New York grooves to two soundtracks. The first one, everybody hears. It’s the sirens, low and wailing and ever-present. It’s the angry and restless horn honk from a gridlocked car, the thudda-thudda-thudda as a low-flying chopper arcs overhead, the filling-loosening sub-bass from a low-riding Subaru (‘Mercury and Subaru!‘) as it jumps the midnight lights on 42nd Street, the in-your-face hustle of the street vendors intent only in hoovering the dollars from your pockets. Even in the more tranquil areas like Central Park and Greenwich, you can’t quite escape the perma-noise.
The second soundtrack is internal. New York is a music fan’s mecca, and from the moment you arrive, you are reminded of the city’s rich musical heritage. It wasn’t quite a ‘cold and wet December’s day as we touched the ground at JFK‘, but a sign for Rockaway has me stupidly and excitedly chewin’ out the rhythm on an imaginary bubble gum. On the way into Manhattan from the airport, we must’ve passed half a dozen Rockaway signs and every one of them triggered the same response. ‘Rack-rack, Rackaway Beach!…..we can hitch a ride to Rackaway Beach!‘ I was still singing it on the road back to the airport last Thursday. The cab might have been idling along in rush hour sludge at less than 5 miles an hour, buckled bumper to buckled bumper with the traffic around it, but having just hitched my own ride (at a flat $70) my brain was speeding away like The Ramones themselves in ’77.
Over from Queens and into Manhattan and a sign next to one for the Lincoln Tunnel jumps out. ‘Lower East Side’ it informs, and Debbie Harry’s girl-group swoon has shifted Joey Ramone momentarily to the margins. ‘Went walkin’ one day on the Lower East Side, met you with a girlfriend, you were so divine…‘ There’s also one for the Manhattan Bridge at 59th Street and, uh-oh, stone me if Simon & Garfunkel’s Feelin’ Groovy doesn’t float into the ether all on its ownsome too! Music, music everywhere.
All the neon lights are bright on Broadway.
Some folks like to get away, take a holiday from the neighbourhood…I’m in a New York state a’ mind.
The Only Living Boy In New York.
Noo York City cops ain’t that smart.
I sang them all as I pounded the sidewalks of Manhattan, their tunes worming their way into the ear whenever the relevant stimulus triggered the line.
We are staying on 3rd Avenue and every day we pass the ‘Lexington Avenue’ sign on our way to wherever, so of course, unknown to the others, a pounding piano soundtracks my walk for the next couple of blocks. We’re nowhere near Harlem’s 125th Street, but it doesn’t stop me singing. ‘Down to Lexington one-two-five, feel sick and dirty more dead than al-ive. Ahm waitin’ for ma man.’ Even the boy was doing it by the Tuesday, oblivious to where it came from or what he was singing about.
We go to Chelsea Market and although the famous hotel isn’t too far away, we’ve walked 30,000 steps already by then and I can’t be dragging a disinterested family to the site of a place steeped in rock history just so I can snap a quick ‘I was there’ photo. Instead, Dylan’s line about writing Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands in the Chelsea Hotel repeats for a bit as we browse the delights of the food stalls in the former meatpacking warehouse. Leonard Cohen’s reference to Janice Joplin and an unmade bed also makes an uninvited but welcome appearance as we stop by a Japanese noodle bar.
“10th Avenue Freeze Out!” I shout in my best gravelly Broooce voice when we cross 33rd street on the west side of Manhattan for a cross-borough walk home. I think Springsteen’s particular 10th Avenue is actually across the Hudson there in Jersey, but it doesn’t stop me singing it on at least a further two occasions when our wanderings unexpectedly find us over that way again. I even hear the jangling barroom piano and Clarence Clemons’ sax whenever I see the street sign.
Grand Central Station has signs for the A Train and so Duke Ellington’s rousing jazz standard, full of promise and anticipation of what Manhattan has to offer the upwardly-mobile urbanite, wafts into the internal iPod…before being rudely shunted aside by the New York Dolls rattlin’ and frantic Subway Train. Ever since I been ridin’, ride on the subway train… Songs, man! They just barge their way into your head without even asking. How very New York.
