Monday, July 13, 2009

Songs that are REALLY about cities

For years, I have tried to compile a list of songs about places and cities.

About. ABOUT places. That's the key operative word. There are countless songs that mention places, or even have them in the title, but that's not the same thing as truly being about a place in a meaningful fashion -- not even remotely. If you're going by that lame that standard, Huey Lewis's "Heart of Rock and Roll" is "about" New York, LA, DC, San Antonio, and a half dozen other places. If you wanted to portray the essence of Washington, DC to someone via music, would you play "Heart of Rock and Roll"?

You would? Oh dear, how dreadful. We need to get you out more.

Finding a song that is really about a place is not easy. A song that actually conveys the emotional experience of a city in music, that delves deep into a portion of its physical landscape, that captures what it's like to really be there, is truly a rare thing. Such songs rarely identify their subject in the title. I've been paying attention over the years, and do have my own little list. Some are more justifiable than others, but all have, at one point or another, carried me back to a place that I've known.

Before I go through this list, I would like to point out that Elton John's revolting "Philadelphia Freedom" IS NOT ABOUT THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA. It's about a freaking tennis team. If Philadelphia sounds like anything, it definitely is not those annoying, tweeting, high-pitched strings and corny horns.

* Marah has a huge catalog of Philly-related songs. Their entire Kids in Philly album is a love note to the city, capturing its sprawling streets in all their raw grittiness. Echoes of the city's famous Mummer bands can be heard in the layered banjos on many of the songs. "Christian Street" captures the street life of a major south side artery. "It's Only Money Tyrone" makes the lower Schuylkill River sound even more filthy and debris-laden than it actually is. A few years later, the band revisted their hometown with the wistful song "East", set at the end of Philadelphia's eclectic South Street.

* G Love & Special Sauce do some deep name-checking on "I-76" while reminiscing about growing up in the city and idolizing the Philly 76ers.

* Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia" might seem like an empty name-checker, but it's such a sobering and somber tune that, for me, it captures the feeling of some of the city's desolate north side streets. Tellingly, Marah did a raved-up cover of it a few years ago.

New Jersey
* Bruce Springsteen is the muse here. His first 2-3 albums are largely centered on his youth growing up along the state's Shore, and songs like "Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park)" and "Born to Run" convey a longing to escape the rough streets of the shore towns. Other songs from the period range across various abstract settings that could be New York, Philadelphia, the Shore, or all three ("Jungleland", for one.)

The Boss still revisits his roots on occasion. "Atlantic City" delves into the darker side of that city's rising gambling industry at the end of the 1970s, while "My City of Ruins" mourns the collapse of Asbury Park (it was written well before 9/11, incidentally.)

The Rust Belt
* Billy Joel, "Allentown". Don't discount Billy Joel's working man cred! I once walked into a sandwich shop at midday to find "Movin' Out" blasting on the stereo as the staff worked hard behind the counter, and it struck me, wow, this is the sound of working your day away. "Allentown" stares frankly into the collapse of the steel industry in the early 80s, a bit of a feat for a major Top 40 hit.

* John Hiatt, "Memphis in the Meantime" - title aside, this song is about a longing to escape from Nashville and its omnipresent country/western scene.

* Joni Mitchell, "Furry Sings the Blues" - a lament for the passing of Memphis's original blues scene and the last of its great practitioners, it also mourns the collapse of Beale Street, which was the center of a thriving neighborhood in the decades before it was resurrected as an entertainment district/tourist trap.

* The Pretenders, "My City Was Gone" - palpable cold fury at what's become of Akron, Ohio.

* Del McCoury, "Mill Towns" - a cockeyed account of what's become of the narrator's unnamed industrial hometown - "There's parking lots where the buildings used to be".

St. Louis
As Bruce is to Jersey, so is Jay Farrar (of Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt fame) to St. Louis, writing with flare and beauty of his adopted home town. His melancholy solo tune "Outside the Door" is a catalog of places, scenes, venues, neighborhoods and famed locals long past. Uncle Tupeo's "Sauget Wind" describes a life in the toxic industrial havens of a small Illinois town across the river from St. Louis. "Way Down Watson" mourns the passing of St. Louis's Coral Court Motel, a Route 66 landmark demolished in the early 1990s. "The Cahokians" compares the lost Indian mounds that once stood in and around St. Louis to the titanic heaps of a landfill that now looms over I-55 as one approaches St. Louis from the east.

* Calling "St. Louis Blues" a song that's about St. Louis is, at best, a stretch. The song doesn't talk about the city at all; its title comes from a sophisticated woman who's from St. Louis. In that, at least, it does convey a sense of how, in the 1920s, St. Louis was quite the roaring town.

New York City
Ah, New York! Title of a thousand songs, subject of none. A song that really digs into America's greatest city probably won't mention it in the title. There are plenty of songs that are valid love notes to the city - "New York, New York" by Ryan Adams, "A Heart in New York" by Simon & Garfunkel, and that Frank Sinatra song, just to name a few - but not many really cut into the feeling of the city's depths.

* Olu Dara, "Neighborhoods" - a long-time resident looks back at his various homes across the city, in Harlem, Brooklyn, and elsewhere.

* Bruce Springsteen, "New York City Serenade", "Jungleland" - two songs that portray a rough life in the poorer quarters of town

New Orleans
The Crescent City is the subject of countless songs, and I can't claim to have done more than scratch the surface. Of the ones I've noted, the old standard "Basin Street Blues" probably does the best job of portraying a real place (namely, the Streeterville red light district, long since demolished.)

* The Band's "Rags and Bones" shows the street life of an unnamed city some time in the early 20th Century. Writer Robbie Robertson is old enough to possibly remember the days when men pushed streetcarts through streets and alleys of the cities, collecting scraps and hawking wares.

* Ellis Paul's "Paris in a Day" is a sweet reminisce about two flighty tourists storming through Paris in stereotypical American fashion, hitting all the highlights across town.

* Steve Earle, "Telephone Road" - Steve Earle's vision of Houston is one of an endless string of side-road honkey tonks and hard-working roustabouts blowing their money and vacation on beer, juke boxes and women. It's a far cry from the enormous highways and polished skyscrapers that form the city's more common image!