New York City Serenade

When I was a kid, my family would spend a couple of weeks every summer with my aunt, uncle and cousins at their place on Long Beach Island, New Jersey.  On our visit late in the summer of 1975, my cousins were all abuzz about a new album by one of their favorite musicians, Bruce Springsteen.  I was clueless.  Springsteen had released two albums in 1973 and, as I later learned, while he had a passionate local following, he hadn’t yet broken through to mainstream, commercial success.  His release of August 1975, Born To Run, did the trick.  Indeed, two months later, he landed on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazine in the same week.  My cousins had apparently known a good thing when they heard it.

Bruce Springsteen was on the cover of both Time and Newsweek the same week (October 27, 1975 issues)

I, however, remained resistant to Springsteen’s gravitational pull until I was a freshman in college, when a musically savvy housemate (thank you, LFH!) turned me on to his entire oeuvre up to that point (by this time he’d added a fourth album to his discography).  I was especially drawn to his second album, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.

1973_thewild_alb
I remember sometimes trying to strike this same pensive pose…what was I thinking?  I would never be as cool as Bruce.

One of my all-time favorite Springsteen songs, “New York City Serenade”, is on this album…the third, and final, track on the second side.  It’s a song filled with characters: Billy, Diamond Jackie, fish lady, corner boys, vibes man, jazz man, sharp boy…denizens of the urban scenes depicted throughout the album.  In a 2014 Rolling Stone article, Andy Greene wrote that “Anyone that claims to fully understand the meaning of “New York City Serenade” is either lying or delusional.”  I would argue that the meaning isn’t important, though; it’s the music and the mood that matter.  In fact, one wouldn’t be wrong to characterize this song as a mood piece.

So what do I find beautiful in this meandering, nearly 10-minute long song (Springsteen’s longest studio recording)?  A lot, and much of it is heard in David Sancious’ piano playing throughout, starting with his virtuosic opening…there’s truly nothing like this is all of Springsteen.  Sancious starts us off strumming the piano’s strings with a guitar pick, before setting both hands on the keys and unspooling a jazz and blues-inflected intro, landing a gorgeous chord at 1:32.  (Sancious is also responsible for the lush ‘strings’ you hear throughout the song.  There were no violinists in the recording studio; the sounds were produced by an electronic instrument called a Mellotron).

Springsteen strums in on acoustic guitar at 1:37 and pretty much immediately, at 1:42-4, bends a note that never fails to slay me (I will always and forever be slayed by a well-bent note).  I love Springsteen’s delivery of two lines in particular (highlighted in blue in the lyrics below): the hipsterish mumble of ‘or baby don’t walk at all’ and the harsh whisper of ‘They ain’t got no money’.  (It was always very important to sing along with those two lines in particular).  Clarence Clemons and his sax join in at 4:30 and we’re now fully within the world of this song, a rough and tumble landscape that offers up its own form of harsh beauty.

I’m not sure how best to characterize what it is Springsteen does starting at around the 9:15 mark.  It’s barely audible, a kind of wordless humming/sighing/singing…I lean in for it every time.  Maybe you will too.

Billy, he’s down by the railroad tracks
Sittin’ low in the back seat of his Cadillac
Diamond Jackie, she’s so intact
As she falls so softly beneath him
Jackie’s heels are stacked
Billy’s got cleats on his boots
Together they’re gonna boogaloo down Broadway and come back home with the loot
It’s midnight in Manhattan, this is no time to get cute
It’s a mad dog’s promenade
So walk tall or baby don’t walk at all

Fish lady, oh fish lady
She baits them tenement walls
She won’t take corner boys
They ain’t got no money
And they’re so easy
I said “Hey, baby
Won’t you take my hand
Walk with me down Broadway
Well mama take my arm and move with me down Broadway”
I’m a young man, I talk it real loud
Yeah babe I walk it real proud for you
Ah so shake it away
So shake away your street life
Shake away your city life
Hook up to the train
And hook up to the night train
Hook it up
Hook up to the train
But I know that she won’t take the train, no she won’t take the train
Oh she won’t take the train, no she won’t take the train
Oh she won’t take the train, no she won’t take the train
Oh she won’t take the train, no she won’t take the train
She’s afraid them tracks are gonna slow her down
And when she turns this boy’ll be gone
So long, sometimes you just gotta walk on, walk on

