Songs to Steal By
There is no shortage of songs about New York, from the classic to the cheesy to the tourist board approved, but this is a different New York, half myth and half grit, of crowded streets, deserted alleys, strip clubs, underground gambling joints, after hours bars and restaurants where English is spoken with every accent on the planet except, perhaps, an English accent, both more real and more surreal than the standard view. This is the city whose soundtrack I wanted to cue up here.
- Across 110th Street
Not only does this song harken back to a dirtier, poorer, more dangerous, and probably much cooler town, it is from a time when strict borders still held between neighborhoods. Walking, say, from Little Italy into Chinatown meant that you literally went from one language, food, culture to another, as if you had crossed a real frontier. Similarly, crossing 110th into Harlem or turning a corner on Avenue D in the East Village meant that you were crossing into another domain, one in which might be home or enemy territory. New York was a world unto itself, and each neighborhood was a country.
The title song from the greatest of all New York caper albums, about hustlers and dealers, players and villains, all gambling with their lives in the hope of, as the song says, ”trying to get over.” Really, there are any number of songs from that record that could work here. Curtis Mayfield was a genius and, in his ambition to turn the soundtrack to a pretty standard-issue Blaxploitation flick into a socially-aware, politically-acute and deeply soulful concept album, he produced a masterpiece that holds up far better than the film. However, I will restrain myself to just one more: the beautiful and plangent (3) ”Little Child Runnin’ Wild,” which, though the details and decades might shift, applies to many of the characters in my book.
- I Wanna Live
Joe, the main character, is from Jackson Heights, as am I. As kid, I admit it was a bit lame to be from Queens rather than Manhattan, and even now it is far less celebrated in song and story, which is fine by me, since I can let my imagination run wild without bumping into a writer on every corner like I do in Brooklyn. Queens did, however, produce some true greats, and first among them are the Ramones, punk pioneers, true New York icons, and heroes forever to passionate, hungry, pissed-off kids all over the world.
- Sucker MCs
The other kings from Queens. Run-DMC are first-generation hip hop. Back then, kids were forging this music in block parties and nightclubs in Queens and Bronx at the same time as punk was breaking and to me, the two scenes always felt connected: homegrown, DIY music made by and for locals. This is one of the first rap songs I ever heard.
- Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
When we meet Joe Brody, he is working as a bouncer at Club Rendezvous, ”Queens’ Finest Gentlemens Club – Conveniently Close to the Airport,” so I felt it was incumbent on me to include a classic strip club tune. Although some clubs play the same top 40 hits as regular dancehalls, a lot of strippers pick their own songs and, just like at karaoke bars, certain favorites get grabbed up quick or reserved for the headliners. I’ve even heard in some tougher bars of women getting cut for taking another dancer’s signature tune, the same way, among some gangs, only the boss gets to sing My Way.
- ”Scrapple from the Apple”
Bird and Miles
Along with rock and roll, soul and hip hop, the other great New York sound is jazz. Though its roots are in New Orleans, and it evolved in places like Kansas City and Chicago, it was in the clubs of New York – downtown joints like the Village Vanguard, Harlem spots like the Cotton Club and the classic clubs on 52nd street that modern jazz reached its true apex. Those throbbing beats, those leaping horns, those solos full of heartbreak and glory: jazz is the music I hear walking the streets at night, whether or not anyone is playing it. While that scene has shrunken, and sort of gone back underground, due to changing mainstream tastes and the brutal crush of rent on venues, New York still plays a unique role in the jazz universe. More than once, I’ve brought guests from Europe or Asia to see masterful musicians, who would front festivals or swank clubs elsewhere, playing their hearts out in tiny places on a weeknight. Why? Because they live here. Because it’s New York.
The choices here are literally overwhelming, but I’ve forced myself to settle on two. The first is ”Scrapple from the Apple,” written by the Charlie Parker, a great artist whose genius and tragedy speak to the soul of the town where he lived and died. His home, near Tomkins Square Park, is one of the city’s holy sites. Here he plays with Miles Davis, my personal hero, who I was lucky enough to see a number of times and who lived, loved, fought, played and suffered in a townhouse on the upper west side. I also chose a rendition of the ”King Porter Stomp,” a Jelly Roll Morton classic scored for big band by Gil Evans, whose band I used to see when he held court weekly, in a small West Village club way back when.
- Gil Evans
King Porter Stomp –( From There Comes a Time)
- Ella Fitzgerald – Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
10. Frank Sinatra – One for My Baby (And One More for the Road) We’ve reached the end of the night. Maybe you’re home safe and sound in bed. Maybe you’re ordering last call or on your way to another after hours, still chasing someone or something. Or maybe you’re stuck on a train. Either way, I wanted to conclude this little tour with two of New York’s finest voices, one singing in praise of staying in, and one in refusing to go home. Sweet dreams everybody!