Tag Archive: Bob Dylan

This article first appeared at Consequence of Sound on June 16th, 2010.

Ah, New York. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. While these are phrases you’ll almost never hear a native New Yorker say, it’s clear to anyone that NYC’s impact on the global community can’t be overlooked. It’s been the undisputed financial, political, and cultural center of the world for the last century and shows no signs of giving up the title. Just try and look for an apartment there.

Throughout the five boroughs, New York has been both a home and source of inspiration for many musicians over the years. There are few (if any) cities that have been written about as much as New York has. But which songs belong at the top? Which numbers show the style and the swagger? The class and the crass? Which can move between the skyscrapers and the subway?

You’re probably wondering: Why celebrate New York now? Shouldn’t you have posted this after the Yankees won last year? Yes, the opportunity seems a bit late, but not really if you think about it. New York thrives on “keeping it real” and trademarks itself on setting the precedent for everything. So, to answer your question, there is never a better time to write about New York City. Simply because, New York City always “is.”

Well, let’s be honest. With the Northside Festival next weekend, we’re pretty stoked about being around Brooklyn lately. Not only do we get to have our own lil’ soiree, but we get to enjoy the likes of Titus Andronicus, Wavves, Fucked Up, Liars, High Places, and a slew of other pretty hot acts. We might just have to dig out our “I Love New York” shirts for the weekend.

Just kidding. Anyways, here are your top 10 songs about the world’s cultural mecca.

10. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys – “Empire State of Mind”

While Jay-Z been a superstar for quite some time now, he took it to a new level with this ode to the city he was raised in. With a soulful piano provided by Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind” brilliantly has Jay-Z’s verses reflecting his rise to the top along with the different areas of New York he spends his time in. From the streets of Brooklyn to the celeb neighborhood of TriBeCa, Jay-Z essentially wrote a sequel to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, showing how he made it where he is, and even having the New York attitude to suggest that he makes “the Yankee cap more famous than a Yankee can.” Keys belts out a more traditional chorus about how inspirational the streets of New York can be. Since it’s less than a year old, “Empire State of Mind” still has to withstand the test of time, but it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon.

9. Bob Dylan – “Talkin’ New York”

One of the two original compositions from Bob Dylan’s first album, “Talkin’ New York” is standard Dylan fare with a fairly frantic acoustic strumming and harmonica interludes. But the lyrics are spit out rapidly with Dylan only taking a break before the last line of each verse. The story of his arrival in New York takes in everything, from the city’s size to his search for a job. However, it’s the second to last verse that shows the development of Dylan’s wit, when he says “A lot of people don’t have much food on their table/But they got a lot of forks ’n’ knives/And they gotta cut somethin’.” From a stranger’s perspective, New York can appear both exhilarating and terrifying. Dylan manages to show both of these sides in just the course of three minutes.

8. Billy Joel – “New York State of Mind”

Probably one of the most famous songs about New York, Billy Joel’s ode to the city is based on his return to the East Coast after spending the last three years in L.A. The slow, jazzy piano evokes images of a smoky lounge in Greenwich Village. Joel’s delivery and lyrics all paint the city as a lost love that he’s finally returning to. While he could be partying on the West Coast, he needs “A little give and take/The New York Times, The Daily News.” The sense of normalcy that comes from the bustling streets of Manhattan offers a unique experience that Joel can’t do without. While he may travel the world, it looks like he’ll always make his way back to New York.

7. The Ramones – “53rd and 3rd”

While many of the above songs have hinted at the dark underbelly of New York, The Ramones “53rd and 3rd” really came across as gritty in every way. From the angry guitars to the shouting delivery to the lyrics, this song isn’t from the band’s point of view. Instead, it’s the story of a Green Beret who served in Vietnam who falls to prostitution as he tries to pick up customers from the street corner mentioned in the title. When Joey Ramones sings, “Don’t it make you feel sick?” he almost vomits the words out, adding to the character’s disgust at how far he’s fallen. The entire song shows that not everyone is cut out for New York and many wind up falling into an underworld of crime in an attempt to make ends meet.

