An American Odyssey in Song: New York – Boroughs, Bridges and “Feelin’ Groovy”

Welcome to this occasional series where I am attempting a virtual journey around the 50 States of America in song. For anyone new to this place, I have a continuous route map where I enter and leave each state only once. Suggestions for the next leg always welcome!

It’s quite some time since I continued on my American Odyssey in Song and that would be because I developed a severe case of Odyssey block! After struggling somewhat to identify any songs at all for the New England states, once I hit New York there were just too many. I have started this post on numerous occasions but always gave up half way through. This time, as The Drifters sang in 1961, it’s going to be different, this time I’m going to stay (with it)….

New York.jpg

No time for lengthy paragraphs about the state itself this time though as loads of songs to get through. Suffice to say it must be one of the most diverse states in the whole of the US as not only does it have Long Island, whose “Hamptons” are where rich New Yorkers go to spend their summers, but it also has the wilderness areas to the north where hunting and fishing are the pastimes of choice. The state borders Canada and two of the Great Lakes but at the foot of the triangle there is one of the most iconic and culturally rich cities in the world, New York.

Time to get this party started then and it’s not going to be pretty – Via “a stream of consciousness” is how I’m going to tackle this one. Everyone will have different songs that they associate with New York but these are the ones that have come to mind over the last few weeks. Ready, steady, go….

There can’t be many people who are not familiar with the sights of New York City but just in case, here’s a whistle stop tour courtesy of MGM and those three sailors who had a whirlwind 24-hour leave back in 1949. Ok, ok guys, we’ve got it – “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, the people ride in a hole in the ground”.

You can’t have failed to notice that Mr Francis Albert Sinatra plays one of the sailors in that clip and I’m sure it’s expected that his version of the song New York, New York will feature here, but that would just be too obvious, so unusually for me I’ll enter the 21st century and share Empire State of Mind by Mr Shawn Corey Carter (otherwise known as Jay-Z). 

JAYZ
Jay-Z, Rapper and Businessman

Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys:

Lord knows I’m not usually a fan of rap but I was truly blown away by this “song” (if that’s what it’s called) when it came out in 2009. Some fantastic lines in there referencing Sinatra’s New York, New York but also Afrika Bambaataa, the Bronx DJ who became known as the Godfather of hip-hop. The rap part on it’s own I probably wouldn’t have warmed to that much (although I don’t know), but with the inclusion of Alicia Keys vocals it became something really special. The pair are both from NYC and the song’s main writer, Angela Hunte, grew up in the same building as Jay-Z – 560 State Street, Brooklyn, an address mentioned in the song.

Something that comes across loud and clear from the lyrics of Empire State of Mind is that NYC is not just the island Manhattan as I had often thought as youngster. Oh no, NYC is made up of five boroughs – Brooklyn and Queens on the western end of Long Island, Staten Island which nestles up against New Jersey and The Bronx, north of Manhattan. Manhattan itself only becomes an island because of that tiny sliver of water linking up the East River with the Hudson.

5 boroughs

New York City, despite being made up of these five boroughs is very much centred on Manhattan, so how is it all linked up? Why by ferries and bridges of course. I am reminded of the scene in Saturday Night Fever where John Travolta’s character tries to impress his potential love interest with his knowledge of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, that double-decked suspension bridge that connects Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Another iconic bridge is the one that featured in the opening sequence to one of my favourite TV shows from the early ’80s – Taxi starring Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch. Whenever I hear this theme song I am right back in my student room, my little white portable telly perched precariously on the edge of my desk, just in the right place for the aerial (coat hanger?) to pick up a signal. It would have been mid-week and I was probably having a break from all those laborious hours spent writing everything out in longhand (no computers in those days). A flatmate might have popped in for a coffee whilst we watched the show. Sometimes those memories are the best, ones where nothing in particular was happening, just normal everyday life but hearing that theme reminds me of the scene. A beautiful piece of music called Angela by Bob James.

