Tag Archive: New York City


Their American fans may forget this at times, but Genesis is British. The fact that they came from across the Atlantic didn’t matter to me when I was 11. I guess I knew it, but that they were English didn’t really mean anything. But that fact became more present as I became more aware of the world around me. “American” was just the default position when I was younger, but Genesis is distinctly not American.

The biggest evidence of that is the album Selling England By the Pound, which not only has its country of origin in the title, but contain themes and subject matter that pertain particularly to Great Britain. By that time, Genesis had carved out a place for themselves in the British musical landscape. And then, at the end of 1974, they busted out of the box by centering their newest album, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, on New York City, the epitome of American-ness. Furthermore, the main character of this rock opera-ish is not a knight or a minstrel or a member of the Royal Guard, but a greasy Puerto Rican kid with a spray gun and a hairy heart.

Rael

Rael

Let me explain that last part. Rael’s heart, in the metaphorical sense only, is very hairy at the start of the story. From the best I can understand, this means he’s ruled by emotion rather than reason. The “hair” on his heart represents id-based urges and desires, unconnected to societal norms or restrictions. As a punk greaser with a rebellious attitude and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Chrysler building, Rael wants what he wants and doesn’t care who he hurts…

Until the song “Back In N.Y.C.” In this part of the journey, we get some of Rael’s backstory and start to understand this nightmarish world he’s stumbled into by accident. He’s nothing more than a juvenile delinquent, sent to Pontiac (a juvenile detention center in NY that, as far as my web search could find, doesn’t exist) and released when he was 17. “Back In N.Y.C.” is the moment where Rael shaves his hairy heart, shedding the flailing chaos of being controlled by his desires and moving forward with a measured and reasoned attitude. It’s not unlike Pink in the movie version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Pink shaves off all the hair on his entire body, and after that becomes a totalitarian dictator. Didn’t work out too well for Pink, and Rael’s result is… I’m not really sure.

It begs the question: is it better to rule over our desires or to have our desires rule us? Here’s the same question with a different spin: is it better to do what we want or to do what we’re told? Let me put it a third way, one that uses the language of The Lamb: do we shave our hairy hearts and eliminate all desires and live like robots, or do we let the hair grow and be slaves to our own whims and momentary wants?

My answer to all those questions is “neither.” The desires of your heart are called “desires” for a reason, and they should be at least listened to. But your heart isn’t the end-all-be-all of who you are, much as it tries to be sometimes. The pat phrase “follow your heart” ticks me off, simply because it’s so flagrantly unwise. You should listen to your heart, but you shouldn’t do everything it says. It’s a very good resource on a lot of things, but it’ll lead you astray from time to time. After all, your heart can lie to you. Rael learns this a little later in the album, but we’ll get to that.

Kind of in reverse order, we learn why Rael shaved his heart in “Counting Out Time.” Herein lies the tale of Rael’s first sexual conquest, and the song reveals that Rael was living with his selfish desires out of control. He was operating only on getting what he wants, not caring who he does wrong.

Peter Gabriel broke pattern with the rest of the album in writing the lyrics and music for this song, which was really his first taste of being in complete charge of the musical direction of a song. It shows, too, because “Counting Out Time” doesn’t fit into any category Genesis has used before. While the rest of The Lamb is brooding and a little dour, “Counting Out Time” is downright goofy. The guitar sound during the solo is particularly off-the-wall. It bears resemblance to “Moribund the Burgermeister” and “Excuse Me,” two tracks on Peter Gabriel’s first solo album from 1977. The pinnacle of the silliness comes with the lyric “Honey, get hip! It’s time to unzip! Zip-a-zip-a-zip, whoopee!!!”

“Counting Out Time” is among the more straightforward numbers on The Lamb. It details Rael’s exploration of the sexual realm, and his acquisition of a book called Erogenous Zones and Difficulties in Overcoming Finding Them. This might be an actual book, but there’s no hard evidence to prove it. Rael follows it to the letter, but forgets that there’s an actual person he’s practicing on. What strikes me most about it is the supreme selfishness with which he goes about learning about sex. Sex is a two-person act, and you can’t learn about it in a sterile, consequence-less environment. You have to learn by doing, and it’s all on the record.

