed of celluloid and ink, videotape and song. Itís hard to think about New York without thinking about the work of the various artists who have, over the decades, rebuilt the city in their work, from Herman Melville to Ralph Ellison to Jay McInerney, from the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley to current-day Big Apple hip-hoppers like Nas and Jay-Z. Some works help more than just artistic rebuilding, like the one taking place on October 20th at Madison Square Garden, where former Beatle Paul McCartney will headline "The Concert for New York City," an all-star musical celebration of the city (Elton John, Mick Jagger, Marc Anthony and David Bowie are also scheduled to perform). Pianist Thelonious Monk once said "Jazz is New York. You can feel it in the air." But there are also many other kinds of music gusting through the streets of New York beyond jazz and rock; this weekendís megaconcert is something thatís part of a much longer tradition.
Itís a history thatís important to remember. In recent weeks, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, a few filmmakers have edited out images of the Twin Towers from their work. The Twin Towers reportedly appeared in the background of the comedy-action flick "Zoolander" and the romantic comedy "Serendipity;" the scenes were excised from the final cuts in the days after the attack. The move, presumably, was to shield the public from having to think about the tragedy when they were supposed to be mindlessly enjoying an escapist bit of entertainment; instead, the editing smacked of the cold-war tales of Soviet bureaucrats erasing their out-of-favor predecessors from group photos. The public is tough enough to handle the past. A far braver decision was made by New York City-based alt-country singer-songwriter Ryan Adams. His rollicking new song "New York, New York" has as its refrain the words "But I still love you, New York"; it was written before the tragedy and the video for the song was made a few days before the attack. It shows Adams, guitar in hand, singing in front of the World Trade Center Towers. Instead of dumping the video, Adams released it and dedicated it to the victims of the catastrophe.
So a bit of New York music history was preserved, rather than lost. From Tin Pan Alley in the 1800s and early 1900s to Bad Boy Records today, New York has generated quite a bit of musical history and tradition. Of course there are the obvious songs and performances: Frank Sinatra belting out "New York, New York," Billy Joelís warmhearted "New York State of Mind," and Grand Master Flash and the Furious Fiveís lyrical tourguide "New York, New York"(the lyrics to that last one: "Ah New York New York big city of dreams/ And everything in New York ain't always what it seems/ You might get fooled if you come from out of town/ But I'm down by law and I know my way around"). Even beyond the biggies, itís hard to think of another city that has inspired as many classic tunes thereís a whole songbook for almost every major street, avenue and neighborhood. Irving Berlin, the man who wrote "God Bless America" also wrote "Harlem on My Mind." George M. Cohan captured the energy of the Great White Way with "Give My Regards to Broadway." (Thereís also "On Broadway," and numerous other homages to the area). When it comes to the Big Apple, even the public transportation system has received tribute in song, in the form of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhornís brash but velvety "Take the ĎAí Train."
Anatomy of a New York song
There have been, over the decades, three basic kinds of New York City songs. The first sort are portraits of the city itself, songs that seek to capture the attitude and atmosphere of the place. This first kind goes back a long way. In 1892, the musical "A Trip to Chinatown" featured the song "The Bowery"; its lyrics read "I was out to enjoy the sights/ There was the Bowery ablaze with lights/ I had one of the devilís own nights/ Iíll never go there anymore." Although written more than 100 years ago, the lyrics seem as tough and experienced as a lot of hip-hop songs today. One of the best songs of this first sort is "Autumn in New York," a standard that has been performed by Billie Holiday, among others. The lyrics capture the gritty romance of Manhattan life: "Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel/ They're making me feel I'm home." Lyrical portraits of New York arenít always pretty. In 1994, the rapper Nas released a song titled "NY State of Mind" with lyrics that go "I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death... I think of crime when I'm in a New York state of Mind." Not exactly a tourist slogan. The tradition of documenting New York in song continues in the 21st century. The Irish rock band U2 have a song on their newest album entitled "New York": "Irish, Italians, Jews and Hispanics/ Religious nuts, political fanatics in the stew," Bono sings on the song, which was written long before September 11th.
The second sort of New York song uses the city as a vibrant backdrop for other things: boy trouble, girl trouble, any sort of trouble. Sometimes, setting a song in New York can lead to political trouble as well. The terrific twentysomething rock band The Strokes recently pulled a song off their album called "New York City Cops" because of its mocking refrain: "New York City cops they ainít too smart". Itís too bad the song was cut (although the song that replaced it was actually better and more inventive). Despite the fact that the song doesnít fit todayís pro-cop public mood, "New York City Cops" still deserved to be heard, if only for the fact that it captures the endearing surliness of the city: New Yorkers, and New York City bands, can be tough on anybody. Bob Dylan proved as much on his song "Positively Fourth Street," a wicked attack on arty poseurs in the village in the 1960s. The lyrics go: "I know the reason/ That you talk behind my back/ I used to be among the crowd/ You're in with." Now thatís New York.
The last sort of New York song isnít overtly about New York at all; but even if the cityís streets and landmarks arenít explicitly mentioned in the text of the song, and even if the song lacks lyrics entirely, the spirit of the city comes through all the same. George Gershwinís instrumental piece "Rhapsody in Blue" doesnít have to mention Manhattan to evoke the cityís soul. The opening clarinet winds its way up like morning light hitting an apartment building, the brass instruments sound like crosstown traffic. Saxophonist John Coltraneís "Central Park West" also wordlessly captures the moody allure of the streets and sidewalks.
Songs among the ruins
Jean-Paul Sartre once said "It occurs to me that New York is about to acquire a history, that it already has its ruins. This to adorn with a little softness the harshest city in the world." Yes, we have our ruins. We also have our songwriters. In the glory days of Tin Pan Alley, so-called songpluggers used to accost vaudeville vocalists, pushing them to perform their new compositions in hopes that they would make them into hits. New York is still just as aggressive, just as hungry, when it comes to songwriting. If Sting (who has an apartment in New York) could get a song out of the Cold War ("Russians"), surely todayís other New York-area performers will find meaning and inspiration in the cityís recent history. Already, New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen has written a song that deals with the recent attacks that Latin pop crooner Marc Anthony, a native New Yorker, may record for his new album. In 1994, on his song "NY State of Mind," the rapper Nas rapped "nothing's equivalent to the New York state of mind." His words still ring true.