Angela (Theme from Taxi) by Bob James:

Of course I had to do some research after rewatching that clip to find out which bridge it actually was that came up every week in the titles – Joy, oh joy, it was none other than the Queensboro Bridge – So what I hear you ask? The alternative name for that bridge is The 59th Street Bridge and considering this whole series was inspired by the Paul Simon song America, it is fitting that his song about the bridge be included in this post.

feelin groovy

The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) by Simon and Garfunkel:

Paul Simon said that he’d spent most of 1965 in England but after coming back to the US, and having success with The Sound of Silence, life became really hectic for a while and he found it difficult to adjust. One day, going home to Queens over the 59th Street Bridge, he kind of started to snap out of it as the day had been a really good one, a “groovy one” – Once home he started to write the song subtitled Feelin’ Groovy that went on to appear on the 1966 album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” recorded with musical partner Art Garfunkel.

But enough about bridges, in the New York of 1977 the phenomenon that was disco had started to really make its mark. Manhattan had Studio 54 where Liza, Michael, Mick and Bianca were regulars but across the Brooklyn Bridge (oops, more bridges), they had a local disco called 2001 Odyssey and every Saturday night, aforementioned John Travolta (playing the character Tony Manero), temporarily left his monotonous life behind and became “king of the dance floor”. Watching him now, the dancing doesn’t look quite as impressive as it did when we first experienced Saturday Night “Fever” and the parodies have been ruthless, but I still have fond memories of going to see that movie when it first came out in the UK in 1978. As someone who has been known to “do a John” over the years and clear the dancefloor, it can be an exhilarating feeling (and not showy-off at all of course!).

You Should Be Dancing by the Bee Gees:

The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album, featuring disco songs by the Bee Gees, is one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time. How Deep Is Your Love is the song that appears in the closing scenes of the movie as we watch a desolate Tony ride the New York subway late at night. It is one of my all-time favourite love songs (which is probably why it became the choice for my Valentine’s Day post).

So far we’ve checked out the geography of New York and talked about the bridges and the nightlife. What about the people? I read an article recently about the flamboyant octogenarian fashionistas, who cut a dash on 5th Avenue – Way to go ladies!

Of course New York has long been known for its flamboyant characters and Sting sang about one of them, eccentric gay icon Quentin Crisp, in his 1988 song Englishman In New York. Another “character” commited to song was when Rod Stewart wrote and recorded  The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II) in 1976. This story song tells the tale of a young gay man who became successful and popular amongst Manhattan’s upper class – He was “the toast of the Great White Way”, which is the nickname given to the Theatre District of Midtown Manhattan. Georgie attends the opening night of a Broadway musical, but leaves “before the final curtain call” and heads across town. He is attacked near East 53rd Street by a gang of thieves and one inadvertently kills him. The song was apparently based on a true story about a friend of Rod’s old band The Faces.

I have waited a fair amount of time to feature Rod Stewart in this blog as it seems to be universally accepted that by the late ’70s he had sold out and his albums just weren’t up to the calibre of his earlier ones but hey, I was a mere 16-year-old schoolgirl at this time and was a big fan. This song especially, combining the melancholy and sombre Part II with the more popular Part I has long been a favourite of mine.

The Killing Of Georgie (Part I and II) by Rod Stewart:

We’ve spent an awful lot of time in New York City so far in this post but what about the rest of the state? Back in the early sixties before kids started heading off to Europe on holiday they used to go with their parents to resorts such as Kellermans in the Catskill Mountains. This is where “Baby” Houseman spent the summer of 1963, and fell for dashing dance instructor Johnny Castle. Dirty Dancing was a low-budget film that had no major stars but became a massive box office hit and was the first film to sell more than a million copies on home video. It has some great dance scenes and the soundtrack is full of classic songs from that early ’60s era such as Be My Baby, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Love Is Strange and this one, Stay by Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs.

kell
Kellermans in the Catskills, the setting for Dirty Dancing

Stay by Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs:

There are some great scenes in the movie where the landscape of the Catskills is kind of the star. I must admit to having become a bit of a fan of this movie in my later years although didn’t really take much heed of it when it first came out – I think it’s down to the nostalgia element, the music choices and the sadness that comes from the realisation that my days of dalliances with a young Johnny Castle are well behind me. Whatever, I’ve ended up writing about songs from it three times now (Be My Baby, Doomed Romances and Summer’s End) and they take the prize for being my least viewed posts – Sacre bleu!