New York! Concrete jungle where dreams are made of. There’s nuthin’ you can’t do.
You mo-ove it to the right. Yeah, yeah, yeah, do the Harlem Shuffle.
Oh-oh-oh! You’re a Native New Yorker!
They got cars big as bars, they got rivers of gold. When the wind blows right through you it’s no place for the old…
New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down. James Murphy, are you serious?! Really?!
The internet tells me that Bob Dylan wrote Blowin’ In The Wind in Greenwich Village’s Fat Black Pussycat, a nightclub long closed down but still visible if you know where to look, so off we trot.
There are numerous Dylan-related spots to find throughout Greenwich. My wonky internal Bob radar tells me that the iconic shot for Dylan’s Freewheelin‘ album was taken in Macdougal Street, so off we trot again. I was a bit ticked off when I realised all too late that the spot where we had tried to replicate Bob ‘n Suze’s trudge in the snow was in fact one parallel street away from the actual spot in Jones Street, although I also found out that we inadvertently stood right outside what was Bob’s house at the end of the ’60s, so not all was lost.
In TV world, the facade that was used for the outside shots of the ‘Friends‘ house is just up the road and round the corner – just about the fanciest neighbourhood in all of Manhattan as it goes, and hardly the place you’d expect to find half a dozen twenty-somethings with barely a career between them, let alone the $3000 a month required for rent, but there y’go. That’s the magic of telly for you.
Had we made it further east, we’d have – or I’d have – looked for the site of CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City and the tenement on St Marks Place that featured on the sleeve of Physical Graffiti. I’ve always loved the look of that sleeve and had fancy ideas of sticking my own photo in the space right below this paragraph. Next time…
Physical Graffiti is a sprawling, eclectic and at times treacle-heavy record. A double album that encapsulates Led Zeppelin’s entire ouvre over four sides of vinyl, it cemented the band’s reputation as a stadium-filling hot ticket in the mid ’70s, and as it did so, unwittingly provided the necessary catalyst for those punks in the Bowery and lower east side to explode in retribution; until then, hair was growing longer in direct proportion to the solos played, trousers were as wide and outlandish as the tales of excess that filtered from the backstage to the front page and music was all about ‘look at us!’ rather than ‘be like us!’ Richard Hell chopping his hair to bits changed all that. You knew that already though.
Back to the Zep for now.
Physical Graffiti kicks off with Custard Pie, essentially a facsimile of Led Zeppelin’s recorded output in miniature. It’s got a rockin’ great guitar riff, blues in style if not in sticky-fingered origin – although that is surely up for debate. It’s got Bonham’s piledriving drums; a shuffling, juddering raising the dead racket that creates unexpected jolts in all the right places. It’s got John Paul Jones multitasking on a highly funky, Wonder-ish clav line and a stoic bassline that follows the lead guitar, sometimes. And it’s got one of Robert Plant’s finest vocals, a guttural, primal moan that begins at the soles of his moccasin’d feet, travels like quicksilver through his Greek God torso and comes out of his mouth like the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding on Valkyrie themselves. With a shake of the golden curls and a wink of the twinkling blue eye, Plant has you under his spell.
Led Zeppelin – Custard Pie
Jimmy’s Les Paul is all over the track, a low-slung, panther-prowling masterclass in rock guitar playing. Throughout, he stirs up a hard blues crunch that takes in lip-curling riffage, lightning-fingered Wah-enhanced soloing in the middle and rounds off with the groove tightly locked-in, Page and Bonham in simpatico as Plant blows a metaphorical hoolie on the mouth organ. Or harp, as he’d no doubt prefer you say.
I love how Robert makes his voice fade in on that first moan, standing away from the mic and gradually getting closer until the singing gets underway. The singing is great; loud and soulful and packed full of all those trademark Plant high notes and adlibs – it’s not hard to picture him holding the stand-free mic across his bare chest, his head tilted back, his demi-wave trailing down his back – as you listen. It’s just a pity that, given the era and circumstances around its writing, Custard Pie‘s lyric is pretty dubious. Even if it was the seventies! There’s no excuse, Plant. There’s no excuse at all.