Dec 10, 2009

Why are we?

I’ve been obsessed with how many songs there are about American towns for a long time.

How long? Well I’d be tempted to say for as long as I can remember, but that would be silly. Except my memory isn’t what it was... so maybe it’s not that silly. But I’m sure my fascination with this musical tradition started before I was even aware that it was a tradition. As a teenage music fan I’d come across a song about some exotic-sounding city in the USA and I'd be intrigued. These places always sounded magical to my ears. Even if I had little or no idea what they were really like I’d be smitten with them. Sometimes a song would have been the first time I’d even heard of the place it was about. But that and the best efforts of British punk rock didn’t diminish the appeal of these distant metropoleis. (1) Even when I wasn’t sure if the place in question was a metropolis or a shit hole.

Back in the late 1970s I was a teenage muso and the highlight of any month would be a trip into town, on a bus to buy an LP. Actually, the trip back may have been the highlight, as it gave me a good 30 minutes to studiously analyse each record’s sleeve notes and track listing. And if I was really lucky... the lyrics too. I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of Baltimore before I bought Randy Newman’s Little Criminals (1977). If I’d seen the word Baltimore written down I might have guessed it was someplace somewhere, maybe in Ireland or Scotland, but I was pretty clueless I’m sure. Luckily the lyrics were printed on the back of that record, so before I’d even heard the song my imagination had been captured by this place which sounded like hell. Now, Manchester was a pretty grim place back in the late ‘70s but it seemed like paradise compared to the town Newman was singing about.

Hooker on the corner, Waitin' for a train
Drunk lyin' on the sidewalk, Sleepin' in the rain
And they hide their faces, And they hide their eyes
Cause the city's dyin', And they don't know why

The language was key of course. Sidewalks and hookers sounded exotic to me. Certainly more exotic than a pavement or a tart (as The Sweeney called them). And I’m pretty sure they would have sounded exotic to most teenage music fans in the UK at that time. In much the same way that the American songwriter Joe Pernice says words like ‘forecourt’ in Smiths’ songs sounded exotic to him. Still, since that day I’ve always wanted to go to Baltimore but when I tell Americans that I want to see Baltimore, they always ask why. At least they did before the success of the TV show The Wire, though that paints an equally grim picture of the city too, so I still have to explain myself. But I can’t really explain why because I’m not sure myself. Somehow I fell in love with some no doubt foolishly romantic idea of sleazy decaying towns. Maybe it was me, maybe it was Manchester (which was in a bad state of decay back then), or maybe I should just sue Newman.

That passion for songs about American cities and towns never left me and I started keeping a list. But there are so many songs that the list of places I wanted to see just kept getting bigger and bigger. Over 1200 songs and i know it's nowhere near complete. Still these songs have been calling to me. Especially the ones about places that I’d never heard of before or the ones that turned out to be about shitholes. New York and L.A. didn’t intrigue me half as much. Well, not until I heard songs about the underbellies of those towns. Take the song Straight Outta Compton (1998) by NWA, I still don’t understand how anyone can listen to that and not want to visit that neighbourhood. Though it seems I’m in a minority on that too.

But before I lead you into thinking I just want to go to bad ass places, remember how I said that i was intrigued by places that I'd never heard of before too. Well I also want to see the sleepy, boring, one horse towns in the middle of nowhere. Coastal towns they forgot to shut down and the soul sapping streets of suburbia. If a town inspired someone to write a song about it, and thats all I really know about that place then I want to go there. Places like Wichita, Mendocino, Lodi and Cincinnati. I mean who can resist a town called Twodot, Montana or Bald Knob, Arkansas. I even want to see the Tallahatchie Bridge that Billie MacAllister jumped off.

So this is blog will be a record of a trip into what I hope are the rarely seen but oh so common depths of the heart of America. I may not be Alan Lomax, but I’m game. Thankfully my wife Carol is game too. And if you’re game three then please do feel free to follow our journey here. Comments are always welcome, as are suggestions and even, if you’re so inclined, hospitality.

Muso Corner: I'm sure you all know Randy's version of Baltimore and Nina's too. But have you heard this cover by the late Billy MacKenzie. Pretty stunning.

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