JAIMIE VERNON – A NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

I can’t help thinking about New York right now. They were part of a long, sweeping plan by an angry Mother Nature to be stamped out by hurricane Sandy. They weren’t the only ones. The eastern US seaboard was targeted and subsequently attacked with a weather system unseen since, well, hurricane Katrina destroyed the Gulf coast not that long ago. That storm destroyed my favourite city in the world – New Orleans. Now Sandy has destroyed my second favourite city – New York. That’s not to take away from the devastation in New Jersey or those who lost their lives on the replica of the HMS Bounty that sank off the coast of the Carolinas. Those stories remain sobering as do the deaths of those people, mostly on Staten Island, killed in the wake of the ocean’s fury.

To that end New York’s Mayor Bloomberg announced that the New York City Marathon would go on as planned this Sunday, November 4.  There is outrage over this decision. There shouldn’t be. New Yorkers are a hearty bunch – and they refuse to allow something like flooded subways and hydro blackouts to stand in the way of boosting morale…even if it’s via political optics. Not to downplay this disaster, but New Yorkers have dealt with bigger, darker days. That they bounced back from 9/11 is nothing short of a miracle. These people have tenacity and developed thick skins long ago just from the daily grind of living on top of each other. And when the chips are down they will bond and team together to get the work done necessary to put the city back on its collective feet. As I recall one stand-up comedian saying following September 11th: “Today it was announced that a guy pushed someone in front of a subway for the first time since the attacks. Good to see things are finally back to normal.”

I don’t know that I’d ever want to live in New York. It takes a certain type of character to have to have to rely on your Spidey Sense tingling 24/7. My musical pal Dave Rave made the transition back in the late ‘80s. He wears the city well. And when he needs a break from the intensity, he returns to Hamilton, Ontario where the attitudes aren’t much different, but the chances of being hit by a taxi are greatly reduced. I worship the city from afar. It’s like the older, wiser and more experienced version of the city I live in – Toronto. We’re young teenagers who still clean our rooms, eat our broccoli and hold doors open for old people. New York is the city that doesn’t sleep, smokes too much and will fuck your sister in the back of a beat up VW while you’re driving it.

I love the ambience, the energy, the history of Manhattan. With the exception of a pleasure trip during one of my many roadscapades through America, I’ve always gone to New York on music-related business matters. My first visit was with a band mate to the New Music Seminar in the summer of 1989. It was four days of meetings, conferences, concerts and drinking (cause that’s what you do in New York) in an effort to land a record deal. We got damn close too. I’m not sure the same thing could be said for trolling Toronto’s Canadian Music Week every year – it’s just too much of a dog & pony show filled with self-serving Junior G-man wannabes. In New York in 1989 – everybody wanted to play ball. Everyone was part of the hustle. Everyone was making every minute of those four days count. Getting meetings with world-class music executives was as simple as using the conference directory, dialing up their hotel room (listed next to their name!) and finding a few minutes to schedule a brief face to face. No one was doing business at lounges and bars. The hotel rooms themselves became the settings for record and publishing deals. Most of the people never left their floors. But, my bandmate and I had other plans. After being wined and dined by Jerry Love of Famous Music Publishing (Daisy Chainsaw, Living Colour) and being smacked in the head by a conference door thrown haphazardly by two members of Cycle Sluts from Hell, we wanted to see and hear New York City. We’d also get to smell it, too – a quaint side-effect we put up with as we stumbled blindly through the streets and subway stops.

New York had been mythologized by Canadian band The Demics [see below] and it was that New York we wanted to discover for ourselves. We were not disappointed. As we were a wholly different breed of tourist, we were looking for one thing – places built on rock and roll. We hit The Palladium, the Cat Club, the Pool Bar and most importantly – CBGB’s. Having both been in a punk band together it was our Mecca. This was where punk was born. Yeah, yeah. The Brits made it du rigeur, but The Ramones gave it life in the Bowery. The club was the most important shithole of a live venue since The Cavern. We absorbed every stale beer stained molecule, every sticky table top and every vomiting patron just to breathe the fêted, rarified air of rock and roll. This was where the New York Dolls wore out the crotches in their leather pants. It’s where Blondie sweat estrogen on fashion. It’s where The Ramones beat on the brat.

