A while back I’d promised to expand on this post about musical influences based on the places I’ve lived. New York was a big one and to me it was all about rock and roll.
Coming to the big city at the tender young age of thirty, I thought I knew a lot about music. I’d been playing it all my life in some form or another. I knew all about folk and folk rock thanks to Daddy. And I’d done many musicals so I was well aware of Cole Porter, Kander and Ebb and Sondheim. Besides I’d grown up on the radio – every note and lyric of modern American pop music was encoded somewhere in the depths of my brain.
But New York opened my ears to another world of sound. Grittier, grimier, harder. You may not know it looking at the sleek, shiny, Disney-fied hipster oasis now, but downtown used to be a hard scrabble place where junkies and artists lined the streets now gleaming with wealth and American Apparel. Out of that muck came music that knocked you about a little – enough to wake you up to the harsh realities of life in one of the most significant cities in the world. Bleecker Street wasn’t always a tourist circus. It was where Bob Dylan met Allen Ginsburg and Fred Neill found his blues on the ceiling. The West Village wasn’t always posh, but the site of the White Horse Tavern, where flowed Jack Kerouac’s pen and Dylan Thomas’ fatal whiskies.
I didn’t know any of that though. I was just another starry-eyed actress trying to get a foothold in the Big Apple. This was Giuliani’s New York now and it was safe for a single gal to walk alone at night. I was lucky enough to have gotten a job at a big “dot com” company so I started dressing like the other successful looking women walking down Madison Avenue. In my chunky black heels, Banana Republic skirts and upscale hair cut by a name in a magazine.
Then one fateful day work had a talent show. I thought I’d play a couple of songs I’d written back in Jacksonville. Got a good response, one of my coworkers came up and said he wanted to get into producing – let’s make a demo! The phone had been quiet from my surreptitious auditioning so I said sure, why not? I walked into a real recording studio and everything changed.
Every place has its own music. In New York, it’s blues, jazz, rock and the cumulative energies of a whole mess o’ humanity. And by rock, I mean the hard stuff. Sure you can find some soft easy music – hell there’s a little of everything. But that’s not my New York. What I’m talking about is that driving energy you’ve all heard about. Oh, it’s true. Millions of people living on top of each other is an unusual American experience. Being crammed together on subways, busses and sidewalks you either sink underneath the weight of the sheer diversity or you swim, you rise above, clawing and scratching if you have to, and surf the energy of your fellow man. After a while I was infused, infected. My blood pulsed more quickly, my instincts became sharper and my skin just a bit thicker.
Once I got into the studios I’d meet more and more musicians who’d played in NY for years and taught me about rock n roll. From the muddy roots of Mississippi blues to the bop ruckus of The Ramones to the hard drug poetry of Lou Reed. I realized that I played my acoustic so hard because what I really wanted to do was rock. And rock is about passion. About angry truths and screw the establishment. Shaking your ass (or banging your head) along the way. There’s a lot of sex and drugs involved because you’re rebelling against the puritanical morals of Any Town USA – and you got issues. Everyone in New York’s got issues. You’re constantly exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly of human nature, no filters. No apologies. So yeah, you’re gonna play it loud and take it to the edge.
I bought an electric guitar and got a band together and found another kind of theater. I traded cattle calls for the Continental Club – my pencil skirt for low ride jeans. I learned to listen and commune with the drums and bass. After playing solo for a lifetime I had to learn to become part of a unit. It shook me to the core and made my fingers bleed. I loved it. I wasn’t punk or hardcore, but it brought out an intensity that I relished body and soul. A new expression for the howling that lives deep inside your gut (no matter how nice or gentle you are). A new resilience: if you can survive there, you can survive anywhere.
It’s a fast burn though. Not the most sustainable or balanced place to live. And when I go back, I’m washed away by the energy, the smell, the cacophany, the (unwashed) masses. But a special battery gets topped off and I come back to my desert life ready to raise my ax and charge again into that black, black night.