I’ve been trying to write a “New York” song for a while now. In fact I did write one, but I’m not quite sure about it for reasons I will explain later — perhaps tomorrow. New York has crept into my songs here and there. In “Messed Up Everywhere Blues,” where I’m afraid I stole a line (or more) from Billy Joel. This is so embarrassing I won’t repeat those lines here.
Also in the song “Snowstorm,” where I say:
“Snowstorm is a simple word first used in 1771
it must have been a frightful storm the day it was spoken
its a compound, like “skyscraper,” looming up so high
baby its cold out wherever you’re holed up i hope that you’re all right.”
I wrote that song in New York City, where skyscrapers do loom.
Also, from “Out in the Fields”:
“Here in the city harder than iron
Lost children gather like bottles in bars.
There is a pain that awaits us, unchanging.
It hangs in our breasts and our stars.”
I wrote that in New York City also. I spent a lot of time drinking in New York City bars, and in my minds eye I can see the bottles shining behind the bars. I haven’t had a drink in over 4 years, and it’s very possible I will never have a drink in a bar, or anywhere, again. Will I miss it, do I miss it? Yes, very much. But I will never regret not drinking. I very often regretted drinking.
There’s this from “Outposts”:
“You made a bad joke, sounded just like my dad
but looked like a kid in a big winter hat
and waited, impatient, for traffic to pass
said goodbye and stepped into the road.”
That’s a New York City scene.
Lastly, there is this verse I added to my version of “This Land is Your Land”:
“Oh pretty baby won’t you come with me?
leave all your worries here in the city
up to the mountains and out to the sea
this land was made for you and me.”
Those are pretty much all of the New York City references in my songs. It’s not made explicit in the songs that the references are specifically about New York City, because they just mention “the city.” Of course that’s the way New Yorkers talk about the city: “The City,” as if there is only one. Even when I lived near Boston, if people mentioned “The City,” chances are they meant not Boston but New York.
New Yorkers are very proud to live in what they consider to be the greatest city in the world but they don’t talk about it. They’re more likely to complain about it than to praise it. Their pride is in their bearing, their walk, their speech, their posture, that they live in a place where just existing is an accomplishment.
New York is a place I am always glad to leave and never sorry to come back to. It’s massive, sprawling, a vast expanse of habitation. It weighs on you and wears on you. If you haven’t been out of town for awhile people will so get on what you think is your last nerve that you become desperate to escape. If you leave town and then come back, it feels like magic. Like you’re in an Audrey Hepburn movie. Everyone’s so beautiful and cool, and you are beautiful and cool. There’s nothing you can’t do.
New York is provincial. I know New Yorkers who have never been west of New Jersey — never learned to drive, never been in a plane. I know born-and-bred Manhattanites for whom Brooklyn is a foreign land they only visit on very rare occasions, and bumble around hapless as tourists, though they grew up half a mile away.
I have a friend whose great-grandparents had a farm, yes a farm, at Broadway and 22nd street, but who left the city in the great scare of 1837. I have no idea what the great scare of 1837 was, but he told that to me as if I would know. My friend drops names like Astor and Whitney, and Hearst. As in Patty. “Patty Hearst? I thought she was dead,” I said. “Oh no, she’s very much alive. I had her over here for a party a few months ago,” my friend said. I told my friend that that reminded me, I needed to read the Jeffrey Toobin book on her. And I still do.
New Yorkers are snobs about living here. I am, even though I’m not a “real” New Yorker. I know people who have lived here 40, 50, 60 years. I know people who will never leave this place. They are real New Yorkers. I’ve only been here 10 years, and I talk of leaving all the time, and one day I will leave. I can’t stay forever. I’m not a “lifer.” It’s not in me. The people who are lifers have my very real respect, and a certain amount of my envy.
I’m never sorry to leave. But to really leave? To leave for good, when that happens? I will be real sorry for that.