Another song that makes me think of Upstate New York is Woodstock, written by Joni Mitchell but made famous in 1970 by Matthews Southern Comfort. The irony of course is that Joni Mitchell hadn’t even made it to the infamous festival which took place on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, but wrote about it after having watched it from her hotel room in New York. The lyrics tell the story of a spiritual journey and make prominent use of sacred imagery, comparing the festival site with the Garden of Eden. The saga commences with the narrator’s encounter of a fellow traveller, a “child of God”,  and concludes at their ultimate destination where “we were half a million strong”.

Iain Matthews of Matthews Southern Comfort was actually from Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire but he had previously been with the band Fairport Convention who were at the time heavily influenced by American folk rock.

Well I don’t know about you but I’m exhausted – This post has been a long time coming and I’m sorry it’s so wordy, but I for one am now just pleased that it’s “in the can” so that the journey can continue. Next time we’ll be passing through the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey so as ever, suggestions for that state are more than welcome. Unlike with the New England states I have a feeling that it’s now going to get a whole lot easier.

A final clip before I go however – One of my all-time favourite movies is Manhattan directed by Woody Allen. I was given the soundtrack album by the boyfriend of the day after going to see it, as I was just so bowled over by George Gershwin’s compositions. They were all performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and somehow I now always think of Rhapsody In Blue when I see the New York skyline.

manhattan

Rhapsody In Blue by George Gershwin:

The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) Lyrics
(Song by Paul Simon)

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feelin’ groovy

Hello, lamppost, what’cha knowin’?
I’ve come to watch your flowers growin’
Ain’t’cha got no rhymes for me?
Doot-in doo-doo, feelin’ groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feelin’ groovy

I got no deeds to do
No promises to keep
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me
Life, I love you
All is groovy

Author: Alyson

Whenever I hear an old song on the radio, I am immediately transported back to those days - I know I'm not alone here and want to record those memories for myself and for the people in them. 50 years ago the song "Alfie" was recorded for the film of the same name and I'm hoping that by writing this blog, I might finally work out the answer to his question, "What's it all about?"

28 thoughts on “An American Odyssey in Song: New York – Boroughs, Bridges and “Feelin’ Groovy””

    1. Thanks for dropping by and hope I didn’t make any glaring errors. This one is unlike any of my other Odyssey posts and as I said, “a stream of consciousness”, but couldn’t think how else to do it!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m not very well travelled in general, but I have been to New York City many times, thanks to my cousin and her family. Pre-kids they lived up on 52nd Street and a little before their first child came along they moved into a slightly larger apartment at 24th & 6th, an area I loved, but one that is much changed now. Eventually, as their family increased, they moved down to Tribeca, just a couple of blocks from the World Trade Centre. They’d bought their apartment before 9/11, though thankfully hadn’t yet moved in. They are now only a few blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge, which I’ve walked over several times. In fact during my last few visits, I probably spent more time walking around Brooklyn than anything else. My last trip to NYC was back in 2010 and in spite of the many invitations I get from the family, I don’t foresee returning any time soon, much as I’d love to.
    Thanks for this lovely post Alyson, it rekindled the memories of several New York moments. Here are a couple I shared a while ago.
    http://unthoughtofthoughsomehow.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/joey-ramone-new-york-moment.html
    http://unthoughtofthoughsomehow.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/allen-ginsberg-new-york-1994.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes – highly relevant to you this week what with the American contingent having been across for a visit. Lucky you having been able to visit so many times and (having read your blog posts) met so many iconic figures. Nice touch that with the wings!