Next: if The Lamb is about any single thing (which it’s not), it’s about sex.

2013. Twenty thirteen. Just like the past thirteen years, the name of the year hasn’t been uttered a lot, not nearly as much as it will be in the year to come. It’s a new beginning, or it at least seems that way to the millions making earnest but unrealistic resolutions they’ll break in 8 days. Then it’ll be back to the same, back to comfort, back to complacency, back to normality. Normality sounds like it has a negative spin, but does it? After all, I think after the inevitable zombie apocalypse, we would thirst for a little normality.

I can imagine Genesis’ benchmark rock opera The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway taking place on New Year’s Day, 1974. It’s New York City, and much revelry and carousing (not to mention millions of incidents of synchronized smooching) have occurred a mere 7 hours earlier. Even after a bad hangover, life still goes on, and indeed never stopped in the City That Doesn’t Sleep. The “all-night watchmen” (the police) haven’t batted an eyelash; this happens every year in Times Square, and isn’t all that different from what happens every day in Times Square – it’s just bigger.

The first track, titled “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” begins with a fade-in piano trill. Our main character, Rael, is introduced by the hiss and acidic smell of a can of spray paint. The 42nd St. N station has a new marking, but it’s not really noticeable among the thousands of others except that it’s on top, being freshly created. This was long before Guiliani came through with his broom and swept away all the drug dealers, strip clubs and graffiti. Rael’s own graffiti says simply that – R-A-E-L.

As Rael exits the subway, the strangeness is set in motion, and the album is off and running. It starts with what the album draws its name from, literally a lamb lying down in the middle of Broadway. While this action doesn’t actually have anything to do with the plot, it’s filled with possible metaphorical and allegorical meanings. The image of the lamb translated very simply is “the lamb dies in New York,” which could be expanded to “God sacrifices himself for the sin of the world.” This interpretation will bear out in the rest of the album, but I don’t want to give anything away.

Peter Gabriel as Rael

Peter Gabriel as Rael

Okay, I’ll give a little away. Rael is a Christ figure. He sacrifices himself (in a number of ways) to save the life, sanity and body of his brother John, a character we meet a little later. Despite his brother Rael’s selfless acts, John is ungrateful and undeserving. Kinda looks similar to our relationship with God, don’t ya think?

Anyway, back to New York. We have a lot of the trappings of Manhattan life, in particular porno theaters, strippers working the night shift, and cabs zipping around like they own the place. The steam through the grates lends a shadowy haze to the streets, an indication of the dreamy world Rael is about to enter. Rael seeing the lamb is strange enough, but it only gets stranger.

“Fly On a Windshield” segues gently from the title track, but there’s a shift in musical modes. “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” was solidly paced and excited, but “Fly” is troublesome, like a storm that hasn’t hit yet. What Rael sees is more than just a lamb now. A black cloud descends on Times Square, forming tightly into a vertical surface that extends to the sky, a “wall of death.” It moves forward, becoming like a movie screen, projecting in 2 dimensions what is behind it. It’s moving towards Rael.

Suddenly it hits, the music indicating it. At the beginning of “Broadway Melody of 1974,” parts of New York culture and American culture in general weave, twist and morph around in a cyclonic maelstrom. References are drawn to everything from Lenny Bruce to Winston cigarettes. All the disparate elements gyre and gimble till they’re almost unrecognizable, at which point Rael is completely in the other world, where he spends most of the remainder of the album.

The division between “Fly On a Windshield” and “Broadway Melody of 1974” is a contentious issue. The remastered CD version, for some unfathomable reason, has the third track starting over a minute after “Melody” actually begins, and after all the lyrics are already sung. According to all the CD versions, “Melody” is only 30 seconds of soft, beatless guitar that segues into the fourth track, “Cuckoo Cocoon.” Let the record forever show that “Fly On a Windshield” is NOT 4 minutes and 12 seconds, and “Broadway Melody of 1974” starts on the measure when Peter Gabriel sings “echoes of the Broadway Everglades…” Thank you.

