The City I Live In…

The City of Angels.  After listening to "Los Angeles, I’m Yours" by The Decemberists (see I was struck by how a song can strike at the heart of a city, or any place, for that matter.  So start thinking now, I’m about to ask you to share what song or songs best capture the essence of where you live, or where you have lived, or even a place you’ve only visited.

I agree with the Decemberists.  L.A. has often "left me wretched, retching on all fours," but that’s only half the story.  I believe most people have a love/hate relationship with L.A. and any decent L.A. song captures that duality.  This means Randy Newman’s "I Love L.A." is not on my list.  Worst L.A. Song ever.

However, I must warn you, it’s not as if my picks for Best L.A. Songs are that original.

I believe "L.A. Woman" by The Doors is not a song about a woman living in L.A..  The city is the woman.  The lyrics "If they say I never loved you / You know they are a liar" express the ambivalence I feel about L.A. perfectly.  I’ve heard it said you only really know a city on the day you arrive and on the day you leave and that’s why I like "L.A. Woman."  It zips you in off a freeway exit to "Take a look around, see which way the wind blows" and it zips you back out of town after light has turned to night.  The Doors make good use of light/night and other dualities in their lyrics as they explore both sides of L.A..  The turning point is in the middle of the song where Jim Morrison sings, "Motel, money, murder, madness / Let’s change the the mood from glad to sadness."  I also like the line "Never saw a woman so alone."  I believe it touches on one of the most common emotions that Angelenos feel–loneliness.

"Under the Bridge" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers illustrates this point perfectly.  It also portrays L.A. as a woman–the singer’s only friend.  "At least I have her love /  The city she loves me / Lonely as I am / Together we cry."  This song also connects L.A. with addiction, a theme even more prevalent than loneliness in songs about L.A..

For example, drug addiction is what most people feel "Hotel California" is about, (that is if they don’t feel it’s about a Satanic cult) but I see it as a song about the entertainment industry.  For The Eagles themselves it was probably specifically about the music industry, but both industries lure people to L.A. and often trap them here because before long there’s no other city where you can find work.  Like the song says, "We are all just prisoners here of our own device."  You may find this shocking, but people actually long to leave Los Angeles, "To find the passage back to the place I was before."  And we know what The Eagles say about the chance of leaving or checking out.

Where would I go?  Straight back to Colorado.  I still haven’t found the quintessential song about Colorado yet, although, I suppose "Rocky Mountain High" by John Denver and "Rocky Mountain Way" by former Eagle Joe Walsh come close.  As Walsh points out, "The rocky mountain way is better than the way we had." 

Okay, my turn is over.  What songs about what places are meaningful to you and why?


31 thoughts on “The City I Live In…

  1. What a great topic. I actually posted a bunch of songs about specific cities on my personal blog, and I had a ton.

    I currently live in Huntington Beach, aka Surf City, so just about any of the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean songs probably apply. Seattle’s where I’m from, though, and I’ve been trying to think of songs about it. There’s Soundgarden’s “Sub Pop Rock City,” which was a rare track making fun of the Sub Pop label (released on a Sub Pop compilation box set). It always takes me right back to my teen years.

    I can only think of a few other songs about Seattle:

    Queensryche – “Jet City Woman”
    U.S.E. – “Emerald City”
    Young Fresh Fellows – “Aurora Bridge”

    I’m sure there’s more but that’s all that’s coming to me.

  2. Okay, I don’t live in either of these places, but …

    “Allentown” by Billy Joel. I like this song because I grew up in a white collar neighborhood and this song paints a picture of how the other half lives.

    “Puttin’ People on the Moon” by the Drive-By Truckers. Same Reason. Chronicles life in Alabama over three decades. Key line: “Double digit unemployment/TVA be shuttin soon/While over there in Huntsville/they puttin’ people on the moon”.

    New York songs: “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel. although sometimes I find it a bit too romanticized. Still, it’s one of the better ones out there. “New York’s not my home” by Jim Croce. For every New York love fest, there’s gotta be an opposite side of the story. I grew up in New York, love to go back, but I don’t think I’ll ever live there, for reasons Croce nails.

    I saw the Decemberists two nights ago in concert – they play Los Angeles, I’m Yours and had the audience stomp out the rhythm with their feet. It was good fun.

