As much as I had been fascinated by America as a kid, when I grew older I was never able to shake my view that the country was fundamentally crass, incoherent and violent. Formed during the unholy Thatcher/Reagan love in, my distrust and dislike intensified as the Britain I knew morphed into the 51st state, overwhelmed by Yankee consumerism and the tidal wave of shopping malls, all-conquering franchises, gaudy advertising and junk food crushing our culture, identity and expression of life, the stoking of insatiable desire pushing us into some kind of living hell. No surprise then that the thought of my first ever trip to New York and ‘the land of the free’ didn’t exactly fill me with joy.
And yet, from the extraordinary moment we drove over the Queensboro Bridge at midnight, and a sparkling Manhattan in all its glory revealed itself for the first time, a sight that instantly made me feel like a five year old bewitched and bedazzled by the lights and magic of Christmas, I knew I was going to love New York. Sure, we did all the tourist sites: The Empire State, The Rock, a poignant, personal pilgrimage to the 9/11 Memorial, The Met, Central Park and the Staten Island Ferry, as well as the more rock’n’roll stuff; the construction site that used to be Bonds Casino, The Dakota and The Chelsea Hotel.
We did all those iconic landmarks, but as magnificent as they were, my biggest impressions of New York came from the more regular, everyday sights and sounds; the barrage of street noise that was so loud it shut out the shit going on in my own head, the hordes of homeless no-one talks about, the doo wop groups on the subway, the transvestites lined up at Macy’s make up counters on a Saturday night, the guy sobbing in front of Vincent’s ‘Starry Night’ at the MOMA, the construction workers skipping along narrow planks 40 floors up, but most of all by New York itself and the sheer fucking wonder of a city oozing vibrancy, unlimited promise and possibility. It was everywhere; in the air, in the water, in the people, it was even in the cheeseburgers. If you’re dying to leave your small hometown’s judgemental, communal superego and live in a city where you can break free, New York is that place.
This playlist began as a half-hearted attempt at a travelogue, but there was something about Manhattan that made me put down my pen and reach for my iPod. In the quiet early morning hours before dawn, when the distracting noise on the street had receded just enough, I compiled a soundtrack for my latest brilliant adventure. As for America? The election of Trump hasn’t made it any easier to like, but that can’t stop me loving New York. Besides, I keep remembering what the cab driver told us as we were leaving: ‘Never confuse New York with America!’
01. THE CLASH ‘Gates Of The West’ (Cost Of Living EP May 1979)
Joe Strummer and Mick Jones songs were littered with references to the USA and NYC. Forget Springsteen, Lou Reed or The Ramones, it was The Clash’s emotive, rock’n’roll idealism that turned New York into a mecca of myth and glamour for a generation lost in the oppressive, black and white shades of seventies Britain. The big hearted optimism of ‘Gates of the West’ captures their first encounter and journey ‘from Camden Town station to 44th and 8th’, coincidentally just four blocks from our hotel.
02. KOOL G RAP & DJ POLO ‘Streets Of New York’ (Single A Side July 1990)
A defiantly Old Skool hit at the height of hip hops Golden Age, Kool G Rap and DJ Polo’s tale of a New York before the hounding out of marginal lifestyles and 21st century gentrification, describes a dangerous, seedy tableau of dope fiends, dealers, strippers, sirens and suicides that may sound exciting and colourful but bears no resemblance to the cleaned up city of today.
03. ELBOW ‘New York Morning’ (The Take Off And Landing Of Everything LP March 2014)
Following the darkest period of my life, I travelled to New York to get some kind of sense of perspective on where I’m at and more importantly, where I’m going. I read somewhere that Elbow’s Guy Garvey - a songwriter I’d previously had nothing but contempt for – did a similar thing a couple of years ago, which is how the rather lovely ‘New York Morning’ came to be playing on my iPod at the start of each day as I munched on my donuts and gazed out of the 36th floor hotel window at the waking ‘modern Rome’ below.
04. SIMON & GARFUNKEL ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ (Bridge Over Troubled Water LP February 1970)
Still a kid, the first song I ever heard with New York in the title was Paul Simon’s melancholy classic about a special kind of loneliness familiar to anyone who’s ever lived in a big city. My old man never made it to New York yet he played ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ constantly. Over forty years later it continues to evoke so many memories of him I just had to include it.
05. LE TIGRE ‘My My MetroCard’ (Le Tigre LP November 1998)
Despite our collective experience of the London underground, we still managed to screw up our first attempt at negotiating the New York subway until a friendly attendant took pity on us and explained all. After that there was no stopping us, the MetroCard saving our knackered legs and yellow cab cash by speeding us under the traffic choked city from Columbus Circle to Christopher Street, Bowling Green to Grand Central, all points in-between and beyond.
06. LORD TARIQ & PETER GUNZ ‘Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)’ (Single A Side December 1997)
For confirmation that the Boogie Down Bronx was the birthplace and first bastion of hip hop, take a listen to the complex rhymes of ‘Déjà vu’, in which Tariq and Gunz pay particular attention to their BX home over a track built on a sample of Steely Dan’s ‘Black Cow’. Of course, like all eighties and nineties hip hop, the hard times and harsh realities they document are a history lesson in how life used to be.
07. THE MAGNETIC FIELDS ‘The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side’ (69 Love Songs LP September 1999)
Magnetic Fields are another band I’ve never had time for, but riding the F Train with my best girls, the soaring, breathtaking vocal of Steven Merritt’s divine classic bursting out of my earbuds, not only did I feel like the luckiest guy on the Lower East Side, I felt like the luckiest guy in Manhattan, New York and the whole wide world.
08. LOU REED ‘Halloween Parade’ (New York LP January 1989)
There’s no better place to celebrate the old pagan festival of Halloween than New York where pretty much the whole city dresses up and literally anything goes. In 1989, Mr. New York himself chose to immortalise the infamous Greenwich Village Parade in a way that was both very Lou Reed and very New York by turning it into an elegy for a generation cut down by AIDS without mentioning the disease once.
09. RYAN ADAMS ‘New York, New York’ (Gold LP September 2001)
Ryan Adams once said; ‘When I’m in New York, I just want to walk down the street and feel this thing, like I’m in a movie’. I suspect every outsider feels the same in a city we’ve all seen a thousand times on TV, where the strangely familiar streets, buildings and overheard conversations can mess up your sense of reality so much your half expecting Spike Lee to jump up and shout ‘cut’.
10. LCD SOUNDSYSTEM ‘New York I Love You (But You’re Bringing Me Down)’ (Sound Of Silver LP March 2007)
The title and mid-tempo melody may sound a bit sad, but what James Murphy is really singing about is how hard it is to separate yourself from New York once you’ve fallen in love with it. I know what he means. It wasn’t New York bringing me down. It was the thought of going home.
Chris Green. November 2016.