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)….

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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.

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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.

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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

Summer Romances, Dirty Dancing and “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life”

Following on from yesterday’s post about the melancholy that comes with the approach of autumn, I have now had time to think about this a bit more. Back at the beginning of June, I wrote about the euphoria I still feel at that time of year due to some long-lasting Pavlovian response to the fact that exam season is over, the long school holidays are upon us and a summer of possibility awaits. Of course it’s years now since I’ve had to sit heavy-duty exams, I only get two weeks annual leave (if I’m lucky) and as for possibilities, not so much. Life is good but it’s just not full of those emotional highs and lows you experience in your youth, but the feeling is still there.

Well yesterday, I think I felt that same euphoria, but in reverse – That feeling we had in our youth when summer was over. Again it’s a long time since I’ve started a new academic year but we must be hard-wired into remembering how it felt – That those carefree days of summer are over for another year. Suddenly our clothes seem ridiculous, as despite the still reasonable temperatures (even in the North of Scotland), it gets dark early, and it feels wrong to be dressed in sundresses and sandals.

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Like most female students back in the day, I used to head off to work in hotels for the summer and romances were invariably kindled with local boys (much to the chagrin of the local girls). In June these dalliances were new and exciting but by September it was obvious that they were not sustainable and had to end, but there was still a tinge of sadness and regret. Perhaps this is why musicals like Dirty Dancing and Grease are still so popular, as they remind ladies of a certain age, of the summer they fell for their Johnny Castle or Danny Zuko.

Not difficult to find songs that tell of such tales and most seem to be from the male perspective but perhaps I’m not looking hard enough. One that immediately sprang to mind was Michael Jackson‘s Farewell My Summer Love which was a curious one in that it was recorded by the very young MJ in 1973 but it was only released in 1984 after the success of “Thriller”. Yes, suddenly the Motown archives were being plundered to capitalise on his new-found global pop dominance.

Olivia and John reminisced about their Summer Nights in 1978, and Don Henley sang of the end of summer in his 1985 hit Boys Of Summer. This time he is the boy left behind whilst the girl is having summer flings, but he is in it for the long-haul and is determined to get her back. Bryan Adams wrote about the Summer of ’69 but as I don’t do smutty here, I won’t delve into that one too far! As for Kid Rock’s 2008 All Summer Long I suspect there are some dubious metaphors in there as well but I loved how he mashed-up Warren Zevon’s Werewolves Of London with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama in this coming of age tale.

But hey, I’m a girl, and it’s the end of the summer, so I just want to yet again revisit that scene at the end of Dirty Dancing where dismissed dance coach Johnny makes a triumphant return, and tells yesterday’s featured artist Jerry Orbach (there’s the link), that “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”. For some reason I seem to have more male than female blog followers in which case I am truly sorry for posting this particular bit of nostalgia, but considering how many brides nowadays want their first dance to be like the one in this scene, it seems that a few dancing lessons might be just what is needed to sweep the lady of your dreams off their feet – literally!

(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life by Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes:

(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life Lyrics
(Song by John DeNicola/Donald Markowitz/Franke Previte)

Now I’ve had the time of my life
No I never felt like this before
If I swear it’s the truth
And I owe it all to you
‘Cause I’ve had the time of my life
And I owe it all to you

I’ve been waiting for so long
Now I’ve finally found someone
To stand by me
We saw the writing on the wall
As we felt this magical
Fantasy

Now with passion in our eyes
There’s no way we could disguise it
Secretly
So we take each other’s hand
‘Cause we seem to understand
The urgency just remember

You’re the one thing
I can’t get enough of
So I’ll tell you something
This could be love because

I’ve had the time of my life
No I never felt this way before
Yes I swear it’s the truth
And I owe it all to you

With my body and soul
I want you more than you’ll ever know
So we’ll just let it go
Don’t be afraid to lose control, no
Yes I know what’s on your mind
When you say “Stay with me
Tonight.” Just remember

You’re the one thing
I can’t get enough of
So I’ll tell you something
This could be love because

‘Cause I had the time of my life
And I’ve searched through every open door
Till I’ve found the truth
And I owe it all to you

Johnny, Baby and Doomed Romances

Don’t know what’s happened to me – Since inadvertently revisiting the movie Dirty Dancing when writing about the Ronettes in my last post, I have been unable to stop listening to the soundtrack. I’m behaving like a silly teenager with a crush! The Patrick Swayze song She’s Like The Wind has always been a favourite of mine and the lyrics perfectly fitted the movie’s storyline. But here’s the thing – It was always a given that Johnny wasn’t good enough for Baby and that at the end of the holiday, she would head off to college and then join the Peace Corps (it was the sixties). It became clear however in the course of the movie that her father’s assessment of young men was not infallible (he disapproved entirely of the honourable dancer Johnny but was happy to sponsor the womanising student Robbie). The theme of clever, sensible, middle-class girls falling for “bad boys” is an eternal one and every generation of parents dread this happening to their daughters – Think how the Air Force Officer father of Priscilla Beaulieu must have felt when at 14 she fell in love with Elvis Presley, and moved to Graceland to live with him at age 17.

She’s Like The Wind by Patrick Swayze:

I would like for once however, to see how things would have turned out if the movie had kept rolling – Love is a powerful thing and parents are not always right. I know of many couples who stood firm against parental disapproval and have gone on to have long and successful marriages. Johnny didn’t have the great start in life that Baby obviously had been privilege to, but he was incredibly talented and personable. With the right girl by his side he could have gone far in the entertainment business, or become the proprietor of a dance academy!