Hey vibes man, hey jazz man, play me your serenade
Any deeper blue, you’ll be playin’ in your grave
Save your notes, don’t spend ’em on the blues boy
Save your notes, don’t spend ’em on the darlin’ yearlin’ sharp boy
Straight for the church note ringin’, vibes man sting a trash can
Listen to your junk man
Listen to your junk man
Listen to your junk man
He’s singin’, he’s singin’, he’s singin’
All dressed up in satin, walkin’ past the alley
He’s singin’, singin’, singin’, singin’

springsteen-and-sancious
Springsteen and Sancious

Trivia tidbit: Given how politically engaged Springsteen would go on to be, it’s ironic that The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle was released on 11 September 1973, the day that Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown by coup d’état, paving the way for the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

12 comments

  • Lovelovelovelovelove. Interestingly, I first heard about Bruce from my older, cooler cousin as well. She brought The Wild, the Innocent, etc. to my grandmother’s house one Easter and played Rosalita. Didn’t quite get it then either, but a couple of years later, when I borrowed my friend Patti’s copy of Born to Run— I sat transfixed in my family’s living room, devouring every word and every note. I will always be grateful that when BTR came out, I was a 16 year old living on the East coast, driving around with my friends, blasting Born to Run when it came on the radio and singing at the top of our smoky lungs.

    The Wild, the Innocent… was an acquired taste for me, but I am so glad I stuck around for that second side. Adore the songs that bookend Rosalita— and you MUST have first heard those songs in my room because I feel the same way about the same lines! I love how BS is more like an actor in that piece and how you get an immediate sense of time and place and who these people are and how they think.

    Gonna go give it another listen right now— and remember…

    Thanks Jeanno!
    (Btw, do you remember that you gave me a drawing of the cover for–I believe– one of my birthdays?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • How fitting that you’re the first person to comment on this post! All is as it should be. I hadn’t listened to the song in some time, but did so multiple times while writing this. It’s just intoxicating. I would love it if someone who’s never heard it before does so here for the first time and feels something close to what I do when I listen to it. Probably too much to hope for, but who knows…

      And yes, I do, indeed, remember that drawing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It can be a tough song to be ‘intoxicated’ by on first listen. But, yeah— it would be cool if that song captured someone else’s imagination the way it did ours.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’re right. I’m sure I wasn’t intoxicated on first listen. My initial response was probably more along the lines of, “What’s a fish lady…?” 🙂

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  • One of my roommates in med school was from Jersey City and as such was an avid Springsteen fan. His records (yes the old fashioned vinyl kind) were often playing. We referred to it as “Bruce juice in the morning”

    Liked by 1 person

  • My Springsteen started with Born To Run, and though I knew about the earlier albums, I’d never heard them…

    So used am I to reading (not listening) in blog city, that I almost missed the modest sound bar mid-post. But I didn’t…

    Loved the intro. Have loved strummed piano strings ever since the opening of “Take a Pebble”…

    Love the mellotron. They sound like strings until you focus, then this slight wooziness is audible; a marvellous combination of the technical and the organic. I saw one in a shop in Melbourne last week and wanted to hug it…

    Loved the gospel chorus of “Oh she won’t take the train, no she won’t take the train”; kind of a musical non-sequitur but it works.

    Enjoyed the ebbing and flowing of the (almost*) stream of consciousness vocals. Reminded me of Van Morrison at his best.
    * Except I think this is abstract story-telling and the works are well and truly crafted; there’s a flow and glitter of half seen night-time images that I can’t believe just popped out.

    Thanks for the trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bruce, I may need to hijack your descriptor, ‘a flow and glitter of half seen night-time images’ for a future post….fabulous! The first two albums are must listens. You won’t regret it.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Hey, Bean — I’m catching up!

    I remember your love for Springsteen from freshman year, and (am I remembering right?) Billy Joel and that NY state of mind he had. Meanwhile, my newfound love for the B52s seemed to confuse you. “Pink air? No one has a head?”

    Thanks for the moments of beauty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, MPV: can I tell you how happy your comment has made me?! Thanks for making the effort to catch up…truly.
      And yes, Billy Joel rated back in the day. (He still does; I did an earlier post about one his songs from his Piano Man album). You’re right, I didn’t get the B-52s back then. Planet Claire? Rock Lobster? What the…?!&%#$? 🙂 You also introduced me to Kate Bush (did a post on her, too). All of those college-era musical introductions were very influential…

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      • My musical influence coming into college was my older brother Steve, so it was all Talking Heads, B-52s, The Fools, Elvis Costello, etc. I didn’t know anything about Billy Joel or Springsteen before you. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Frank. The song got under my skin the first time I heard it and has remained there! Interesting to speculate how the E Street Band’s sound might have evolved had Sancious remained a member….

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