The world “knows” America by its music. People who’ve not visited and perhaps never will conjure up images of cities and one-horse towns from the lyrics of endless songs.
It’s just not the same in Britain: everyone knows that Paul Simon wrote “Homeward Bound” on Widnes and Ditton railway stations en route from a gig in Liverpool, and many recall the novelty number “Finchley Central” by the New Vaudeville Band, which immortalised a few miles of London’s Tube. Donovan wrote about “Sunny Goodge Street” – but it had nothing on Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning”. No light pouring in “like butterscotch” in London SW3 – and probably not in NY 10011 either, but it sounds so much more exotic.
With the exception of “Ferry Cross the Mersey” and “Waterloo Sunset,” few songs so evoke a city as “(I Left My Heart in) San Francisco”, or “Chicago (My Kind of Town)” and “New York, New York” – and there are two of those to choose from: the Bernstein/Comden and Green number from the 1944 musical On the Town, where “the Bowery’s up and the Battery’s down,” or the Kander and Ebb title song from Scorsese’s 1977 movie.
Sometimes the visions we conjure up are more exotic than the reality. “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa” is a case in point. On Route 66 it may be but you wouldn’t get too many kicks – though you could now visit the Woody Guthrie Center. (I often try re-imagining the song as “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulse Hill,” a dreary South London suburb – even more absurd.) “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” Last Train to Clarksville,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” (let’s not go there), “Okie from Muskogee,” “Graceland”, “Walkin’ to New Orleans” …. There are endless songs of love, longing, regret, moving on…. All so evocative.
Even when the places themselves are not! I remember my first trip to the States, heading south on Highway 101 at the wheel of an AMC Concord, excited at the approach of Salinas, famous from “Me and Bobby McGee”. But California’s “salad bowl” was distinctly unexciting and somehow I missed John Steinbeck’s house. But never mind, in the City by the Bay, whose views still make me cry, I stood in the pouring rain at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury and wished I had at least a flower behind my ear.
Battery, Broadway, Bleecker…
I came later to New York though its streets too were familiar from life’s musical soundtrack: from the New Jersey Turnpike to the 59th Street Bridge, down Broadway (where “the neon lights are bright”) to Delancey Street (not even “very fancy” now, so obviously a Rodgers and Hart joke) and west to Bleecker (“where thirty dollars pays your rent” – ha-ha!), which crosses MacDougal (cue Fred Neil’s “Bleecker and MacDougal”) and then across to West 4th, where Bob and Suze lived over Bruno’s Spaghetti Parlour – “Positively 4th Street.”
The opening scene of Wonderful Town walks you straight into the Village, as two gals from Columbus, Ohio follow a guide down Waverly Place, past Washington Square to Christopher Street. Even tiny MacDougal Alley gets a mention (Betty Comden and Adolphe Green were downtowners; so too Leonard Bernstein for a while). Turn on to Sixth Avenue and the subway – and you can take the A-Train, (“the quickest way to Harlem”) and revel in Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. The George Russell Sextet immortalised “121 Bank Street”. Rufus Wainwright looked forward to rainbows on “14th Street”.
Lucy Kaplansky, part of the 1980s and ‘90s Fast Folk movement founded by Jack Hardy and Dave van Ronk and which coalesced at the Cornelia Street Café, wrote in “Nowhere” of
Eighth Street, Washington Square
In the footprints someone left there
For me that sums up Greenwich Village perfectly. There are footprints everywhere. I can’t walk into the marble lobby of the Washington Square Hotel without thinking of those who tramped the stairs or rode the elevators when it was the Hotel Earle. Countless writers have stayed – Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, Patricia Highsmith and Maeve Brennan to name but four – and countless more musicians. Bo Diddley, a regular (a signed photo is in Tatyana’s laundry just opposite), actually played a gig in the lobby to mark its centenary. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott stayed, as did Bob Dylan (mostly in room 305). He hunkered down there with Joan Baez, who immortalised it in “Diamonds and Rust”, her reflection on their celebrated love affair, as “that crummy hotel over Washington Square.” Roger McGuinn wrote “Chestnut Mare” in room 707. In a single day, Ian and Sylvia wrote “Four Strong Winds” (regarded by many as the best song to come out of Canada) and “You Were on My Mind.” And on a cold winter’s day, when the sky was grey, John Phillips wrote “California Dreamin’.”
Hotel Chelsea – eat your heart out!
Downtown, where all the lights are bright…
Music was what drew me to the Village, which existed in my mind’s eye and ear long before I set foot there in 1995 to report on the sessions at the late lamented Bottom Line (torn down by NYU) with Joan Baez and friends – Ring Them Bells was the resulting album. I’ve been staying at the Washington Square Hotel – now a charming family-owned home-from-home – for years and the romance of it never goes.
As I wander the streets, I don’t need a gizmo to hear the soundtrack – it’s embedded in my brain. Two songs are often on repeat: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” (though the references are to Clinton Street in the East Village) and Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing on My Mind.” Those lines about the Subway rumbling… Sometimes I hear Paxton’s voice singing it, other times Judy Collins’. It’s there as I descend the steps of the West 4th Street station to take the D Train, hoping perhaps for a whispered escapade…