And I think that’s at the root of New York’s ‘presence’. The engine of the city, at its core, is a love for sports but the fuel that drives its passion is music. It’s everywhere – from the street buskers, to Greenwich Village, to Broadway, to Radio City Music Hall to the clubs and iconic Madison Square Garden…the veins of New York flow red with music. It’s the reason the Brill Building started cranking out pop songs and record labels set up shop there. It’s also why Dave Rave moved there. And it’s why we write songs about the city. A lot of Scotch brand and BASF recording tape has captured the love affair musicians have with New York – its people, its hearbeat, its soul. And they are some of best songs ever written:

New York City – THE DEMICS

It seems incongruous for a band from London, Ontario featuring a gravel-voice Brit frontman by the name of Keith Whittaker to have captured the raw essence of New York in a 3 ½ minute spit-take of a song but, capture it they did. The song became a hit not once, but twice, in two different recordings which boxed the act into an inescapable one-hit wonder career corner. The band tried their best to grow and progress, but “New York City” was all anyone ever asked them to play. Whittaker came to despise the song so much he refused to play it ever again. It’s sadly ironic then that following his death in 1996 of cancer the song grew to mythical proportions and was declared one of the two greatest Canadian songs of all time (tied with The Diodes’ “Tired of Waking Up Tired”). The song, like the city, will out live them all. The original ‘Talk’s Cheap EP’ version is the best. The whole EP is here. “New York City” starts at the 6:25 mark. http://youtu.be/7y1C1rlIGNw

Statue of Liberty – XTC

As New Wave was starting to gain steam post-Sex Pistols – particularly in Great Britain – quirky bands with an alternative bent (in the true sense of its original musical meaning) were fascinated by the exotic Hollywoodized vision of American culture. Despite the Statue of Liberty being a French construct, it has come to symbolize America as a land of freedom and opportunity – beckoning those from foreign shores. With England’s love/hate relationship of the ‘colonies’, the metal beacon in New York harbor exemplifies independence and a f*ck you to a former power hungry British King. For XTC it was just a great topic for a song – especially with the line “In my fantasy I sail beneath your skirt”…which, of course, was immediately banned on BBC radio for its sauciness in true British conservative fashion.
Here’s a version from ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ which singer Andy Partridge credits to American singer Rita Coolidge.  http://youtu.be/qjEuws9-HTM

On Broadway – THE DRIFTERS
Nights on Broadway – BEE GEES

Broadway. The Great White Way. In between the marquee lights and the footlights acting careers are made or broken. Initially, it was the gentrification of Vaudeville. Less novelty and more Shakespaerian drama. Then the musicals moved in. The Drifters captured the ‘mood’ of the environment succinctly:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3H3JbVHWr0g

It’s become one of the main entertainment attractions in a city where the word ‘culture’ is rarely used except by those in million dollar penthouse suites overlooking Central Park. ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the disco craze showed that there’s more to Broadway than stuffed shirts and arias.  The Bee Gees and entertainment magnate made Broadway cool in 1975. http://youtu.be/5wRM-t7wvF0

An Englishman In New York – GODLEY & CRÈME
An Englishman In New York – STING

Not all Brits view America as a Disneyland playground. The 10CC brain trust of Godley & Crème scraped the underbelly of New York – as one example – and explored the eccentricities of its contradictions. http://youtu.be/veLC6gpNsSQ

Meanwhile, arrogant musical twat Sting pointed out that Brits are erudite and more gentlemanly and should be treated with respect when visiting New York. Cause Brits are, well, just better aren’t they? I think New York told him to kiss their shiny Brooklyn asses. http://youtu.be/d27gTrPPAyk

Central Park West – JOHN COLTRANE

Long before the punks showed up and the folkies cluttered up coffeehouses, jazz was the undisputed soundtrack to post WWII New York. That instrumental music and the sad refrain of a weeping saxophone could effectively paint a 1,000-word picture of a city says a lot about someone like Coltrane and the city itself. Inseparable sights and sounds. http://youtu.be/t5Z63UHrjKE

Chelsea Hotel – LEONARD COHEN

Rich and morbidly fat cats evoke a vision of New York’s aristocracy on the facades of landmarks like The Waldorf and Park Avenue West. Rock and roll established a flophouse for the touring underclass – a storybook and storied brownstone palace where dreams have been written and hopes have died. Leonard Cohen immortalized the venue and Janis Joplin’s place in it with his homage to both entitled “Chelsea Hotel”. http://youtu.be/pGfgMYfdBFc