Pictures of Rusty

There’s a rather famous photo of John Lennon taken after he moved to Manhattan. It’s a torso-up shot of him with crossed arms, standing on a rooftop, wearing sunglasses and a sleeveless white t-shirt that simply says “New York City.” It’s become an icon of not just John but also the city he adopted. Bohemians, musicians, buskers and freedom writers all over the city have it hanging on their walls, courtesy of the street vendors at just about every corner selling NYC memorabilia of every stripe, classy to chintzy.

Seemingly off-topic for just one second: there’s a guy at my church named Rusty, and he is the epitome of cool. First off, his name’s Rusty; how cool is that? Furthermore, for about 15 years, he managed a shop that sold musical instruments, mainly electric guitars. The pièce de résistance: he looks exactly like John Lennon. Put some mirror shades on him and you’re done. Like I said, new levels of cool.

One Saturday my wife and I were walking home from the Central Park Zoo, like we had many times before. It was springtime in the city, and droves of people were out and about. In New York City, where there are droves of people there are hawkers of various goods. Around Central Park, a particularly popular item to sell is a photo print of a famous New York site or person, including that one of John Lennon in the t-shirt. We passed one such vendor on 5th Ave. when Ruthanne got a quizzical look on her face.

“That guy’s selling a picture of Rusty.”

Befuddled, I turned to look at what she was pointing to. When I did, I gave a disappointed sigh. “No, that’s a picture of John Lennon.”

Blank stare from my wife. “Who?”

“He was a Beatle. He’s very famous.”

“Oh, okay, I’ve heard of the Beatles.” I had a sneaking suspicion that was only because we got Rock Band: The Beatles for the Wii the previous Christmas, but I said nothing. “Wow, John Lennon looks just like Rusty.”

I groaned, utterly defeated by my wife’s complete lack of knowledge about pop culture. “No! Rusty looks just like John Lennon!”

Considering my musical pop culture hyper-awareness. it may seem strange that I married a woman who hears the name George Clinton and thinks, “wait, isn’t it Bill Clinton?” Scratch that – it is strange. What connects us and makes us love each other is bigger than that, though. I can’t put it into words, so I won’t dishonor it by trying.

Let’s just say Ruthanne pays no attention to what’s cool, hip or trendy, and thus has no idea what used to be cool, hip or trendy. She knows what she likes, though, and she’s very nonchalantly impassive about what she likes; no one can convince her to not like it. We spend so much time trying to be cool, and the essence of cool is originality and not caring what other people think. If that’s true, than Ruthanne is probably the coolest person to of ever lived. Cooler than Rusty, and yes, even cooler than John Lennon.

Union Square

our cat, Ali (think "short for Alison," not "boxer Muhammed")

When my wife and I moved to New York City in the summer of 2009, I didn’t have a job; by that I merely mean I didn’t have official outside employment. My wife would probably argue that I did have a job, because I was taking care of the house.

Yes, I was (and still am, really) a househusband. I cook, I clean, I shop for groceries, I do laundry, I run household errands. Despite some draconian perceptions, it’s quite an honorable job. In New York, my wife had to work almost every free moment; according to her boss, she had to be “24/7” committed. She was making a significant investment so that we could have a roof over our heads, so I made an investment in the roof. More than that, it was a way for me to serve my wife. My central objective was to make sure she had a nice place to come home to after pouring so much of herself into her job. I heard so much squawk about serving my wife when I first got married, and I can think of no better way to do that than literally.

Several things have changed. We moved back to MA, got a much bigger apartment, got a cat, and I’ve now added unemployed writer to my resume. My house-husbandry hasn’t gone away; it’s even more important now, in fact. I didn’t really enter that role until I got to New York, though.

Union Square, 7th floor apartment's eye view

In NYC, our home straddled the line between East and West Greenwich Village. Sometimes I walked around our neighborhood and I could literally feel the culture seeping into my skin; it was glorious. Approximately 8 blocks uptown from where we lived is Union Square, a 3-block plaza with a subway station and a small park where the homeless and affluent alike rest their bones for a spell with a cup of coffee or a bottle of Jack. It also has a playground and a vibrant farmer’s market 3 days a week. I went there every Wednesday morning to the Petco on 17th St. to volunteer at the cat shelter there. Right outside the Petco at the corner of 17th and Broadway, there’s a statue of Andy Warhol.

