When I read that one of the Bush daughters was going to be spending this summer in the city taking courses at N.Y.U., it made me start thinking about my own first summer in the city, taking courses at N.Y.U. at night, pushing a hand truck in the garment center during the day. I hadn’t read that Jenna Bush’s plans include pushing a hand truck, but I know my experience-night school, that street job, summer in the city-were what made me feel for the first time like a native New Yorker. It made me start thinking about summer songs, New York songs, and what makes one a “native New Yorker.”
Just the other day at the Observer office, in the plush, Zen-like, feng shui–designed Contemplation Room where we get to think the Big Thoughts on behalf of our readers, (it’s next door to the Snarky Comments Lounge, but I don’t go there ), several of us were discussing the question of just how one defines “native New Yorker.” Must one be literally born here, or is it required that one at least grow up here, or can one become “native” after moving here , as in the schlocky “New York, New York,” which some are promoting as the new New York anthem. ( Please : put it beside the sweet, soaring beauty of The Drifters’ “Up on the Roof,” or the adrenalized romantic hunger of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train,” two of the greatest New York songs, and it collapses into an ugly little puddle of self-regard. Give me the rueful humility of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” any day.)
But to return to the who’s-a-native-New Yorker question, take my case, for instance. I was born in Manhattan, or at least a Manhattan hospital, removed to my grandparents’ place to Queens (postwar housing shortage) and thence, as an infant, carried off to a Long Island suburb (which I’m perversely proud of-see my controversial Times Magazine take, “The Devil in Long Island,” reprinted in The Secret Parts of Fortune ). I only moved back to my birthplace after college. So anyway, does this make me a “native New Yorker” or not?
I don’t think so, even though “native” comes from the same root as “natal,” so I guess I could claim native status on the basis of my birth certificate. But when asked, I usually tell people that I was born in Manhattan but grew up in Long Island. And it wasn’t until that hand-truck, night-school summer that I first began to feel like a native New Yorker.
Let me explain the circumstances of that first summer. I had flunked a freshman-year course at Yale that took a lot of hard work to flunk. It was the “Directed Studies” version of physics-or “Physics for Poets,” as it was called-in which I paid heavily for not having paid attention in high-school calculus class. But it was mainly that I stopped going to class because I’d fallen in love-with a novel. I refused to study for the physics finals in order to read all 800 pages of The Sot-Weed Factor in one long caffeinated jag. (I think I’ve said this before, but this is the John Barth masterpiece he wrote before he fell into the sad, sterile trap of “metafiction,” whose practitioners endlessly and leadenly get their knickers in a twist over the fact that fiction is, like, just a story , man, it’s not real -it’s, you know, all fictional . And the most important thing is to ceaselessly remind readers of that.)
But I still love The Sot-Weed Factor , and I want to see my readers make those Amazon numbers climb as you send off for it-after you finish this column, of course. It’s the great, over-stuffed, pure-pleasure comic American epic. And those of you who have thanked me for introducing them to Charles Portis’ The Dog of the South , another pure pleasure (add it to your shopping cart if you haven’t read it yet), will be equally grateful once they get lost in The Sot-Weed Factor .
Anyway, with the help of The Sot-Weed Factor I succeeded in failing at “Physics for Poets,” and so it was in the Summer of ’65 that I ended up making up my lost credits, taking night classes and occupying a bunk bed in N.Y.U.’s Joe Weinstein dorm. That’s the one a few steps from Washington Square, where you could step outside and almost hear the echoes of the ad hoc doo-wop groups under the vault of the Washington Square arch. (Another candidate for the true New York anthem: the doo-wop classic “Gloria”; you know, the one where the word “Gloria” is stretched out-tortured-on the melodic/harmonic rack until it takes on the tormented magnificence of a Gregorian chant: “Gloria” in excelsis . In fact, I’d say knowledge and appreciation of the glories of the doo-wop “Gloria” (not the other “Gloria,” the Shadows of Knight/Them “Gloria,” great as it is, and certainly not the disco “Gloria” of the 80′s), a song that can still be heard being warbled by descendants of the original ad hoc doo-wop groups on downtown summer streets today, counts more than whether you were born here toward determining whether you’re a true “native New Yorker.”
Anyway, I managed to miss a lot that was going on in that summer, the Summer of ’65, but I blundered into a couple of things. I saw Dylan at Forest Hills when he introduced “Desolation Row” (which is my secret dark-horse candidate- very dark-for New York anthem. Come on: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging …. ” That’s my New York State of Mind. But more of that later).
And I learned how to say that great distillation of all New York Wisdom-” Watch your back! “-with hand-truck-wielding authority in the garment center. (Although the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” comes close, no one has written the great New York song that has “Watch your back” in the chorus. “Baby Got Back” is a whole other thing).