Coney Island Baby – LOU REED
You can’t talk about New York’s music without recognizing one of its homegrown musical biographers. Lou Reed is New York personified. The New York Dolls might have glorified it and glammed it up but Reed – with and without the Velvet Underground – has the city tattooed on his soul. And it comes out of him in ragged entreaties. Who the hell knows what “Coney Island Baby” is about…a junkie looking back on his life? Nostalgia for football? It doesn’t really matter. Reed’s ‘songspeak’ kind of sweeps you up and places you on Coney Island…when it’s closed to the public. One of the city’s strangest bedfellows. http://youtu.be/ZPrIulnAblk

Harlem Shuffle – BOBBY RELF & EARL NELSON

With all due respect to the Rolling Stones, they just couldn’t master the real street-cred level of Bob & Earl’s original “Harlem Shuffle”. If there was ever a soundtrack to a noir version of life in the shadow of the Apollo Theatre – this is it. Short, sweet and filled with raw sexual tension. One spin of this tune and you can imagine what it was like to dance and drink in the smoky Soul and R & B clubs in NYC during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  http://youtu.be/cjrvEeQowRk

Positively 4th Street – BOB DYLAN

Bob Dylan is New York’s #1 adopted son (he’s actually from Minnesota) and it’s the mark of an amazing songwriter who can paint pictures with words and create a narrative that’s both fictitious and filled with honest truths. Dylan writes about what he observes. It’s less about the emotion of it and more about the naked nerve stripped bare. “Positively 4th Street” manages to put the listener at Dylan’s side…watching the unremarkable goings-on of New Yorkers and the happy, chirpee organ pushes us along like a street cleaner working our way up the avenue.  It’s about Dylan’s enlightenment on the opposite side of Hypocrisy Street.  And he invites the listener to cross the street with him. http://youtu.be/W0Iu76WXCUA

Rockaway Beach – THE RAMONES

Just listen to the energy and the fury. They make you want to go there. Like surf music in the 1960s, you don’t care what’s at “Rockaway Beach”…you just know you have to be part of it. Hitch a ride. It’s that simple. http://youtu.be/6siGKxcKol0

59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) – HARPERS BIZARRE
Yes. Simon & Garfunkel wrote this, recorded and made it a hit…twice. But both the studio version – which is meticulously mechanical and soul-less in its speed execution – and the live version – which is half the length and barely able to contain the duo’s desire to leave the stage and each other’s company – doesn’t match the carnival-like version by letterman sweatered square guys Harpers Bizarre. It’s like listening to a hip version of the Lawrence Welk Singers.
http://youtu.be/4PFP9wnj5gs

New York State of Mind – BILLY JOEL
Say what you will about Billy Joel and his decade’s worth of adult shenanigans…but you put this guy behind a piano and he lets his Bronx birth right flow from his fingers like electricity. The song is an advert for more than just a city. The title says it all. It’s an attitude. A viewpoint. A lifestyle. By the time you read this, Joel and New Jersey brethren Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi will have put their money where their mouths are by paying tribute to both states in a Hurricane Relief telethon for the Red Cross. Here’s hoping Joel smoked this song as well as he did in this 1978 BBC performance:  http://youtu.be/UZh8YjbDiVk

New York, New York – FRANK SINATRA

Ol’ Blue Eyes. The Chairman of the Board. This is the one that started it all by the guy that did it all. A testament to the city that never sleeps comes, ironically, from a Hoboken, New Jersey native. The tune was written by John Kander and Frank Ebb for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 movie of the same name. Liza Minnelli sang it in the film, but when Sinatra “stole it” (his words) for a live performance/recording at Radio City Music Hall in 1978 and then again for a studio version that charted in 1980, the song became his – and it would be the last charting song of his career. The tune has Vegas written all over it (which is not surprising as it was composed in a hotel room in Caesar’s Palace), but the arrangement and production is sewn from the same cloth that Broadway red carpets are made of. Sinatra guaranteed that he and the city would go out on a high note.
http://youtu.be/8mwPWAmBp8E

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com

3 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – A NEW YORK STATE OF MIND”

  1. You’re welcome, darling. Hope you and your loved ones are safe.

  2. what is there really to say to New York, they had their fair share of disasters face the fears from the 9/11, but they seem to come out even stronger, realize life is just to short to not love and care about the now, the world, this will pass toit always does

    Like · .

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