The World According to Keitho

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Deconstructing New York, New York

Posted by keithosaunders on January 2, 2010

There is a special place in hell reserved for those with the lack of imagination to request New York, New York.  If there is a more clumsy and obvious song dedicated to a municipality I have yet to find it.  That’s right, Randy Newman fans, even “I Love LA. ”  When I’m playing a gig, enjoying myself, minding my own business, creating the magic, as it were,   and I get a request from a patron — “Hey!  Play New York, New York!” — it’s all I can do to refrain from delivering a quick, clean punch to the solar plexus.  “Here!  Here’s your New York, New York!” 

OK, hold on.  I need a minute…

Back.  I got a little emotional, what with the violence and the adrenalin.  Let’s compare Fred Ebb’s pedestrian lyric with a genuine lyricist, Lorenz Hart.  I realize that this is akin to  comparing Moe Howard to Lawrence Olivier, but what the hell…this is my blog.  I’m calling the shots.

In 1925 Rodgers and Hart wrote a song called “Manhattan.”  There’s a verse which establishes that the protagonist doesn’t like to go on vacation due to the aggravation that comes with travel.  He’s got a flat in ‘old manhattan’ and that’s where he prefers to be.  Since there is no verse in New York New York proceed to the refrain.

“We’ll have Manhattan
the Bronx and Staten
Island too.
It’s lovely going through
the zoo!”

Right away, you like this guy, right from the first word, “We’ll.”  It’s inclusive and welcoming.  He gives props to the Bronx and Staten Island, but would it have killed him to mention Queens?!  I’m giving him a pass since the Mets weren’t around back then.  I’m sure if they had been there Queens would have made the song.

Let’s contrast that elegant opening to Ebbs’ pratfall of a beginning:

“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it – new york, new york
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it – new york,
new york”

What a bastard.  Listen to him bragging about coming to the big town.  Who the hell is he?!  I only hope that he arrives via port authority and gets one of those friendly taxi driver that takes you to the Village via Jersey City.

Meanwhile, in “Manhattan…”

“It’s very fancy
on old Delancy
street you know.
The subway charms us so
when balmy breezes blow
to and fro.

And tell me what street
compares with Mott Street
in July?
Sweet pushcarts gently gli-ding by.”

Listen to Lorenz Hart referencing Delancy and Mott streets!  What a sweetheart.  These are not posh addresses but the streets of the people – Lower East Side and Chinatown.

Now back to Ebbs’ elephantine screed:

“I wanna wake up in a city, that doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill – top of the heap

These little town blues, are melting away
I’ll make a brand new start of it – in old new
york
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you – new york, new york”

This dullard of a man has no interest in the cultural melange of downtown Manhattan, but craves raw power.  His desire is to be a master of the universe and he doesn’t care who he steps on to achieve his goal. 

That’s about it for New York, New York;  the rest of the song repeats the lyrics from first half.   Hart, on the other hand,  was just getting started.  Even Yonkers, not technically a part of New York City, gets a shout out: 

“We’ll go to Yonkers
Where true love conquers
In the whiles …”

So there you have it.  You can have prime rib, or you can have spam.  The choice is yours.

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4 Responses to “Deconstructing New York, New York”

  1. As a former NYer (burbs, not city) this cracked me up. Reminds me too of going to Preservation Hall in New Orleans, where they had a big sign posted – Song Requests, $1, (When the) Saints, $5.

    Thanks for your comment on Around the Island. I’m intrigued by the movie you mentioned, I’ll have to track it down.

  2. Shoot, this is tracking back to the wrong blog. I’m Robin from http://www.aroundtheislandphotography.com, and I’m a WordPress newbie who’s not quite finding her way around yet.

  3. I’m a transplanted New Yorker. I love New York. The song, however, is redundant. My bet is, you get requests for New York New York, from drunk tourists.

    Great Blog by the way. I like your style.

  4. Jane said

    The only comment I could make is that the ONLY way I have ever enjoyed the song is a rare version being sung by Dave Frishberg…and I think that is only because of the sound of his voice.

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