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

An Unlikely Mix of Stonehenge, The Summer Solstice and Will Smith

This is going to be a bit of a short post (ironic as it’s the longest day) but I have been taking a keen interest in the pagan, or nature’s calendar over the last year and today is Litha, also known as Midsummer or the Summer Solstice. As ever, the ancient festivals held on these days made use of fires, so tonight Mr WIAA is going to be all manly and will symbolically light our little fire pit. I have also done something that will inspire a bout of manic preparation today – Yes, I have invited the neighbours round for a bit of a soirée. Together we can admire the fire which is supposed to a) provide magical aid to the sun b) drive out evil and c) bring fertility and prosperity to men, crops and herds. Not bad for an evening’s work.

Again, life in modern day suburbia is not quite as it used to be when these rituals were first performed and although I like the sound of driving out evil, I don’t have many crops or herds to consider but am mighty glad that others do, so yeah to the farmers of the world, who keep us well fed throughout the year. I wish their crops and herds well.

litha

Sadly this day has landed on a Wednesday, which is a work day, so I probably won’t be able to stay up late to watch the sunset which is a shame. There will have been many however who made the trek to Stonehenge this morning to watch the sunrise at around 4.15am. It has naturally become quite the gathering place for this ancient ritual but when looking into it further, the guidance was as follows: “The roads around Stonehenge will be very busy and parking facilities for the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge are very limited. We recommend using public transport, car sharing or arranging lifts from taxis and local accommodation providers”.

Somehow the romance of it all gets a bit lost amidst the parking practicalities of 21st century Britain.

shnge

But what should the featured song for this post be? I am going to cheat a little and borrow from the post I wrote this day last year when I was quite upset that the month of June had not panned out weather-wise as I had hoped. Yet again, the last couple of weeks here in Scotland have been quite wet and miserable but it does look as if good weather might be on it’s way. Lets hope so anyway.

First published June 2016:

Although for meteorologists summer starts at the beginning of June, apparently “astronomical summer” is defined as starting on the 21st, the Solstice. Time to re-load summer then, and the first song that came to mind when rethinking all of this was Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. It was released in 1991 when I was in my early thirties, so not really one of the tracks of my years – Had I been a teenager around then I would have known Will Smith well from his television show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air but I wasn’t, and I didn’t. We still watched TOTP on a Thursday night however and despite the fact I have never really been a fan of rap, this was just a great sounding song that summed up what summertime means for young people.

Will Smith has gone on to great things since and has starred in 21 movies to date with a couple of Oscar nominations under his belt to boot. He is also widely thought of as being the “nicest” A-list movie actor around, always patient with interviewers despite having probably been asked the same question hundreds of times whilst on press junkets promoting a new film.

For now however, I will just enjoy watching the young Will, hang out with DJ Jazzy Jeff (Jeffrey to his mum) and a host of friends and relatives (but probably extras) whilst coming up with some very entertaining rhymes.

Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff  The Fresh Prince:

Happy Litha…

Summertime Lyrics
(Song by Will Smith and too many more to mention!)

Drums please, summer, summer, summertime
Time to sit back and unwind

Here it is, the groove slightly transformed
Just a bit of a break from the norm
Just a little somethin’ to break the monotony
Of all that hardcore dance that has gotten to be

A little bit out of control, it’s cool to dance
But what about the groove that soothes
That moves romance, give me a soft, subtle mix
And if ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it

And think of the summers of the past
Adjust the base and let the alpine blast
Pop in my CD and let me run a rhyme and put your car
On cruise and lay back ’cause this is summertime

Summer, summer, summertime
Time to sit back and unwind
Summer, summer, summertime
Time to sit back and unwind

School is out and it’s a sort of a buzz
But back then I didn’t really know what it was
But now I see what have of this
The way that people respond to summer madness

The weather is hot and girls are dressin’ less
And checkin’ out the fellas to tell ’em who’s best
Ridin’ around in your jeep or your Benzos
Or in your Nissan sittin’ on Lorenzo’s

Back in Philly we be out in the park
A place called the plateau is where everybody goes
Guys out huntin’ and girls doin’ likewise
Honkin’ at the honey in front of you with the light eyes

She turn around to see what you beepin’ at
It’s like the summer’s a natural aphrodisiac
And with a pen and pad, I compose this rhyme
To hit you and get you equipped for the summertime

It’s late in the day and I ain’t been on the court yet
Hustle to the mall to get me a short set
Yeah, I got on sneaks but I need a new pair
‘Cause basketball courts in the summer got girls there

The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old times sake
Creak to ya crib, change your clothes once more
‘Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s startin’ at 4

Sittin’ with your friends ’cause y’all reminisce
About the days growin’ up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back, makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia

All the kids playin’ out front, little boys messin’ ’round
With the girls playin’ double-dutch
While the DJ’s spinnin’ a tune as the old folks
Dance at your family reunion

Then six ‘o clock rolls around
You just finished wipin’ your car down
It’s time to cruise, so you head to
The summertime hangout, it looks like a car show

Everybody come lookin’ real fine
Fresh from the barber shop or fly from the beauty salon
Every moment frontin’ and maxin’
Chillin’ in the car they spent all day waxin’

Leanin’ to the side but you can’t speed through
Two miles an hour so, everybody sees you
There’s an air of love and of happiness and this is
The Fresh Prince’s new definition of summer madness