We all play that beloved little parlor game about what is the most classic “New York movie,” don’t we? Whether the filmmaker is Woody or Spike or Scorsese or someone else, we have our particular favorites that somehow scream NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Ah, New York, New York ...
Which, by the way, serves as the perfect lead-in for another topic of great debate: What might be the vintage New York pop songs? There are numerous contenders. With apologies to Cole Porter and many other brilliant lyricists, I’m putting boundaries on this presentation and restricting it to more modern pop songs. We have to have some rules! Chances are, you’ll invariably nod in agreement and simultaneously shake your head in disgust at my offerings. Feel free to let me know where I’ve done well – and gone astray.
10) “At the Zoo” by Paul Simon (1968): Queens native Paul Simon will grace this list many times. “At the Zoo” is New York. It could take place nowhere else, really, as Simon writes lovingly of a crosstown bus trip to the zoo in Central Park.
9) “New York Serenade” by Bruce Springsteen. The great romantic songwriter of the 1970s hailed from Freehold, N.J., but he clearly had a restless love affair with the metropolis across the river. Many of Bruce’s melodramatic songs, such as “Lost in the Flood” and Jungleland” also reveal his frrp feelings but I’ll go with “Incident.”
8) “Feelin Groovy” by Paul Simon (1967) – Not for nothing is this song known as “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” Only a diehard could find poetry in that bridge, which leads to Manhattan and unlocks the dreams of a semi-suburban kid like Simon.
7) “Hard Times in New York Town” and “Talkin New York” by Bob Dylan (1961): Oh yeah, him. The city’s poet laureate of the early 1960s. You didn’t think Dylan would escape the list, now, did you? This captures Dylan’s wide-eyed astonishment with the city he arrived in on Jan. 24, 1961, famously, and alone, during a wicked snowstorm. Anybody who comes to New York for the first time can echo his wonderment.
6) “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Paul Simon (1969): Though intended to be a message to Garfunkel, a singer who at the time apparently fancied himself as something of a movie star, Simon projected his alienation in this song. By the way, when Simon and Garfunkel had their first splash of fame in the late 1950s, they went by the name of Tom and Jerry. In this song, Simon reaches out to “Tom” in the first line. Honorable Mention: “My Little Town,” Simon’s song from 1975, on which he and his estranged singing pal Garfunkel joined forces on Simon’s album, “Still Crazy After All These Years.” And: “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” (1973), Simon’s witty homage to Julio, the Queen of Corona and every schoolyard he ever saw.
5) “New York City” by John Lennon (1972): This raucous love song to Lennon’s then-recently adopted city underscores great affection for the town’s untamed wildness and the unimaginable artistic possibilities it offered a newcomer from London. It tells the story of his and Yoko’s arrival in New York in late 1971.
4) “New York, New York” (1977), music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb: I’ll always associate this song with the public-address system at Yankee Stadium, which blared it out seconds after the Bronx Bombers recorded the last out in a victory, during the team’s glory days. Frank Sinatra, of course, made it his own even though Liza Minelli originated the vocal for the disappointing Scorsese film, “New York, New York.”
3) “Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell (1966): You don’t automatically associate Joni with New York City, do you? When thinking, however, of the mood of what it is like to be in the city as a visitor from somewhere far away (Canada? LA?), Joni got it right – and right down to the reference to the pigeons! (I only hope she was singing about New York and not London.)
2) “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” (1969) by Harry Nilsson: Overshadowed over time by Nilsson’s star-making turn as the singer of Fred Neil’s popular song “Everybody’s Talkin’” for the film “Midnight Cowboy,” this tune is the perfect anthem for the town. The title alone tells it all. It was also the ideal soundtrack to one of the great New York stories of 1969: the Miracle Mets’ improbable World Series victory that October over the Baltimore Orioles.
1) “The Boxer” by Paul Simon (1969): Paul Simon never confirmed that he wrote this tune with Bob Dylan in mind. (People speculated that Dylan was one of the “ragged people” mentioned in the song and that the “whores on Seventh Avenue” referred to Columbia Records, Dylan’s long-time music label. The plot thickens because Dylan recorded a version of “The Boxer” on his “Self-Portrait” album in 1970). But it easily could’ve been somewhat autobiographical as well. How many folks who came to New York to strike it rich quickly pondered leaving? New York is not easy, whether you have billions or holes in your shoes. Most important, “The Boxer” just SOUNDS like a New York classic.