But one of the most important things I learned about New York was the importance of the summer song. The song on the airwaves and in the air that summer, the song that defined that summer for me and more than a few others, was “Mr. Tambourine Man”-the Byrds’ seductive electric version of the Dylan songwriting break-through which was a surprisingly big radio hit, the kind that was handed off to you from the window of a passing car, wafted out from the open doors of a steamy laundromat, the open window of a tenement basement, competed with the sound of the waves at Coney Island, blasted out a transistor radio hanging from the handle of a hand truck: “In the jingle-jangle morning” it came following you. (See my piece in the May 28, 2001, Observer for an explanation of how Dylan once defined for me, in an interview, the precise meaning of the “jingle-jangle morning.” )
Anyway, this is the classic definition of a summer song: the one that’s always in the air no matter where you go. Although-if I could digress-there are other categories in the summer-song taxonomy.
There are songs that have the word “summer” in title: “Summer in the City”; Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer”; Eddie Cochran’s immortal “Summertime Blues”; “Boys of Summer,” recently remade by the Ataris with the “Deadhead sticker” line updated to “Black Flag sticker” on the Cadillac-a smart move that makes it a candidate for song of this summer.
Then there are songs that evoke summer: the whole genre of “beach music,” of course, and recently I heard someone call Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” a summer song. It’s a stretch, but I think there’s merit to it, even though it begins with “Hey where did we go / Days when the rains came …. ” Those are summer rains.
Then there are songs that can become summer songs that have nothing to do with summer, except for the fact that they inscribed themselves on your soul during some summer. For me, those would include Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears,” the latter of which was played over and over again by some fellow suffering soul across the air shaft from me in the Joe Weinstein dorm that summer. (Catch it again on the soundtrack of Hollywood Homicide .) There’s Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” And my friend Garland Jeffreys’ classic “Wild in the Streets.” (He’s playing at the Village Underground on June 28; don’t miss a great native New Yorker singer-songwriter.)
But “Mr. Tambourine Man” was a summer song of the classic type-the air play, passing-car, laundromat, tenement-window, hand-truck-transistor type. Was it just my imagination, or was that whole summer a summer of extraordinary summer music? In fact, this is more than a purely subjective, haze-of-nostalgia judgment. I just happen to have one of the most valuable reference works to be found for a buck at the Strand: a treasured compendium of pop-culture wisdom, The All Music Book of Hit Singles: Top Twenty Charts from 1954 to the Present Day . (“Fully Revised and Updated”- well, to 1996). It’s a month-by-month listing of both U.K and U.S. Top 20 singles charts and a surprisingly sensitive cultural barometer that allows you to capture a single heartbeat in time. Someone wasting his time in a cultural-studies program should do a Ph.D. thesis on hit singles as a key to unlock the American soul.
One of the things I’m ashamed to admit among rock sophisticates is that I have a Top 40′s single sensibility; I have esoteric literary taste, but a really low-brow musical sensibility. Or, anyway, lowest-common-denominator sensibility. But it’s also one of the things I’m most secretly pleased about: It makes me feel I’m really in sync with the collective unconscious of the culture. Lowest-common-denominator taste is something you’re born with; you can’t acquire it.
And, in fact, there are times when the lowest common denominator is pure genius. Take a look at what The All Music Book of Hit Singles almanac tells us were the Top 10 hits in the U.S. that summer, June of 1965:
1) “Wooly Bully,” Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Much derided at the time-much derided now-still I feel those of us with a soft spot for it will be vindicated by history.
2) “I Can’t Help Myself,” the Four Tops. You know, it’s the one that begins with “Sugar-pie honey-bunch.” A little over-ripe compared with spare Tops classics like “Ask the Lonely” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” but a good beach sound.
3) “Crying in the Chapel,” Elvis Presley. It’s really hard to defend this particular Elvis, but if he never did songs like this, would he have done a classic like “Hurt”?
4) “Back in My Arms Again,” the Supremes. Still a small miracle, never bettered though occasionally equaled. (My undying Supremes fave, in case you’re dying to know: “Someday We’ll be Together.”) I remember it echoing down the rusty shafts of garment center freight elevators all summer long: “Flo, she don’t know / ‘Cause the boy she loves is a Romeo.” Everybody was crazy about it, and rightly so.
5) “Help Me, Rhonda.” Killer Beach Boys at the very peak of their unself-conscious (pre–”Pet Sounds”) perfection. “Help Me, Rhonda”-the song, the situation, the philosophy helped me more times than I wish to acknowledge.
6) “Mr. Tambourine Man.” See, I wasn’t making it up. If it was No. 6 nationally, you have to feel it nosed out “Crying in the Chapel” in New York.