6. Beastie Boys – “No Sleep till Brooklyn”

The most fun song here is by none other than New York natives, the Beastie Boys. Different than most other tracks on this list, the lyrics contain hardly any references to the city. Instead, it’s all about the band’s life away from home. The touring, the hotels, the partying. All of these lines on what a great time they’re having traveling around the world are the complete opposite of the “No! Sleep! Till Brooklyn!” chorus, which is a call to go home. Maybe they’re saying they love playing live in their hometown the best. Maybe they want a break from their all their adventures to spend time at home. Who knows? But the fact that the line has become part of everyday vocabulary (no sleep till insert location here), coupled together with that kickass riff, cements its place in the top New York songs.

5. Interpol – “NYC”

Interpol’s tribute to New York is a decidedly sad affair in which the protagonist only finds hope from the city itself. Despite the fact that the feeling doesn’t appear mutual (“The subway is a porno/The pavements they are a mess/I know you’ve supported me for a long time/Somehow I’m not impressed”), the city is still there for him, day in and day out. The sluggish guitar riff gives a feeling of wandering aimlessly through the city streets at night. At the end of the song, the realization comes that New York’s done its part to support those who live there. Now it’s the inhabitant’s turn to make something of it (“It is up to me now, turn on the bright lights”).

4. John Lennon – “New York City”

If there’s any song that showed the juxtaposition of the five boroughs, it’s “New York City” by John Lennon. From David Peel smoking some pot to the policeman trying to do his job to the crazed preacher, the scene is familiar to anyone who lives in New York. Seeing homeless people asking for change across the street from Lincoln Center is part of everyday reality for New Yorkers. As we’re so focused on our own packed schedules, we have trouble noticing the people around us. Lennon mentions this as well, singing “Tried to shake our image/Just a cycling through the village/But found that we had left it back in London/Well nobody came to bug us/Hustle us or shove us/So we decided to make it our home.” For those of you wondering why New York is a hot spot for celebs, this is one of the biggest reasons.

3. The Velvet Underground – “I’m Waiting For The Man”

If “53rd and 3rd” came across as a gritty look at New York’s dark underbelly, “I’m Waiting For The Man” grabs you by the throat and shoves you face-first into that grimy environment. With the instruments sounding a little dirty, the music evokes images of a heroin addict struggling to make it up Lexington Avenue to meet his dealer for his next fix. The song also goes into race relations within Harlem during the 1970s. While the user has to wait for the man, he does get his fix (“He’s got the works, gives you sweet taste/then you gotta split because you got no time to waste) and will go on until he needs his next one. Though this track has a similar theme as The Ramones’ New York song, it takes to a far deeper level of dependence by throwing drug usage into the mix. It displays some of the worst the city has to offer, highlighting the crime and none of the class.

2. U2 – “The Hands That Built America”

While U2 wrote this song for Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, “The Hands That Built America” goes far beyond that time period. Each of the song’s verses represent a different era in New York’s history. The first verse has the strongest connection to the film as Bono sings about the emigration of millions of Irish to America due to the Potato Famine and the change that awaits them there. The second verse relates love to the American Dream and that hard work can lead to prosperity. The final verse brings the song to the near-present, talking about 9/11 and “Innocence dragged across a yellow line.” While it’s not the most popular U2 song about New York, it is the most powerful, dealing with some of the best and worst time periods in the city’s history.

1. Frank Sinatra – “Theme From New York, New York”

Yeah, it’s a cheesy and obvious pick. But Frank Sinatra’s version (it was originally written for Liza Minnelli) of this song is the quintessential New York track. From the opening line of “Start spreadin’ the news, I’m leaving today/I want to be a part of it: New York, New York,” you’re instantly transported to midtown Manhattan. It’s heard everywhere in the city, including after every game at Yankee Stadium, or after the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s, or during Columbia & NYU’s commencement ceremonies. Yet there’s a good reason for this. The song perfectly illustrates New York’s classy and ballsy attitude. New Yorkers know that since they made it there, they can make it anywhere. But they’d rather stay right where they are, just like how Sinatra wants to “wake up in a city that never sleeps.” Showing all of its good sides, “Theme From New York, New York” is the best song about the city. Bar none.

This article first appeared at Consequence of Sound on October 22th, 2009.

1969 represented the end of the ’60s in more ways than one. While Woodstock has come to symbolize love and peace, the Altamont Free Concert destroyed the hippie movement due to Meredith Hunter’s death at the hands of the Hells Angels. The Beatles started the year with their infamous rooftop concert, but by that fall, John Lennon had officially decided to break the group up. While Lennon was writing “Give Peace a Chance”, Charles Manson murdered Sharon Tate and other across the Atlantic. In the middle of all this change and chaos, Easy Riderhit theaters.

