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!”