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

Alabama 3, Curtis Stigers and Great Theme Songs

After writing about music from both film and television crime dramas in my last post it got me thinking about some other outstanding theme songs. The Sopranos was first aired in 1999 and followed the life of one, Tony Soprano, the head of a New Jersey, Italian-American, crime family. This was a mafia show unlike any other in that it not only depicted the (seemingly very realistic) goings-on of his cosa nostra family but also centred around his home life and the relationships he had with his wife, children, mother, sister and therapist – A normal family guy you warmed to and identified with in some scenes but then were reminded in no uncertain terms in other scenes that no, this guy and his colleagues had to be sociopaths. It was a brilliantly written series with excellent acting and direction and very deservedly won many awards during its 7-year run.

I think it was first shown on British television around the time we moved to our current house, and from the first episode I was hooked. It was however an HBO show which “from the beginning and throughout” covered scenes of a sexual nature, violence, drug-taking and bad language (the first time I ever heard the “c” word uttered on television). It was my favourite show of the week, but it had to be aired after 11pm at night. With ad breaks it went on until around 12.15am – Not great for a work and school night but I just had to watch it. Before it came on I made sure I was all prepared for the next day, in pyjamas, teeth brushed and ready for bed as soon as it finished – A guilty pleasure but not exactly sleep-inducing.

I think there is an element of voyeurism in the watching of such shows. Like probably most of the people who were fans, I live in law-abiding, “nice-world” where the worst crime I have ever committed is parking illegally or accidentally speeding in a built-up area. To witness the lives of these characters is to open a window onto a world you would never experience in real life. Our modern day lives are so controlled and safe that it is sometimes necessary to experience something a bit more edgy from the other side of the tracks, albeit from the safety of our living rooms.

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But back to the reason for this post, the opening sequence featured the journey made by Tony from New York back to his home in suburban New Jersey. He is seen emerging from the Lincoln Tunnel and passes through the tollbooth for the New Jersey Turnpike. Numerous landmarks are shown passing by as Tony drives down the highway. The theme played during this sequence was the excellent Woke Up This Morning written by, and performed by, British band Alabama 3. It took me some time to work out that this band was indeed from London as they sounded so American, but that would have been because the music they made at that time fused country, blues, rock and acid house. An unusual mix but as mentioned last time when I wrote about the opening sequence to Pulp Fiction, the audience were left in no doubt as to what kind of show they were about to watch.

Woke Up This Morning by Alabama 3:

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Alabama 3 (from Brixton, London)

Yet another crime drama that we’ve just finished watching is Sons of Anarchy about the life and times of a gun-running motor-cycle club based in Northern California. It took nine months to get through all seven seasons and at one point the graphic violence became so relentless that I had to take a sabbatical from watching it. Again though, it was a window onto a world I had no idea existed and there were parallels to the mafia-based show I had watched ten years earlier, it was just that this time the protagonists were West Coast rather than East Coast based, dressed in biker kuttes rather than sharp suits and preferred Harleys to expensive SUVs. Also, like with The Sopranos, you warmed to the main characters as they exhibited strong emotional bonds to their families, and to each other, but in nearly episode there was a very violent reality check reminding you that they were in essence outlaws and criminals. The scenery, clothing and shoot-outs made you think of the old Wild West – They were just substituting Harleys for horses.

But yet again I digress – The opening sequence to Sons of Anarchy, like The Sopranos, featured a great theme song called This Life performed by Curtis Stigers and the Forest Rangers. It is probably not the kind of song I would have taken much heed of had I heard it on the radio, but after listening to it 92 times as I must have done watching the show, you form an attachment, as you form an attachment to the characters.

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So, another post about music from award-winning crime dramas. Time to move on I think to another topic for next time, back in “nice-world”. Will ponder on what it will be over the next few days but yet again I am realising that the “tracks of my years” in later life are often associated with films and television. We now binge-watch boxsets which means you form a close relationship with the characters in favourite dramas. Yes it is make-belief but so was the relationship you had with your teen-idols back in the day. It does sound a bit wrong I know, but there are times when the cavewoman in me must come out and I wish I had a Tony Soprano or a Jax Teller there to fight my corner. I used to fantasise about trips to the cinema with Donny Osmond, now I fantasise about having one of the Sons of Anarchy as a minder when I’m feeling harassed – I would get all the best parking spaces and be able to jump queues. But no, although I don’t exactly live in Stepford, that just can’t happen, but nice to dream……and listen to all that great music!

Woke Up This Morning Lyrics
(Song by Jake Black/Rob Spragg)

You woke up this morning
Got yourself a gun,
Mama always said you’d be
The Chosen One.

She said: You’re one in a million
You’ve got to burn to shine,
But you were born under a bad sign
With a blue moon in your eyes

You woke up this morning
All that love had gone
Your Papa never told you
About right and wrong

But you’re looking good, baby
I believe you’re feeling fine,(shame about it)
Born under a bad sign
With a blue moon in your eyes

You woke up this morning
Got a blue moon in your eyes
You woke up this morning
Got a blue moon in your eyes

You woke up this morning
The world turned upside down
Lord above, thing’s ain’t been the same
Since the blues walked into town

But you’re one in a million
You’ve got that shotgun shine (shame about it)
Born under a bad sign
With a blue moon in your eyes

When you woke up this morning everything was gone
By half past ten your head was going ding-dong
Ringing like a bell from your head down to your toes
Like a voice trying to tell you there’s something you should know
Last night you were flying but today you’re so low
Ain’t it times like these that make you wonder if
You’ll ever know the meaning of things as they appear to the others;
Wives, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers
Don’t you wish you didn’t function, don’t you wish you
Didn’t think beyond the next paycheck and the next little drink?
Well you do so make up your mind to go on, cos
When you woke up this morning everything you had was gone

Woke up this morning
Woke up this morning
Woke up this morning
You want to be the Chosen One

Woke up this morning
Woke up this morning
Woke up this morning
You got yourself a gun