Monday, January 20, 2014

Take the "A" Train

“Bad money chases out good.”
Gresham’s Law

I believe that a version of Gresham’s Law operates in areas other than finance. Take music: the joyous, exhilarating song by Leonard Bernstein (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics) composed originally for the Broadway show On The Town  (1944) and later incorporated in the Hollywood version (1949) entitled “New York, New York” has been eclipsed in popular culture by the inferior composition of the same name written by John Kander and Fred Ebb for Liza Minelli to croak in the movie called New York, New York (1977). (It subsequently became even more famous because of Frank Sinatra’s doing—completing a triad of fake seriousness with his versions of “That’s Life” and “My Way.”) The song is a veritable Hummer, that massive, threatening beast of a vehicle, as bloated as its iconic owner—Arnold Schwarzenegger.

From the very first insidiously insistent drumming into our heads of Dum Dum De Dum Dum, Min/Sin’s “New York, New York” attempts to divert us from the fact that the song has nothing to do with the city of its title. Not one specific street, monument, or activity is cited. The song refers to “a city that never sleeps,” but that’s more applicable to Las Vegas. Indeed, Las Vegas would seem to be the appropriate destination for the steroidic self-important “I” of the song--dress him/her up in some combination of leather, lycra, and spangles.

(“For what it’s worth, the feeling here has long been that this number is less about the city than about a self-involved out-of-towner who wants to be ‘king of the hill, top of the heap’ yada yada yada”—Clyde Haberman, New York Times, May 22, 2012).

It is appropriate that the song is associated with Minelli and Sinatra; it combines the cockiness of Frank (“I’ll make a brand new start of it/In old New York”) with Liza-with-a-Z’s neediness and helplessness (“It's up to you, New York..New York”).

Me. Me, Me—but you gotta do it for me!
By contrast, the original “New York, New York” celebrates the title city—that “helluva town”--and cites specific places and activities: “The Bronx is up, but the Battery’s down/The people ride in a hole in the groun’.”

And other songwriters also get specific: Billy Joel gives us the New York Times and the Daily News, Riverside and Chinatown in “A New York State of Mind.” In “I Happen to Like New York” Cole Porter revels in, among other things, “the Easter Show at the Music Hall . .  . pastrami on rye at the Carnegie Deli . . . Madison Square for a Friday night fight . . . a walk along Broadway to guest at the lights . . . Carnegie Hall.”
But probably the ultimate New York song is “Manhattan,” composed by two New Yorkers, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. This song is not about bloated egotism; it’s a love song about “We” not “I”-- “We'll have Manhattan,/The Bronx and Staten/Island too.” The couple will visit the zoo and Coney Island and “Greenwich,/ Where modern men itch/To be free.” Like the sailors of On The Town, they take the subway, which “charms us so/When balmy breezes blow/To and fro.” Yes, even the negatives are part of the delight of the city. The true New York song has fun with the city and the stereotypes about it; the language, for example—“The city's clamor can never spoil/The dreams of a boy and goil.”

As Cole Porter wrote: “I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it.”

True New York songs, like the lovers of Rodgers and Hart, "turn Manhattan/into an isle of joy!"

It’s bad enough for Bernstein, Comden, and Green that their helluva song about a helluva town has had its rightful place as a signature New York anthem usurped by an interloper of no artistic value, but to add insult to injury, if you Google “New York, New York lyrics Bernstein, Comden, Green” (or variations thereof), you are liable to end up at a website that attributes the “spreading the news” nonsense to them! Or you might find this:

“’A brand new start of it in old New York’ was lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green's promise in the 1944 musical On The Town.”
Ronald Holden, Oct. 10, 2012,, Seattle WA.
But, then, the writer was 3,000 miles away in the Pacific Northwest. Let’s hope he suffers from “little town blues.”