Songs about New York : The Streets

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Andy Royston continues his New York music odyssey – and takes it to the streets. Read Part One here.

I regret profoundly that I was not an American and not born in Greenwich Village. It might be dying, and there might be a lot of dirt in the air you breathe, but this is where it’s happening. John Lennon

People are working every minute. The machinery is always going. Even when you sleep. Andy Warhol

Songs For New York – Part Two: The Streets

New York City took over our collective imagination thanks to gritty movies and cop dramas on 70s TV. You can forget the disco era romance – New York City’s decline into danger was alarming. Pimps and prostitutes paraded openly, and the subway became a neglected crime-ridden space. With the city on the verge of bankruptcy many New Yorkers were out of work. “It’s like a jungle sometimes…”

I know all this because I was glued to McCloud, Kojak, Hill Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey, and NYPD Blue as a TV teen. Then I hit the movie houses and saw Taxi Driver, Bad Lieutenant, Black Rain, Serpico and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. See? I’m down… Like the farmer and the ‘tater, plant you now and dig you later. 😉

Joni Mitchell – Chelsea Morning 1968

Joni Mitchell paints this wonderful picture of New York City. She moved to the flatiron district from Canada as a young woman and set about making it homey. “Milk and toast and honey, and a bowl of oranges” and Leonard Cohen waiting in the bed writing sardonic love poems. Way to go, even if the reality of life as a single woman in NYC was much less romantic.

In another song, Song to a Seagull she talked of being shipwrecked like Robinson Crusoe on an “island of noise in a cobblestoned sea”. She took in the city from windows, which offered protection but also a kind of voyeurism too.

She’s proud, this country girl, to be peering out, from her own perch at all this roiling humanity. “Chelsea Morning” is a summer-of -love letter by a young woman alone in Manhattan.  – Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us.

This was the romantic New York; rock stars at the Chelsea hotel, camp poets, cerebral critics, hip designers and photographers, models and film makers, art collectors collecting artists, sexy hipster cats looking like they’d fallen right out of a James Baldwin novel. It was all too good to be true.

Velvet Underground – I’m Waiting For My Man 1967

Lou Reed, when he presented his song ‘Waiting for my man’ to John Cale, he played acoustic guitar, Bob Dylan style. Cale, classically trained and flush with the avant-garde was having none of it. Cale recognized that Reed’s approach to writing was quite different. Cale said later “There was an element of character assassination going on. He had a strong identification with the characters he was playing. It was Method acting in song.”

The song is a perfect portrait of a nervous hustler trying to score junk in the ghetto, and presents a seamier side of the city that we knew from novels, and increasingly the film world.

“I’m waiting for my man, $26 dollars in my hand,” sings Lou Reed. “Up to Lexington 125; feel sick and dirty, more dead and alive.”

The Last Poets – New York New York 1970

Hip hop can be traced back to an exact moment in history. May 16th 1969.  Jalal Mansur Nuriddin had been a US paratrooper who chose jail rather than fight in Vietnam.There he converted to Islam and learned to rap – which he called Speil.

By the time of his release he’d teamed up with Omar Ben Hassen and Abiodun Oyewole and, with the help of Harlem’s East Wind poetry workshop were giving mesmerizing street performances. Their records sold well – 800,000 were shipped by word of mouth. Last Poets got increasingly radical in their ideas and execution of Big Apple imagery.

Here too the movies had an influence, with films like They Call me MISTER Tibbs, and Cotton Comes to Harlem sparking off a swathe of Blaxploitation films aiming for the inner city urban black audience.

Bobby Womack & Peace – Across 110th Street 1972

Womack wrote the title and the score for one of the hardest hitting of Harlem crime dramas.  Across 110th Street starred the Hollywood legend Anthony Quinn and one of my TV heroes of the 1970s, Anthony Fargas.

Across 110th Street is a solid soul cut that – unusually  – became more famous than the movie it represented. At least 200 blaxploitation movies were made in just a four year period including Superfly, Shaft and Cleopatra Jones.

Lou Reed  – Walk on the Wild Side 1973

Similarly filmic, Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side makes episodic references to real drag queens who appeared in Warhol’s 1972 movie Women In Revolt. Andy Warhol at one point commissioned Reed to write for a Broadway musical he was planning based on Nelson Algren’s novel of the same name set among the pimps, whores and con men of New Orleans.

Warhol’s plans never came to anything, but Reed kept the theme in mind, bringing it much closer to home.

