If you’re sick of hearing Frank Sinatra tell you that he wants to be a part of it, or Alicia Keys gushing about how these streets will make you feel brand new, then rejoice – here’s an alternative musical history of the Big Apple. Ladies and gentlemen, get your walking shoes on for a journey through Flavorpill’s essential Manhattan lyrical topography. Click here for a larger version of our rock ‘n roll map of the borough and take our guided tour after the jump.
Harlem’s rich musical history is well-documented, as is the fact that it was where Lou Reed used to go to score smack. The blocks north of 110th Street feature prominently in all sorts of songs – including, of course, “Across 110th Street.”
“Up to Lexington, 125/Feeling sick and dirty/More dead than alive…”
The Velvet Underground, “I’m Waiting for the Man”
We confess to having taken a photo on this corner, under the street signs.
“Get as high as you can on Saturday night/Go to church on Sunday to set things right…”
Gil Scott-Heron, “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox”
A landmark album in many ways, Scott-Heron’s 1970 masterpiece references his adopted home of Harlem in its title and several of its lyrics.
“I am sitting/In the morning/At the diner/On the corner…”
Suzanne Vega, “Tom’s Diner”
The real Tom’s Restaurant – as also featured in Seinfeld – is on 112th and Broadway.
“Across 110th Street’s a hell of a tester…”
Bobby Womack, “Across 110th Street”
It’s not just Frank who wanted to be a part of it. The neon lights of Broadway – and the grim reality that remains when the lights go out – have inspired and fascinated in equal measures. There’s also the occasional lyric to recall when things weren’t quite as rosy as they are today – like the Ramones’ “53rd and 3rd”, a fairly sordid tale of turning tricks for smack on that particular corner. Good luck trying that these days.
“On the Upper East Side I’ll call you again…”
Experimental Aircraft, “Upper East Side”
This Austin band really ought to be more well-known than they are.
“I can’t give it away on 7th Avenue!”
Rolling Stones, “Shattered”
The last track off Some Girls and the beginning of the end for the Stones’ fertile ‘70s period. Soon, Mick wouldn’t be able to give it away anywhere.
“Is it raining in New York?/Down 5th Ave and off Broadway after dark/You love the lights, don’t you?/I could walk you through the park/If you’re feeling blue…”
Roxy Music, “To Turn You On”
“Broadway looked so medieval/It seemed to flap, like little pages…”
“53rd and 3rd, standing on the street/53rd and 3rd, I’m trying to turn a trick…”
Ramones, “53rd and 3rd”
“Take a walk around Times Square/With a pistol in my suitcase/And my eyes on the TV…”
Marianne Faithfull, “Times Square”
“Sha da do wop, da shaman do way/We like Birdland…”
Patti Smith, “Birdland”
Quite how much this lyric – inspired, apparently, by Peter Reich’s A Book of Dreams – has to do with the Birdland jazz club on West 44th Street is open to debate. But good God, what a song.
“Up on the roof/It’s almost dawn/See the water towers/Look so forlorn…”
Luna, “Great Jones Street”
The East Village and the Lower East Side
The east side blocks below 14th Street have long been the hub of Manhattan’s artistic community, both in the East Village and the area south of Houston. Of course, no one who’s an artist can afford to live there anymore – like the rest of the island, the area has cleaned up considerably since its days as a crumbling, rent-controlled junkie haven. Still, there are plenty of lyrics that recall the area’s former “glory.”
“Then, as I walked down Second Avenue towards St Mark’s Place/Where all those people sell used books and other junk on the street/I saw my penis lying on a blanket/Next to a broken toaster oven.”
King Missile, “Detachable Penis”
You can probably still buy dicks on St Mark’s Place. Or sell things to them.
“The boys from Avenue B and the girls from Avenue D/A Tinkerbell in tights…”
Lou Reed, “Halloween Parade”
Reed’s catalogue of the missing figures at the Halloween Parade is a beautiful and sad evocation of the toll wrought on New York’s gay community in the ’80s by the AIDS virus.
“Sitting in the Russian bath house on the Avenue B/No matter how much we sweat we just can’t agree…”
Gogol Bordello, “Avenue B”
Gogol Bordello’s history is tied to the East Village – it was here they first came together in the late ‘90s, and here that Eugene Hutz still occasionally breaks out one of his legendarily mental DJ sets.
“Sleeping in a van between A & B/Sucking dick for ecstasy…”
The Moldy Peaches, “Downloading Porn With Davo”
They probably did, too.
“Alphabet City is haunted/Constantina feels right at home…”
Elliott Smith, “Alphabet Town”
“From Bowery to Broome to Greene, I’m a walking lizard…”
Sonic Youth, “Hyperstation”
“New York is cold but I like where I’m living/There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening…”
Leonard Cohen, “Famous Blue Raincoat”
“Walking by myself/Down avenues that reek of time to kill…”
Santigold, “LES Artistes”
Back when she was Santogold, Santi White dedicated her debut single to a lyrical impalement of pretentious Lower East Side types. Right on.
Bonus round (not pictured): The subway to Brooklyn
The great creative/trust fund migration east has generated its share of self-referential lyrics already – as, of course, has the subway over the years. We’ve combined them both here.
“You will all die in Williamsburg/Too hip to even clean your nose out…”
Armor For Sleep, “Williamsburg”
Awful song, but the lyrics are deadly accurate.
“The sun is down/You’ll act the clown/I’ll dance around/We’ll hit the town…”
Martha Wainwright, “GPT”
The Greenpoint Tavern is on Bedford and North 7th. It’s a terrible place.
“Do you recall that night/We took the L/Out into Bushwick/It was colder than hell…”
Delta Spirit, “Bushwick Blues”
“The subway is a porno/The pavements, they are a mess…”
“Will I see you tonight/On a downtown train?/Every night is just the same/You leave me lonely now…”
Tom Waits, “Downtown Train”
Later covered by Rod Stewart. God help us all.