      Having researched this post heavily I feel as if I’m an expert on NY now but haven’t yet made it across there myself. One day, when things have settled down a bit – Will they ever?

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  2. Loved this essay, Alyson. You covered a lot of ground.

    Hadn’t heard the Bee Gees song in a long while. A great tune.

    And I agree with you about Woody’s movie. Really a terrific one. His choice of black and white instead of color was a wise move.

    Enjoy the weekend – – –

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Neil – I was very nervous about posting this as I know quite a few of you are from NY. How on earth could a Scottish lady do it justice!

      Was great fun to do though and what a coincidence that your post yesterday was on the same subject. Everyone will have their favourite songs that relate to NY and these are just the ones that came to mind when I let things flow. Glad you like the Bee Gees – a much maligned set of brothers but oh so talented.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A lovely trip round New York – thoroughly enjoyed it! ‘Woodstock’ always sounds good to my ears too. I had a friend who once visited Woodstock in Oxfordshire and was convinced it was where the festival was held…
    I was lucky enough to go there just once (NY I mean, not Woodstock in Oxfordshire), and your pic at the top of Long Island and the Hamptons has reminded me of the gorgeous view that met us as the ‘plane took us over the coastline – it was my first ever flight (I don’t do things by halves!) and having been above the Atlantic for a good few hours that was the first sight of land and my brand new destination, just like the photo, what an experience.
    This can’t have been easy to put together with so many musical choices and snippets, hats off to you Alyson!
    And, yeah, I might have to make a trip out to 5th Avenue in an outlandish outfit if I make it into my 80s too….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for the delay in replying – It turns out that leaving your job is a very stressful affair as 15 years worth of procedures have to be written up. Wish I’d just been able to leave, as this notice period is killing me (I keep having a wobble). Fortune favours the bold but what if I’m not bold and just stupid!

      Anyway, I remember you mentioned this trip to New York before just as I set the ground rules for this series (which have all been broken here by the way) – Must have been an exciting trip. I still haven’t made it across the pond and too many responsibilites at the moment to do much of anything, but one day.

      You are right, this wasn’t easy at all and turned out very long but decided in the end just to run with all the ideas I’d had mulling around in my head for the last few weeks. Not always cool choices and not obvious ones either but mainly stuff I had in my library and somehow managed to string together.

      As for the octogenarian fashionistas – If we’re still blogging at 80, I’ll hold to to that. 5th Avenue here we come!

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  4. That….was…AWESOME. And that’s coming from someone who was born in Brooklyn, grew up on Staten Island, worked in Manhattan for 20 years, lived in Queens (very close to the 59th St. Bridge) for 16 years, then another 10 years in the suburbs of Westchester. I can understand why this post was a massive undertaking for you, and why you had to start & stop multiple times. Your song choices were excellent & musically diverse, and I like how you didn’t just focus on typically New York performers (although I’m sure some people might bemoan the absence of Lou Reed, The Ramones, Billy Joel and a handful of other iconic NY performers. I’m also pleased you moved beyond New York City…and mentioned the five boroughs…since so many folks just think of NYC as Manhattan, with nothing beyond that island. It makes me think of the magazine cover from The New Yorker with a typical New Yorker’s view of the world. If you’ve never seen it I recommend searching for it online. Should be easy to find.

    Thanks for this post. It brought a big smile to my face. Now take some time to regroup. Enjoy the weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I said in reply to Neil above and B from The Commutary, I am just so relieved that you native New Yorkers approve. Everyone would have a different pick of songs for this city/state as there are just so many to choose from but once I decided to “go for it”, these were mine.

      As for the 5 Boroughs, I took it upon myself a few years ago to really understand the geography of these districts/islands. We’ve watched movies/TV shows set in all of them over the years but I used to get really confused as to where they all were in relation to each other – Well and truly got it now and it sounds as if you’ve lived/worked in pretty much all of them. I don’t think I did too bad for someone from a place that’s about as different from NYC as is possible! As for the cover – Is it View of the World from 9th Ave? Just found it and see what you mean.

