An American Odyssey in Song: New Jersey – Frank, The Sopranos and “It Was A Very Good Year”

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!

Well, I seem to have been tettering on the edge of the George Washington bridge for two months now, as my New York post ended up being rather a long one, and New Jersey doesn’t look as if it will be much shorter, or easier to put together. After this state I will really try and get back to the original premise of one state, one song, but in the meantime it will have to be another “stream of consciousness” kind of affair. Here goes….

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New Jersey is tantalisingly close to wealthy and sophisticated Manhattan, but here, a mere 10 minutes across the bridge (or through the tunnel), we have a much more workaday state. To use another British analogy, New Jersey is probably the Essex of America where “Joisey” girls and boys tend to be the butt of many a joke. It is called the Garden State but the area bordering the Hudson is heavily industrialised and provides a home to many a chemical plant. The beautiful Ivy League University Princeton however is in New Jersey and further south we have the many fine beaches. Atlantic City, with it’s seven miles of boardwalk, was a highly successful and popular resort in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Post WWII it fell into decline but in 1976 came the legalisation of gambling after which massive casino hotels were built such as the Trump Taj Mahal. The original was one of the seven wonders of the world, but inside this one day and night merge into one, as high and low rollers from all over the world are sucked in leaving the old boardwalks neglected and empty.

But this is a music blog so what, and who, comes to mind when I think of New Jersey? First of all here is a clip showing the opening sequence to the television show The Sopranos – It shows the journey made by its lead character Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini), all the way from the New Jersey Turnpike to his comfortable suburban home. The theme music for this show (Woke Up This Morning) was ironically provided by British band Alabama 3 and I have written about that song here before as I’ve always really liked it. The short film also gives a pretty good whistle stop tour of that part of the state, just across the Hudson from NYC.

Woke Up This Morning by Alabama 3:

Like many other successful television dramas it wasn’t long before a CD was released featuring the songs included in the show, and being a big fan of course I bought it. Being a drama very much focused on Italian-Americans, it was inevitable that one of New Jersey’s most famous sons, born to Italian immigrants living in Hoboken, would pop up quite early on in the series. Not in person of course, as he died the year before the show first aired, but by providing It Was A Very Good Year, the soundtrack to the opening sequence for Season 2.

Frank Sinatra was possibly the very first teen idol, the hero of the “bobby-soxers” who sang with the Tommy Dorsey band in the ’40s and appeared in many lavish MGM musicals. After his career started to slump in the early ’50s he turned to Las Vegas, becoming one of the infamous Rat Pack. A second successful film and recording career followed in the later half of that decade and then a long period of recording and performing live in concert, right up until 1995. In terms of retirement, it never really worked out for him.

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A young Frank in Hoboken, New Jersey

Although Frank didn’t ever learn how to read music, he had a fine, natural understanding of it and was known to be a perfectionist. It is often mentioned that he had wonderful “phrasing”, which is how a musician shapes a sequence of notes in a passage of music in order to express an emotion or impression – I do believe that with It Was A Very Good Year, he does that with bells on.

It Was A Very Good Year by Frank Sinatra:

Another reason I wanted to include this song in my New Jersey post is because its whole sentiment is very appropriate for what I am doing with this blog – I am probably now in the autumn of my years myself but it is enjoyable to look back nostalgically over my life, telling the stories and sharing the music of my youth.

When I was seventeen, it was a very good year:

Right at the start of my teenage years a new Community Centre was built next to the Academy I attended, and so for the next five years, until I reached the age of 17, it became the focus of our social life. Unlike today when very few parents/community leaders are willing (or allowed) to supervise a few hundred teenagers with raging hormones, back in the ’70s they were plentiful. Nearly every weekend we headed along to the Saturday night “disco” held in one of the big halls. The records, played by some of our classmates who had been insightful enough to buy the equipment, were all the current chart hits and of course it was there that we experienced first kisses, fumbles and romance.

Funnily enough one of my most vivid memories of those years is dancing to songs by a band that really should be more closely associated with the ’60s. Those original Jersey Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons had a bit of a resurgence in popularity in the ’70s and I am pretty sure my first kiss took place whilst the song December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night) was playing in the background. Ironically, when good friends of ours recently moved to another town, their new next-door neighbour turned out to be the recipient of that first kiss – I went to say hello as we’d been right through secondary school together, but at first he didn’t recognise me because he didn’t have his glasses on! Oh the cruel passage of time and how it affects our senses.