Stevie Wonder – Living For The City 1973

A hit off Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions album, I’d hold that this is his finest piece of music. It is a wonderful R&B migration narrative, telling the story of an ambitious black man from the south, heading for the promised land of New York City.

The song has roots in the sermons of black ministers and features a gospel interlude and church-like hand clapping. The way that the clapping gives way to a computerized tick-tock and fades to the sound of New York City street life is masterful.

Wonder’s prophetic voice speaks in the tradition of the blues singer and the sanctified preacher. His moralizing voice warns “This place is cruel, No world could be much colder…Stop givin’ jus enough for the city.” These final lines assert that the tremendous drive for the city, the great hope for Southern blacks, was a misdirected goal. Farah Jasmine Griffin 

Steve Forbert – Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977

Forbert’s great folk-rock song about street busking was also a migrant song. He too was from Mississippi. He was improbably caught up in the NYC punk explosion revolved around the crowds at CBGB’s club.

“There weren’t many options in Meridian. We didn’t even have coffee houses. We had pizza joints. I was supposed to go to Millsaps College in Jackson, but I didn’t want to. Instead I went to NY. I had no real plan, I just dove in.” Steve Forbert

Jim Carroll – People Who Died 1979

Poet Jim Carroll shared an apartment with NYC legends Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe while working on his cult classic memoir of the New York City teenage drug culture Basketball Diaries. He became a celebrated downtown poet, being lauded as the new Rimbaud, but he continued to be haunted by drug addiction.

To make a clean break from the city he moved to California and briefly formed a new wave /punk rock group. His Catholic Boy album is a classic of the genre, but the standout is the chilling People Who Died which names 13 friends who died young, listing only their names, ages, and causes of death. No wise words of consolation or sentimental guff.

Rather than making the song a slow dirge, the band amplifies the terrible speed of violence, backing the song with breakneck guitar and a frantic beat while Carroll attempts to out-shout the music…

By illuminating the stark reality of death, its senselessness, and the void left where his friends once were, Carroll emphasizes the value of life, amplifying the sense that these people died without fulfilling whatever potential their lives had in store for them”  Cassie Carter

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – The Message 1982

In the earlier days rap was a party thing. Boasting and bragging. The Message changed the game. Taking inspiration from Kurtis Blow’s streetwise Hard Times cut of a year before, this South Bronx group – Melle Mel, Kidd Creole, Cowboy, Mr. Ness,  Raheim and DJ Grandmaster Flash were suddenly pushed into the limelight.

A well known live act, the group were previously known for their performance aspects. Break beat DJing, turntablism and showboating, backspin, punch phrasing and scratching, MCing and freestyle battles were all part of the show. The Message was the first political record of the post-soul era – a direct critique of the state of South Bronx living in 1982. Word was that only label owner Sylvia Robinson, Sugerhill percussionist Duke Bootee, and Melle Mel from the group appear on the record itself. Grandmaster Flash worried that The Message would alienate his core party audience, but Sylvia put his name on it anyway.

It’s like a jungle sometimes, It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under…”

Tom Waits – Downtown Train 1985

A stop-go subway ride to the Battery and Staten Island featuring G.E. Smith’s guitar, Downtown Train was a conscious attempt by Waits to write a top 40 stadium hit.

By the time that Rod Stewart made it a top five hit the song was becoming a forgotten cut on his Rain Dogs album. He’d even sidelined his usual band in favour of a session gang including bassist Tony Levin and organist Robert Kilgore. Waits himself is now ambivalent about the worth of the track, but as a ‘top forty hit-as-intellectual-exercise” it works pretty well.

Beastie Boys – No Sleep Til Brooklyn 1986

Millions of kids bought the album but I’m not sure how many got the joke. This was clearly a Loony Tunes job – three kids inflating their prowess, rhymin’ and stealin’, “hustlin’ all girlies from city to city” and “takin’ out MCs with a big shotgun”.

Newsweek cirtainly didn’t get it. “It’s loud, disgusting, without redeeming social merit. There are no melodies, no harmonies, no singing – just a relentless flood of raunchy, rapped out lyrics punched out by a steady barrage of blaring guitars and synthesized beats”

Knucklehead city.

The Pogues – Fairytale of New York 1987

In some respects we’re back with Tom Waits and his Rain Dogs album, constantly played by the Pogues while preparing this bittersweet Christmas classic. A wonderful song of ambition and regret.