      Yes after this state the rest should be easy but I could be twarted in the mid-west (although there were those mid-west farmer’s daughters I suppose). Have a good weekend – Will visit FYF later on.

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  5. Glad to see you back on your travels again Alyson
    There is probably a year’s worth of New York songs or even enough for a dedicated blog but you do it justice
    Echorich and Jonny the Friendly Lawyer have done some excellent New York posts over at the Vinyl Villian.
    I would have had to feature the Ramones
    Where are you off to next?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you say there is a year’s worth of New York songs but had to go with just a few. Somehow my mind wasn’t going down the CBGB route with this one but maybe for another day.

      We’re off to New Jersey next and loads of material to choose from – New Hampshire and Connecticut were difficult but think I’m on a roll now!

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  6. Great to have this series back… and what a mammoth entry: worthy of Jez, I feel! Very diverse and enjoyable musical choices too.

    New Jersey next? Oh boy. Who was born in New Jersey? Frank, for a start. Jon Bon Jovi for two. Ben E. King for three. Anyone else? Nah… can’t think of anyone. (But Jersey Girl by Tom Waits is very special, although Tom’s from California. Not sure if anyone from Jersey has ever covered that.)

    I understand there’s a very nice town called Atlantic City in New Jersey. And another little place called Asbury Park. If only someone had written a song about one of them…

    Sorry, Alyson, I’ve got nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, New England was tough because of the dearth of choices for me BUT New York was tough because there were just too many. I know you probably expected me to include Frank and Billy Joel but decided just to stick with what first came to mind in the end. I never really liked New York, New York anyway and coming from New Jersey, Frank might be a better fit for the next post.

      You old tease you – Will he appear next time though? You’ll just have to wait and see!

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  7. I’ve been several times Alyson and, in another world, would gladly make it my home. I must dig out some photos and put a few up over at my place. My song choices, although more generic, have New York influences; they are by the two Neils – Diamond and Sedaka. In ‘America’ Diamond sings of the ‘sweet land of liberty’, while Sedaka namechecks ‘the big L of liberty’ in ‘The Immigrant’. The Immigrant was written about his good friend John Lennon who was being hounded by the US government during his application for Green Card status. Lennon, as we all know, made his home in NYC.
    But if it’s all out New York you’re after, I’d go for almost anything by Dion diMucci. Being a Bronx boy thru and thru, his lyrics positively exude New York in every line, every stanza. And if I was to give you just one, it would be ‘Written on Subway Walls’.
    So, there you go – three for the price of two!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lucky you having been several times – I’m afraid most of my travelling was done before my daughter came along and now there are “olds” to look after so not been easy to do much at all of late. One day, and in the meantime I can do the “virtual” journey.

      I did consider including the Neil Diamond song right at the start of this journey but back then I thought it would come across as a bit ironic for Trump’s America, so changed my mind. At first I wondered who the heck is Dion diMucci then I realised it was the full name of Dion of Runaround Sue fame. I had no idea he’d had such a long career and looking at his discography I see what you mean about the New York references – Always something new to learn.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m sure you have your songs for New Jersey worked out but I just wanted to mention one I found recently on an old CD someone burned for me a few years ago: ‘Hackensack’ by Fountains Of Wayne. I didn’t know where Hackensack was but love the name (feel I know that from elsewhere too – can’t place it – like a children’s TV programme theme or something from the ’70s?) Anyway, when I looked it up indeed I find its in NJ!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Hackensack” has a great sound to it as a word doesn’t it and hope it’s not just me but does it also sound a bit rude?! Whatever, definitely a contender. The single Stacy’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne was incidentally one of DD’s first singles back in 2003! If you check out Wiki, there are loads of songs that make reference to it in the lyrics so maybe you remember it from one of those (Moving Out by Billy Joel?). Also mentioned as a place name in quite a few films.

