Tag Archives: Patti Smith

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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Patti Smith’s version of “Gloria”

“London Calling” or “Anarchy in the UK” are usually seen as the two definitive anthems of punk, but I think that Patti Smith’s version of “Gloria” is the perfect punk song.  Smith turns a rock and roll classic sing-along into a snarling nightmare fueled by rage, disgust and irony.  It even begins with the sinister line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

The version by Them is a classic by itself, and I’ve seen numerous artists cover it.  (Including Springsteen do a stellar version in 2008.)  Along with “Satisfaction”, “Hound Dog”, “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Louie Louie”, “Gloria” sums up the sound of rock and roll.  It opens up the possibilities of what happens when a group of people get together and plug in their instruments.  Van Morrison, usually known for his soulful jazz vocals, gives a vocal performance that lies somewhere between a sexual snarl, and triumphant yell.

As much as the Them version came to define the garage rock sound of the early 60’s, Smith’s version truly embodies the punk ethos musically and lyrically.  It’s sometimes thought that punks detested all rock and roll prior to their arrival.  But it’s obvious that Smith has a love for the original, but in keeping up with the punk attitude creates an irreverent version of a stone-cold classic.  Whether Morrison is after the girl, Smith actually achieves her lust and it’s not enough to just have the experience, she “has to make her mine, make her mine”.  The ways Smith growls the lyrics you have to wonder whether this is mere lust or an exorcism of past demons through sexual acts.

Check out Them’s “Gloria”

And Smith’s version:

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Favorite Cover Songs

A while back, I bemoaned certain songs which should be banned from further covers.  Now I’ve decided to list my favorite covers.  I’m only counting studio versions.  (In no particular order other than what comes to mind first.)

Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)

The Waterboys – Sweet Thing (Van Morrison)

Johnny Cash – Hurt (Nine Inch Nails)

The Pogues – Dirty Old Town (Ewan MacColl)

Van Morrison  – It’s All Over Now Baby Blue -(Dylan)

Patti Smith – Gloria (Them)

Eddie Vedder – Hard Sun (Indio)

The Clash – I Fought The Law (Bobby Fueller)

The Beatles – Twist and Shout (Phil Medley/Isley Brothers)

The Rolling Stones – Just My Imagination (The Temptations)

Elvis Costello – I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down) – Sam & Dave

Ray Charles – Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles)

What are your thoughts?  Any really good ones I missed?


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