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We know that Danny and Sandy headed off in his systematic, hydromatic car at the end of Grease but what happened then? I would like to think they went on to great things with Danny running his own chain of “Greased Lightening” garages and the two of them producing a brood of Italian-Australian babies.

In West Side Story, Maria was never going to be allowed to have any sort of relationship with Tony from the “Jets”. Her brother, the leader of the “Sharks” would never have allowed it, but for Tony to lose his life because of it was one of the saddest and most tragic moments in film history – I am pretty sure they would have made a great couple and lived a long and happy life if family disapproval hadn’t got in the way. (I did struggle a bit with Richard Beymer’s portrayal of a tough, gang-member but those beautiful songs balanced it out.)

I have written about Buffy and Angel before and how their relationship had to end despite their “perfect happiness” but what if it hadn’t? In Highlander, the wife of the immortal Connor MacLeod, his bonnie Heather, grew old whilst he always stayed the same age – She didn’t understand why he stayed with her, but he did because he loved her, right up until her death.

Yes a theme as old as life itself, and despite wanting to hope for the best with all these relationships, would I be as open-minded if my daughter brought one of these “bad-boys” home? I would like to think that I would as I trust her judgement, but not easy, as the Beaulieus of Wiesbaden, Germany must have found in 1959 when Elvis came a-callin’!

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She’s Like The Wind
(Song by Patrick Swayze/Stacy Widelitz)

She’s like the wind
Through my tree
She rides the night
Next to me

She leads me through moonlight
Only to burn me with the sun
She’s taken my heart
But she doesn’t know what she’s done

Feel her breath in my face
Her body close to me
Can’t look in her eyes
She’s out of my league

Just a fool to believe
I have anything she needs
She’s like the wind

I look in the mirror
And all I see
Is a young old man
With only a dream
Am I just fooling myself
That she’ll stop the pain?
Living without her
I’d go insane!

The Ronettes, Phil Spector and “Be My Baby”

Following on from my last post when I wrote about Amy Winehouse’s album “Back to Black”, her image at that time was very much taken from the American girl groups of the early ’60s. The most famous and recognisable of these was probably The Ronettes of Be My Baby fame.

Be My Baby by The Ronettes:

Now I would be lying if I said that I remembered this song from 1963 when it was first released, but it is one of those songs you will have heard throughout your entire life, popping up on the radio and on film soundtracks. Phil Spector, who produced the record, was an innovator and in the early 60s created his now infamous “wall of sound” as a backdrop to the sultry vocals of singers like Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett of The Ronettes and Darlene Love. This new approach to recording included using whole string and horn sections, as well as guitars and drums. The use of echo chambers and multiple tracking was also involved which basically meant that the sound was re-recorded over a demo of the previous recording many times, building up the cacophony of sound that became his trademark.

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Phil Spector is one of only a few producers who became more famous than many of the artists he worked with and because the “wall of sound” was so clearly associated with him, he was able to release successful albums of his label’s greatest hits under his own name. I bought these two albums in the mid ’80s when they were re-released – Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits & Phil Spector’s Christmas Album. They are still a joy to listen to today and with so few new Christmas songs being released nowadays, his seasonal album has become a staple in our house around that time of year.

In 1987, a low-budget film called Dirty Dancing was released starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Not ever expected to be a big hit, it has become one of the most well-loved films of all time and was the first movie to sell over a million copies on home video. As I have written elsewhere in the blog, adding the “music of the era” to a film soundtrack is a really effective tool and none more so than in the case of Dirty Dancing which was essentially a romantic drama, set in a 1963 holiday resort in the Catskill Mountains.

Be My Baby was used extensively as were other tracks from that year along with a whole load of new ones specially written for the movie. For some reason I didn’t see it when it first came out, but like most people my age, I have since bought the DVD and CD. I remember watching it with my daughter one Bank Holiday Monday and unlike when it came out in 1987, when I was in my late 20s, I felt real nostalgia for all those holiday experiences that Baby was going through. This has happened before when watching movies with my daughter – It seems that you have to be at least a generation removed to feel that emotion. At 27, I was neither young enough or old enough for that to happen. I would wager that the people who enjoyed that movie best when it came out, were either born circa 1970 (they could empathise) or 1950 (they could reflect nostalgically). Of course there are also all those people who would have enjoyed looking back at the music, fashions and social mores of that early sixties period but they would have been war babies and I don’t think that the film was aimed at that demographic when it came out.

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Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey partaking in some Dirty Dancing!

Wouldn’t be a blog post if I didn’t mention someone who had passed away and it is sad to think that the the vital, energetic, handsome Patrick Swayze (dancer Johnny Castle in the movie) is no longer with us. Jennifer Grey is still very much with us, however her appearance has changed so much since her days of playing Baby, that I now wouldn’t recognise her. Looking back, her nose was perhaps on the large side but after having it “done”, her film career was pretty much over. A case of perhaps best to have left well alone? Who knows but yet again I end with the familiar three letter acronym – RIP, Patrick.

Be My Baby Lyrics
(Song by Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich/Phil Spector)

The night we met I knew I needed you so
And if I had the chance I’d never let you go
So won’t you say you love me
I’ll make you so proud of me
We’ll make ’em turn their heads every place we go

So won’t you, please
(Be my, be my baby) Be my little baby
(My one and only baby) Say you’ll be my darlin’
(Be my, be my baby) Be my baby now
Wha-oh-oh-oh

I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see
For every kiss you give me, I’ll give you three
Oh, since the day I saw you
I have been waiting for you
You know I will adore you ’til eternity