      Thanks for the contribution.

      Like

      1. Yes, it does have a great sound to it! I think I’ve figured out what I was thinking of when I said about a children’s TV theme and it’s not Hackensack at all, but HR Pufnstuf! Do you remember that? I guess somewhere in my mind I’ve connected the similar rhythmic sound of both words. ( Loved that theme tune but sadly nothing to do with New Jersey!)

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        1. Glad you worked it out and you are right it’s because the rhythm of the word is the same. I’ve also worked out what it reminded me of – a phrase used for an aspect of the modern day mans grooming regime (but you probably already worked that out!).

          As for HR Pufnstuf – no I don’t remember it at all. Our telly seemed to be permanently tuned to the BBC though so if it was on the “other side” as we used to call it, I tended not to know about it.

          Glad you mentioned Hackensack though as it’s reminded me of the Billy Joel song and that’s a great rhyme – heart attack ack ack ack ….

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          1. Haha, yes I was thinking of the same male grooming regime when you said that!
            As for HR Pufnstuf, I grew up in a household that shunned TV’s “other side” (my mum objected to adverts in particular, she was a bit snobby like that but it was probably a wise move to stop us pestering for the latest toys!) So funnily enough ours was usually only tuned in to BBC too! But for some reason we made an exception for this; I have a feeling a cousin recommended it, otherwise we might never have known about it. Love how your post inadvertently took me on a completely different line of thinking and more memories!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Phew not just me then!

              Funny that about the telly channels when there were only 2! What would your mum do now when there are around 132 plus Sky plus Netflix plus boxsets plus YouTube plus iPlayer etc etc …….. Ironically I think I spend less time watching telly now than I did back then but only because of blogging of course!

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  9. Alyson, I don’t often implore (I’m not an imploring kinda guy), but I do implore you to seek out Dion. He’s one of the few people left on my list that I haven’t yet seen and must – before it’s too late. His latter stuff is very stripped down, very bluesy, very Dion. And that voice. But here’s Written on Subway Walls from 1989 when he ‘came back’. Around this time he did a session for Tom Scott on Radio1 (2?) on a Saturday afternoon, and I was hooked. The effortless chat between songs made for an enthralling two hours.

    Sedaka is on that list too. Here’s The Immigrant song I was telling you about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh the irony of those Sedaka lyrics, both here and in the US. Thanks for the background info to it though. To be honest it was only when I started this blog and delved into the backstories of songs/artists that I realised how little I knew – I was always more of a geek about chart listings, facts and figures (handy for a pop quiz though!).

      As for Dion, the only Dion I am familiar with is the Dion of those early 60s pop tunes. Will have to investigate – thanks for the heads up.

      Like

  10. Just watched Written On Subway Walls – excellent as you say plus Lou Reed and Paul Simon put in an appearance – bonus. What to do though? So many songs and so little time…..

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  11. I’ve not visited New York, there’s still time! Yes, there are so many worthy contenders, and I didn’t expect to find Jay-Z here! Not sure when, maybe 1965, my dad saw Paul Simon live in England, before Simon became a big name. I’ve got to get to those early Rod Stewart albums when time allows. I know for a fact Joni Mitchell didn’t go to Woodstock, she wrote the song based on what she saw on TV, but her song still turned out well.
    A bit late now, but a few other selections I like, which haven’t been mentioned yet as far as I can tell:
    Fairytale of New York by The Pogues
    Leaving New York by REM
    The Only Living Boy in New York by Simon & Garfunkel
    All the Critics Love U in New York by Prince

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No me neither but as you say still time.

      Just so many songs set there so I kind of had to run with a theme and it ended up being about the Boroughs and the Bridges (mainly). Good to hear your picks as well – Everyone would come up with something different probably. Glad I surprised you with Jay-Z!

      As for early Rod Stewart, I would be interested to hear what you think – I am a bit of a fan but it seems for many “he had it, then lost it”!

      Like

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