When I was twenty-one, it was a very good year:

By the age of 21 I had done the unthinkable, I had dropped all my female friends because I wanted to spend most of my day with my student boyfriend. He was never alone however so it was usually a group of about five lads and myself, in the library, in the bar, in the dining hall…., you get the picture. (“Yes, we see, he was the Leader of the Pack” – sorry couldn’t resist).

Anyway, they were all great fans of that other famous son of New Jersey Bruce Springsteen, so when a rumour went round that he was coming to play the NEC in Birmingham, tickets were acquired. The boyfriend’s parents’ Volvo was commandeered and on the day of my 21st birthday we headed off, driving through the night to the West Midlands. I will have to admit that at age 21 I was more of a fan of Ultravox, Spandau, Visage and Adam Ant so my knowledge of Bruce’s back catalogue was scant indeed. In the weeks before the concert I therefore immersed myself in his album “The River”. By the time the concert came along I was sufficiently au fait with his material to really enjoy the whole experience, especially the saxophone playing of Clarence Clemons. As for the song The River, Bruce cited his inspiration as being his sister and brother-in-law who are still married today. Unlike my New Romantic bands from the early ’80s, Bruce has kept on writing and touring to this day. Never having been a follower of fashion in any way (his stage outfit remains almost unchanged) he has never gone out of fashion – He is the bard of New Jersey but a campaign to get Bruce’s Born To Run named as official state song did flounder, as in reality the song was all about getting the hell out of New Jersey!

When I was thirty-five, it was a very good year:

By 35 I was a working mum and a very busy bee indeed so music didn’t feature quite as highly in my life but it would have been hard to miss the fact that Ms Whitney Houston, one of New Jersey’s most famous daughters, had really achieved success of the stratospheric nature. Pop royalty, she was the cousin of Dionne Warwick, the daughter of Cissy Houston, Darlene Love was her godmother and Aretha Franklin an honorary aunt. She had been around since the mid ’80s but after appearing in films such as The Bodyguard the awards just kept on coming. The lead single from the film’s original soundtrack, I Will Always Love You, received the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1994 and became the best-selling single by a female in music history. I think I now prefer the original version, by the writer of the song Dolly Parton, but no-one can deny that Whitney had a stupendous set of pipes back then.

Sadly, Whitney died in 2012 at the very young age of 48, but she certainly has left us with a wonderful back catalogue of songs. She was one of the first singers to make use of that vocal technique called melisma, where by packing in a series of different notes, a single syllable can take nearly six seconds to sing. The technique inspired a host of imitators in the ’90s but what Whitney perhaps nailed best was moderation. Earlier this year I went to the cinema to see the new Kevin Macdonald documentary film Whitney: Can I Be Me – The upshot seemed to be that no, she couldn’t.

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Whitney Houston, RIP

I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston:

So there we have it, by using Frank’s song I have been able to link three other musical legends from New Jersey into this post. Incidentally there is another link you might not have noticed. Frankie Valli actually made several appearances in The Sopranos, playing the mobster Rusty Millio. Also, the Four Seasons’ music is heard in many episodes, especially Big Girls Don’t Cry. Steven Van Zandt, a long term member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, played the character Silvio Dante in all six seasons of The Sopranos and finally, Whitney Houston, was a mezzo-soprano (tenuous that one, but you can’t win them all).

Big Girls Don’t Cry by The Four Seasons:

Next time we head across the border into Pennsylvania – As ever, ideas for song choices gratefully received.

Until next time….

It Was a Very Good Year Lyrics
(Song by Ervin Drake)

When I was seventeen, it was a very good year
It was a very good year for small town girls
And soft summer nights
We’d hide from the lights
On the village green
When I was seventeen

When I was twenty-one, it was a very good year
It was a very good year for city girls
Who lived up the stairs
With all that perfumed hair
That came undone
When I was twenty-one

When I was thirty-five, it was a very good year
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls
Of independent means
We’d ride in limousines
Their chauffeurs would drive
When I was thirty-five

But now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of the years
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
It poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year

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). 

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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.

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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