This week, two songs about–or at least set in–New York City.
Destroyer is Canadian weirdo Dan Bejar’s band (he’s also in the New Pornographers) and his song is the least specific. Truly, he could have called this “Red Square” or “Berkeley Square” or (except for the too-many syllables issue) “Tiananmen Square.” It sounds like songs I used to listen to on WPDH in upstate New York when I was a teenager–it has a late 70’s FM radio vibe to it. It mostly reminds me of Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat,” which I guess was an AM radio hit but I remember them also playing it on WPDH.
We know we’re in New York City from the lines “You can follow a rose wherever it grows/Or you can fall in love with Times Square” (these are my options?) but the only other local color alluded to is graffiti and “Artists and Repertoire hand in hand through the great doorway at dawn.” (Dan should have ventured a little further from the studio.) No matter though, the raspy vocal and especially the “Walk on the Wild Side” saxophone sufficiently locate us in the Big Apple.
Which brings me to a what I consider a great missed opportunity in the third verse, when Dan sings:
Judy’s beside herself
Jack’s in a state of desolation
The writing on the wall, wasn’t writing at all
Just forces of nature in love with a radio station…
“Judy”? Who is this “Judy”? That clearly should have been lifelong New Yorker Jane, hopefully no longer a clerk but forty years on still with Jack and still listening to “March of the Wooden Soldiers” or whatever else is on the radio when they get home from work. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Tor Miller’s “Midnight” makes more of an effort to evoke the city. The first line is “Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’ was playing loud as hell in the back of an old dive bar” (I think I’ve been in this place) and landmarks such as the Holland Tunnel, St. Marks Place, and the Highline are referenced. We get streetlights, taxi cabs, the rumble of the subway. This song takes place later in the evening than “Times Square,” it’s a moody piano ballad about roaming the street seeking inspiration. It has a 70’s feel to it too, especially during the big swell in the chorus. From all reports New York City in the 70’s was a pretty horrible place, and both these guys are too young to have been there then, but perhaps in legend and PBS documentaries that seems the time when the city was most itself.
I lived in New York (okay, Hoboken) for about a year in the early eighties. What I mostly remember is being in a constant coil of rage: at my bosses, at my landlords, at my powerlessness and insignificance, at these goddamn people walking around at three o’clock without a care in the world, didn’t they have jobs, for Christ’s sake? I like Tor’s song very much but it brought these feelings back to me, and not in a good way. “I might hail a cab down:” yeah, well, I might take an hour and fifteen minute subway/PATH train home, who can afford a cab, especially one that goes “through the Holland Tunnel to the interstate”? Wandering the street “calling out for something true:” shut up, asshole, I’m trying to get some sleep so I can wake up at 5:30 tomorrow morning to get to work! Don’t force me to shut the window in this un-air conditioned apartment!
I do love New York City, but as a visitor, when I can show up, spend a week’s pay in a weekend, and leave. It’s a place I enjoy leaving as much as being there.