Tag Archives: Janis Joplin

5 Songs About New York

I’m in the middle of Patti Smith’s fantastic memoir Just Kids which recounts her early years in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe.  I’ve compiled a mix of songs about New York as a soundtrack while reading it.  Here’s a few of the songs I picked.

Leonard Cohen – “Chelsea Hotel #2”

It seems like every artist that lived in New York during the 1960s resided in the Chelsea Hotel for a period.   With its sparse guitar and Cohen’s naked lyrics – “giving me head in the unmade bed” –  present a heartbreaking portrait of his affair with Janis Joplin.  She tells him that she prefers more handsome man, but she’d make an exception for him.   “We are ugly but we have the music” seems to represent not just Cohen and Joplin, but rather all of the artists that lived there.  For many artists the Chelsea was a mecca for artists looking for their muse.

The Clash – “Koka Kola”

At first, “Koka Kola” might seem like the weakest song on London Calling.  It’s short and concise.  But in under 2 minutes, Strummer manages to attack stock brokers, advertisements, and businessmen’s love for cocaine and party-girls.  “The money can be made if you really want some more,” Strummer muses.  London Calling was released in the December 1979, so in its own way “Koka Kola” could be seen a song that foreshadows what some saw as a decade of corporate greed.

U2 – “The Hands That Built America”

U2 has written several songs about New York.  Some are great (“City of Blinding Lights”) some are not (“New York”).   “The Hands That Built America” falls into the “forgotten” bin.  Written for Martin Scorcese’s under-rated “Gangs of New York”, the song recalls the trials of immigrants and how they shaped the US and specifically New York.  The bridge contains some operatic singing from Bono – a theme he would explore on “Sometime You Can’t Make It On Your Own” a few years later.  The final verse contains references 9/11 – “it’s early fall, innocence dragged across a yellow line”.  One of U2’s best songs in the past decade.

Simon & Garfunkel – “The Boxer”

I could probably write a whole post on this song – which remains one of all time favorite songs.  Largely known for its chorus, “The Boxer” contains some of Simon’s best lyrics, a first person account of struggling to find his way in New York.  There’s also some pretty fantastic guitar picking courtesy of Fred Carter, Jr. Urban legend had suggested that the song is an attack on Bob Dylan, however Simon said that the song is mostly an autobiographical account.  If you’ve ever heard Dylan’s version released on Self Portrait – it’s one of the worst things ever put to record.

John Lennon – “New York City”

One of Lennon’s best “rockers” from his solo career.  With its fast-paced lyrics recalling tales of wandering around New York, in some ways its similar to “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, except less serious.  There’s also hilarious lyrics as well: “the pope smokes dope everyday”, and “up comes a preacher man singing, ‘God’s a red-herring in drag.'”.  Lennon seems pretty animated throughout the song and sums up his feeling about the city at the end with: “New York City – what a bad-ass city!”



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Women Singers: “Piece of My Heart” Big Brother & The Holding Company

Though not written by Janis Joplin (or performed strictly by her) “Piece of My Heart” is a song that has become identified with her more so than the band she fronting at the time – Big Brother & the Holding Company.  “Piece of My Heart” was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns, and then recorded by Aretha Franklin’s sister Erma.  While Franklin’s version was a top 10 R&B hit, Big Brother’s version catapulted the song into the mainstream.

Just as Erma’s sister Aretha transformed “Respect” into a powerhouse, Joplin and Big Brother completely reinvented “Piece of My Heart”.  Their version is noisy, and bluesy and for my money I’d say Joplin gives one of the greatest vocal performances in rock in this song.  The verses are quiet are soft, but not entirely quiet but they’re a calm before the storm of the chorus.  The music itself would be exciting, but Joplin takes over the chorus.  She wails “come on, come on” several times, before the damn breaks, and releases the supercharged scream of “and Take it!”  It’s defiant and desperate.  You can tell that Joplin is giving all that’s she got in this performance.

You can tell the pain that she’s in this song.  But rather than be bound by it, she’s taking control of it and belting out her frustration.  It’s as if she saying, “Come and see what happens if you take this part of me.”

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