  3. PJ Harvey’s album Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea has a lot of NYC-oriented songs on it. My favorite is The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore:

    Speak to me
    Of heroin and speed
    Genocide and suicide
    Of syphilis and greed
    Speak to me
    The language of love
    The language of violence
    The language of the heart

    This isn’t the first time
    I’ve asked for money or love
    Heaven and earth
    Don’t ever mean enough
    Speak to me
    Of heroin and speed
    Just give me something
    I can believe

    The whores hustle and the hustlers whore
    Too many people out of love

    I tend to like brutal songs about inner city life, maybe because I’ve lived in a ghetto before. Damien Dempsey has a good one about Dublin with this great line:

    And the ghosts overdoses
    Replace the ghosts of tuberculois

  4. I’m trying to think of songs for us upper-midwest non-Chicago people. But I can’t, and I live close enough to Chicago that I’ll offer up “The Woman Downstairs” by the Handsome Family:

    “Chicago is where the woman downstairs starved herself to death last summer. Her boyfriend Ted ate hot dogs and wept with the gray rats out on the fire escape. In a thrift store chair I drank cases of beer and dreamed of lying down on the el tracks. The trains roared by under smoke-gray skies, Lake Michigan rose and fell like a bird. And when the wind screamed up Ashland Avenue, the corner bars were full by noon and the old stewbums sliding down their stools ate boiled eggs and fed beer to the dogs. The woman downstairs lost all her hair and wore a beret in the laundryroom. I borrowed her soap and bought her a Coke, but she left it on a dryer. She died in June weighing 82. Her boyfriend went back to New York. The cops wandered through her dusty rooms. One of them stole her TV.

  5. Sufjan Stevens did an entire really good album based on the state of Michigan – it’s called “Michigan” as a matter of fact. His next LP will supposedly be about the state of Illinois.

  6. I visited New York City quite a while ago, so I am not the best person to suggest a song about the city. Nevertheless, I think U2’s “New York” seems to capture some of its unique spirit. Listening to that song makes me want to visit the city again.

  7. I visited New York City quite a while ago, so I am not the best person to suggest a song about the city. Nevertheless, I think U2’s “New York” seems to capture some of its unique spirit. Listening to that song makes me want to visit the city again.

  8. Growing up in Calgary, “Wheat Kings” by The Tragically Hip summed things up: “sundown in the Paris of the prairie…”

    When I lived in Paris, Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris” hit the mark.

    Now I live in NYC, and there’s a gaggle of songs — U2, Ryan Adams, etc. But none of them really do it for me.

  9. Great post, Brian! I like your LA song choices. Colorado songs… yeah, I think “Rocky Mountain High” is one of the best. I also like “Me and That Train” by Patty Larkin. And then there’s “Leavin’ Colorado” by the Hillbilly Hellcats, lest we get too sentimental about this, my home state:

    I’m leavin’ Colorado in the mornin’
    I’m headed for the shores of Honolu
    I ain’t got time to give you too much warnin’
    My days of being cold are almost through

  10. Steve,

    You’re right that there are lots of so-so songs about NY, but some are great. Check out:

    Interpol, NYC
    Stevie Wonder, Living in the City
    Velvet Underground, Waiting for the Man
    Moldy Peaches, NYC’s like a Graveyard
    Elliott Smith, Bled White
    Simon & Garfunkel, Only Living Boy in New York

  11. My current home has inspired far more than its fair share of crappy songs (thank Journey and Jefferson Starship), but it also can claim one of the best pop songs of all time, Otis Redding’s “(Sittin on) The Dock of the Bay.”

    I left my home in Georgia,
    Headed for the Frisco bay.
    I have nothing to live for,
    Look like nothin’s gonna come my way.

    So I’m just gonna sit on the dock of the bay,
    Watching the tide roll away.
    Ooh, I’m sittin’ on the dock of the day,
    Wastin’ time.

  12. You’ll all think I’m very old-fashioned, but I believe the best song about New York is by Cole Porter, “I Happen To Like New York.”

    I happen to like New York.
    I happen to like this town.
    I like the city air, I like to drink of it,
    The more I know New York
    The more I think of it.
    I like the sight, the sound, and even the stink of it.
    I happen to like New York.