Easy Rider is one of the best representations of the end of the ’60s as a cultural movement. The film follows two bikers nicknamed Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) as they ride across the nation hoping to make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. On the way, they run into a hippie commune trying to survive outside of society, a square ACLU lawyer, and two prostitutes with whom they experience a bad acid trip. The surprising end of the movie unintentionally sums up the way that 1969 has gone. It starts hopeful but ends in spiritual failure.

The soundtrack to Easy Rider by itself does a wonderful job in conveying this idea. It kicks off with Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher”, one of most blatant songs about drugs from the ’60s. Within the first minute,  John Kay’s declared that “the pusher don’t care/if you live or if you die.” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, this isn’t. Rather than sticking with the whole idea of free drug use, the song works to distinguish between drugs like marijuana and hard drugs like heroin. In the movie, the song’s accompanied by Captain America stuffing the cash he got from a drug deal into his fuel tank, adding a visual layer to the track’s meaning.

While “The Pusher” tells a more cautious lesson, “Born To Be Wild” pushes in the opposite direction. The second Steppenwolf song on this record is all about going on a great adventure. What better images to support it, than shots of the two riders starting their adventure across the country. With Doors-style keyboards and one of the heavier guitar riffs to come out of the decade, “Born To Be Wild” shuns the responsibility of the soundtrack opener for the chance to “explode into space.”

Next up, “The Weight” by The Band plays over scenes of the two riders moving through the desert with a passenger they picked up. As the sun sets over the rocky territory, the track creates a feeling of community. It works for the hippie ideal of everyone living together in peace and sharing what they can. The next number, “Wasn’t Born To Follow”, by The Byrds, exemplifies one of the problems with this idea. Everyone has their own personal goals for what they want their life to be like. Living in a community that shares everything would leave nothing for the individual. In the song, the narrator wants to go everywhere from “the valley beneath the sacred mountain” to “beneath the white cascading waters” where he wants to die. Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 was 9″ also shows this problem as Hendrix states that he’s got his “own world to live through.”

“If You Want to Be a Bird (Bird Song)” by The Holy Modal Rounders is a juxtaposition in its musical delivery. Where the lyrics are fairly uplifting (“Why be shackled to your feet/When you’ve got wings/You haven’t used yet/Don’t wait for heaven/Get out and fly”), the music sounds like a demented circus soundtrack. It’s psychedelic but in a bad acid trip way. The piano sounds out of key and the vocals sound like they’re drunkenly yelled from the bottom of a well. During the movie, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) has joined the two riders as they continue moving across the country. The track fits here because where Hanson would like to have the freedom the two riders have, he can’t break out of his shell enough to really do so. He also experiences the problem of true freedom firsthand when he’s violently killed by a group of Louisiana men who are angered by the trio’s looks and behavior.

Though many of the tracks so far have had some sense of ’60s hope for the future, Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” contains none. A cynical tale of the world’s problem follows over the next five minutes of the track. By now, the winter of 1969 has set in and the cultural changes of the decade have stalled. The death of Hanson and their bad trip in New Orleans cause Wyatt to say, “You know Billy, we blew it.” The journey was a failure, as they didn’t find the spiritual release they were looking for. The song is made even more tragic as their journey ends violently when the duo is gunned down on the road.

As a whole, Easy Rider highlights both the ups and downs of the final year of the ’60s. However, the focus is clearly on the downs. While great cultural strides had been made, the hippie movement couldn’t live up to its own ideals. Even though the movie wasn’t made with the specific problems of 1969 in mind, it really caught on to the subtle shift as the world moved into the next decade. The soundtrack that supports it only makes the changes all the more powerful.

Easy Rider Soundtrack
01. The Pusher – Steppenwolf
02. Born To Be Wild – Steppenwolf
03. I Wasn’t Born To Follow – The Byrds
04. The Weight – The Band
05. If You Want To Be A Bird – The Holy Modal Rounders
06. Dont’ Bogart Me – Fraternity of Man
07. If Six Was Nine – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
08. Kyrie Eleison Mardi Gras – The Electric Prunes
09. It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) – Roger McGuinn
10. Ballad Of Easy Rider – Roger McGuinn