The band were also inspired by the Sergio Leone movie “Once Upon A Time In America” and shares a little of Morricone’s theme within the opening melody.  It’s story of a man who brought his love to America to make a better life for the two of them, but far from Broadway success they both end up poor immigrants and  addicts. The NYPD choir keep singing, the bells keep ringing out, and life goes on regardless.

It is a tender love song,that is also a biting duet of mutually reciprocated disappointment, and an aria that invokes the city it hymns as not a place where emigrant dreams are realized but as a wasteland of the down-and-out – the lonely, the drug-addicted, the drunken, the homeless, the old, the incarcerated. Less a hymn to America than to the emigrant dream of abundance – a dream that the Empire State has always successfully exploited, yet never quite redeemed. Jon Cleary, Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Modern Ireland

Sting – Englishman In New York 1988

This song dates from Sting’s purchase of a Manhattan apartment and his friendship with one of England’s self-styled ‘Stately Homos’, Quentin Crisp, who was living in the city too. Crisp was a beautifully eccentric and openly gay author and actor from London, who emigrated to East 3rd Street in Manhattan’s East Village in the late 70s.

Sting doesn’t mention Crisp in the song, so many have assumed it is autobiographical. The soprano sax refrain is provided by Branford Marsalis.

“Quentin’s a friend of mine and someone I admire greatly because I think he’s one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met. He has lived his life in an individual way in a society that is vicious and malevolent. But he is a hero in a feminine way. So that’s a song about the feminine qualities than can exist in man without being negative.” ~ Sting Timeout, October 1987

Crisp himself provides the outro: “If I have an ambition other than a desire to be a chronic invalid, it would be to meet everybody in the world before I die… and I’m not doing badly.” Why did he move to New York? “‘In England no one is your friend, in America people will tell you the story of their lives while waiting for the traffic lights to change…’ Once asked if he missed anything about England, he replied: ‘My gas fire, that’s all, England was a terrible place.’

Don Henley – In A New York Minute 1990

Johnny Carson once said that a New York Minute is the interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind hitting the horn. The phrase itself seems to be a southernism, that became the title of an ’85 hit by Ronnie McDowall, with the lyric ”I’d make love to you in a New York minute and take my Texas time doing it.”

Former Eagle Don Henley’s original is a collection of stories about the ways that a relationship might be lost, Warner Chappell’s killjoy lawyers have wiped most decent videos of Don Henley’s classic off the web, but it’s on the list as it has become so deeply linked with the September 11 attacks.

Lying here in the darkness
I hear the sirens wail
Somebody going to emergency
Somebody’s going to jail
You find somebody to love in this world
You better hang on tooth and nail
The wolf is always at the door

The first video is a jazz arrangement featuring Danish star Sanne Salomonsen. The second, commemorative video isn’t Henley’s original music but the song still shines.

Part Three

In the last part of my Songs about Cities : New York I will be taking a post 9-11 millennial, taking us into the 21th century. There will be Bruce Springsteen, Jay- Z, Ryan Adams, Gil Scott Heron, Edward Norton and more.

Read Part Two here.


Pull-out Warriors poster.

Robert Di Niro - on the set of Taxi Driver

Robert Di Niro – on the set of Taxi Driver

West Side Story film still

West Side Story film still



Andy Royston is a designer, artist and photoblogger based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is one of the world’s best known mobile photographers and his work has been exhibited across the UK and Europe. He is the winner of the 2014 Mobile Photography Awards ‘Nature and Wildlife’ Award. Veteran of the London 1980s music scene, where he designed record sleeves for all kinds of rock stars and indie heroes he is a bottomless pit of musical trivia. Still looking for the next big thing he’ll be dropping into JAQUO.COM to write an irregular column on the musicians he’s most excited about.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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1 Comment

  1. very nice article Andy, did not know you wrote like this….. fell in love all over again with NYC a few years back when I had a few of my images in a iPhone Art Show in a little gallery called Soho Gallery For Digital Arts. it was a very cold winter night but I did not mind the weather because of the beautiful show I was a part of and the people who attended who were blown away from what people are doing with their iPhones….. a wonderful selection of images and some very interesting people who showed up including a movie producer and a well know black and white still photographer who I had a chance of talking to both among many other beautiful people. A few days after the show I explored the streets of NYC as much I could got goose bumps from seeing where the twin towers once stood and what was being built on the site. Met some very beautiful people while walking around and even met Rupert of Hello Deli next to where Letterman use to broadcast from. A visit I will never forget….. also a fan of many of the songs and movies you mention in your article….. thanks for doing this….

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