7) “Wonderful World,” Herman’s Hermits. I can’t remember this at all . Was it a remake of the irresistible Sam Cooke classic? If so, the sacrilege must have blanked it out of my memory banks. Must investigate further. (Turns out it was.)
8) “Ticket to Ride,” the Beatles. Amazing: This is months after its release. People loved it so much they couldn’t let go of it.
9) “Engine Engine #9,” Roger Miller. O.K., they can’t all be classics. It’s too bad Roger Miller-a genuinely talented country singer-songwriter-only crossed over with stuff like this.
10) “Just a Little,” the Beau Brummels. Wow! I’m so glad this sneaked in. The Beau Brummels were a kind of American Brit-pop folk-rock fusion-I’d call them the American Badfinger. (Anyone remember Badfinger’s “Baby Blue”?) “Just a Little” really worked because of the genre-transcending sneering voice of Sal Valentino. Great driving song.
11) I can’t resist adding this to the Top 10: No. 11 that month, the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love.” Eric Clapton on his way to becoming God. Come on!
Anyway, the music was the high point of the summer. After work, I’d hang out with my fellow hand-truck workers at the Wakamba Lounge on Eighth Avenue and feel very grown-up drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon. (The Wakamba is still there, by the way!)
And then I’d go downtown and try to find the Underground. I knew it was there, but I just sought it in the wrong places. I sought it in the Cedar Tavern, as I once confessed in these pages, because I thought it was the then-defunct Cedar Bar , which once had the Abstract Expressionist crowd. The Cedar Tavern had great burgers. (Still does.) Then I sought it in the Dom on St. Mark’s Place, which had preceded the Electric Circus, but it was a year too soon to catch the Velvet Underground there. I sought it in the Joe Weinstein dorm-and don’t laugh, because it was there I actually found something. On a bulletin board.
A woman was advertising an extra ticket to Dylan at Forest Hills. I wasn’t a huge Dylanophile at the time. But I’d seen him, the summer before, when he made a guest appearance at a Joan Baez concert in Forest Hills, and (as I recall) he did a version of one the purest, most hauntingly sad and beautiful songs Dylan’s ever done: “Boots of Spanish Leather.” It’s sort of a life-changing song because it makes you want to be in that state of emotion, however piercingly sad, all the time. Kids, don’t try it at home.
But I was still more of a rock than a folk type; I actually preferred the Byrds’ electric radio-hit version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” to the Dylan acoustic. (Roger McGuinn always does the best Dylan covers, doesn’t he? If you don’t believe me, listen to his version of “Up to Me”-the song tragically left off Blood on the Tracks -on McGuinn’s Cardiff Rose ).
But when I saw a ticket was available to Dylan’s first post-Newport electric appearance in New York-and that the girl selling the ticket was a beret-wearing bohemian goddess-I couldn’t pass up the chance. So I was there when Dylan first unleashed “Desolation Row” in his opening acoustic set.
It made up for everything-failing physics, the Joe Weinstein dorm-cell, the getting the whole Cedar Bar thing wrong. So many great lines in that song: In addition to the opening one about “selling postcards of the hanging,” there was the presence of Romeo and Albert Einstein in the same song. There was “Everybody’s making love, or else expecting rain.” There was the Titanic sailing at dawn with Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot “fighting in the captain’s tower.” All done in a sly, mocking, irresistibly seductive, unpretentious way. I’d never heard anything like that in my life, and probably never will again-at least not for the first time.
I recall recently getting into a discussion with some friends over the stuffed cabbage at the Second Avenue Deli (our Cedar Bar): What was the moment in American culture when modernism came to an end and postmodernism began? I had defined it as the moment in literature between the publication of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor , which was about history in the largest sense, and the publication of John Barth’s next novel, Giles Goat-Boy , which was about graduate school in the saddest sense. (Yeah, I know: Graduate school is a metaphor for the world-which could serve as a definition of postmodernism, come to think of it). My friend Daniel Kunitz had defined it as the moment in art when minimalism became conceptualism.
But I think it was Christopher Ricks, the great Brit lit-crit savant, a T.S. Eliot, Keats and Milton specialist (and Dylanophile), who pointed to that scene in “Desolation Row” that’s set in the captain’s tower of the Titanic . It was “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot,” icons of modernism, going down with modernism’s sinking ship. The moment modernism foundered! Dylan had seen it coming; he had seen the iceberg of postmodernism up ahead. He had captured the moment. And I had been there to hear it. “Desolation Row” was a great downtown, downbeat New York anthem, as well. And a great summer song for those of us with truly wintry souls.
Jenna Bush should be so lucky this summer. Maybe she’ll witness the death of postmodernism.