    I like to go to Battery Park
    And watch those liners booming in,
    I often ask myself why should it be?
    That they should come so far across the sea?
    I suppose it’s because they all agree with me,
    They happen to like New York.

    Last Sunday afternoon,
    I took a train to Hackensack,
    But after I gave Hackensack the onceover,
    I took the next train back.

    I happen to like New York.
    I happen to love this burg.
    And when I have to give the world my last farewell,
    And the undertaker stops to ring my funeral bell,
    I don’t wanna go to heaven, don’t wanna go to hell.
    I happen to like New York.

  13. “My Little Town” by Paul Simon (with Art Garfunkel), circa 1975, sums up pretty well the experience of growing up in a small Utah town.

  14. Dallin has already mentioned some of these, but here goes:

    When I was in college I went with a friend to visit another friend in Lehigh, PA, which is right near Allentown — we had to drive through it to get there. We played Billy Joel’s “Allentown” as we drove through and sang along. It was so much fun that we turned around, drove back through town and did it again, and then a third time to get turned around in the right direction.

    At the end of every semester at BYU, I would get out “New York State of Mind” and sing along. The version of New York that the song paints is actually nothing like the New York of my experience, but the song captured a bit of the longing for home that I felt.

    Now that I live in North Carolina, James Taylor’s “Carolina on My Mind” seems to be the most appropriate song.

  15. Oh, geeze, I forgot about Jackson Browne. So many of his albums are so California-oriented. I especially like his more recent albums, I’m Alive, and Looking East. He’s got a song called “Culver Moon” about where he lives in LA–Culver City. “I live in a small town, deep in LA.” And this really awesome song about his teenage years growing up in LA called “The Barricades of Heaven.” A song about his drummer as a kid running around LA called “Nino.” He’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to move down here.

  16. Like Bryce and Dallin, I think of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” almost immediately when this topic comes up.

    There’s a Jerusalem song that is beautiful to listen to, called “Jerusalem of Gold” or “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” And I’ve just realized that I don’t have a recording of it.

  17. I’ve only ever been to LA once, but I almost always think of the early 90’s gangsta rap that came out of there, specifically Ice-T’s “O.G. Original Gangsta” (“Maybe it’s just cause of where I’m from / L.A. (bang) that was a shotgun”).

  18. Speaking of SoCal, I used to visit family in Long Beach every summer, which is just south of Compton. I’d have “Straight Outta Compton” in my head the rest of the summer.

    I think California in general has the best place-songs. It is kind of the Shangri-La of our culture’s imagination, even (or maybe especially) for those in the cultural centers of the East Coast. I’m thinking of songs like Zep’s “Going to California”, Matthew Sweet’s “Come to California”, Wilco/Woody Guthrie’s “California Stars,” REM’s “I Remember California”, Joni Mitchell’s “California” (or Quasi’s, or Jay Farrar’s), the Mamas & Papas’ “California Dreamin'”, the Beach Boys’ “California Girls”, the Ramones’ “California Sun” (I forgot who did the original)… the list could go on. What other state is comparable?

  19. “Seattle’s where I’m from, though, and I’ve been trying to think of songs about it.”

    The best, Susan, is Robyn Hitchcock’s “Viva! Sea-Tac”:

    Viva Seattle-Tacoma! Viva viva Sea-Tac!
    Viva viva viva viva viva Sea-Tac,
    They’ve got the best computers and coffee and smack!

  20. Hahaha, never heard that. Who names a city Sea-Tac? I actually grew up in that town, but it was just unincorporated King County then. (Sea-Tac is actually a town between Seattle and Tacoma, where the Sea-Tac airport is.)

    I don’t know about computers or coffee, but Sea-Tac had plenty of prostitutes, drug addicts and serial killers!

  21. Funny, Greg, you should mention “California Dreamin’,” because it’s really a great New York song. It gets New York, much more than California, to my way of thinking. And there’s Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” too, for a bit of 60s New York.

    I agree, though, that California is the “place” with the best songs in the rock era.

  22. D.,

    The Mamas and Papas song definitely goes to the feeling of winter in New York City, but it’s also a perfect example of the “California as escape” trope in pop music, and maybe in US culture in general.

  23. I had a friend who used to say that “California Dreamin'” was about a week at scout camp after they ran out of toilet paper.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

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