It stands across the street from one of the sites of Andy’s Factory art studio, but not its original and most famous home in Midtown. It’s about 7 feet tall, which is a heck of a lot bigger than the slight and wiry Andy himself. I don’t know what it’s made out of, but the surface is chrome. He’s got big, bug-eyed shades, a snappy suit, and a Bloomingdale’s bag in his right hand. Were he to see it, I think Andy would be impressed, though he’d probably say something like, “last time I was at Bloomingdale’s the sales clerks were far too polite.”

On Wednesday: The Velvet Underground ditch Andy and get noisy.

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico – 3/12/1967

The Velvet Underground’s first album is kind of like a dream, shifting and undulating as a mirage would. Poppy and bright one minute, dark and sardonic the next, The Velvet Underground & Nico presents the New York experience with a smirking laziness and cynical amusement about its inherent darkness. It drops names of places in NYC with generosity, and now having lived there I understand them. But beware: this is New York as seen through the eyes of a heroin addict, which colors every perception.

The album starts with a tinkly, delicate celesta melody, followed by a fey voice. “Sunday Morning,” the first track, is a soft introduction to this dream-like landscape, and a very pretty one. The name “Sunday Morning” was penciled in at the top of the track list on the album’s back cover because it wasn’t originally intended to be on there. Verve Records bigwig Tom Wilson suggested late in the game that the record needed one more song with lead vocals by Nico, to potentially be a big single. In the end, Nico only sang background on the track.

It might be said (incorrectly) that the album truly starts with the second track, “I’m Waiting For the Man.” This is Lou Reed’s deadpan and surprisingly frank description of the narrator (presumably Reed himself) going up to the corner of Lexington Ave. and 125th St. (Spanish Harlem to the uninitiated) to buy $26 worth of heroin, and use some of it on the premises. It bears a trademark of Reed’s writing in that it deals with important subject matter in a morally neutral voice and observational tone. Even though it’s in 1st person and the narrator is in the thick of heavy drug use, Reed doesn’t comment or expound; he merely presents.

This motif is also present in “Heroin,” the seventh track. The music of “Heroin” is intended to be representative of what it’s like to be on its namesake drug, and the lyrics detail with some startling beauty the feelings associated with it. I’ve never been on it myself (I prefer not to take drugs that don’t prevent me from dying), but I remember it being described as the best orgasm you’ve ever had x100, and lasting several hours. To me, the best description comes from Reed himself: “I feel just like Jesus’ son.” Reed caught a lot of flack, some people saying that in his naked and uncommented portrayal of drug use he was implicitly glorifying it. It was a sin of omission at worst; I would wager that anyone tipped over into heroin addiction by this song was already too far gone.

The pairing of Nico and the VU might seem awkward and unnecessary, but it was worth it for the creation of a single 6 minute track. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is like a hazy specter, haunting and beautiful. Nico’s deep alto is the centerpiece of the song’s deadened plodding. John Cale’s relentless piano (complete with a chain of paperclips woven throughout the strings) and Lou Reed’s ostrich guitar (all 6 strings tuned to the same note in different octaves) work in perfect harmony with Nico’s non-histrionic voice, creating a sound that can’t be duplicated. There is so much magic here that it boggles the mind. Its subject matter is that the celebrity/high art/rich living lifestyle, which the Factory was a big part of, is ultimately empty and unfulfilling. Lou Reed was very good at self-examination, but not so good at self-improvement.

Nico’s other two contributions fall pretty flat. “Femme Fatale” is a song Andy Warhol asked Lou Reed to write about Factory superstar Edie Sedgwick, sung by another Factory superstar. Andy’s odyssey with Edie is the stuff of legend, and “Femme Fatale” is a fairly accurate portrait of her, as well as true to Andy’s perception of her. But the song itself is rather bland and unexciting. I think Nico’s voice is best used in a doomy, unsettling presentation, like “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the third Nico song on the record, are simply not that. They’re both little more than pop tunes, sterling though they may be. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is even one of Reed’s favorites; after Nico and the Velvets parted ways in late ’67, they performed the song imitating Nico’s German accent.

More about VU&N on Wednesday!