An Essay on New York, By Someone Who Has Never Been to New York
The city's place in pop culture and music sprouts from a mythology that you can believe in, even if you’ve not visited.
Illustration by Jacob Read
There is New York the city, a geographical reality – a place you can fly to if you have the means, a place with TripAdvisor reviews to lead you to brunch spots and bars, a place with astronomical rent and dodgy illegal AirBnB hostels; and then there is New York, the idea.
I’ve never been to New York, but I’ve always wanted to go, the same way nearly everybody does. It was barely avoidable as an aspirational location for me when I was growing up in a tiny, grey Irish city. It starred in films I loved, TV shows I stayed up watching in secret, and especially in the songs I listened to alone in my room late on school nights, just me and my Argos stereo and that week’s CD.
There was a deal in my local record shop which gave you two albums for twenty quid – this was pre-internet for me, so I chose them almost at random, going by what names I vaguely recognised and which covers looked cool. I studied their liner notes and when I liked a particular one would do research on the rickety library computers to find out who they were similar to. The next week I would buy that band’s album, and so on and on in an incoherent matrix of guessed associations. In this manner I ended up with a fair amount of garbage, but it was also how I came to The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, Blondie and Patti Smith. It was how I began to build a picture in my mind of what New York was, how it would eventually become a place which held so much meaning for me without me ever going there.
Our experience of so much in life begins this way – we find clues in the culture we love, internalise that culture, gather it to ourselves greedily. It precedes our actual lived experience. Most of us learn the tune of heartbreak, of crushes and sex and misery, through albums and films, long before we experience any of these things in real time. So it is too with certain places, like New York. Its place in my mind is not based on what I know about it factually, or the experiences of my friends, or documentaries. It’s based on the many iterations of it I heard all through my life and quietly took to heart, keeping them safe for when I was finally able and ready to go, finally the kind of person who would get to go to New York – a person who, it turns out, I have still yet to become.
Meet Me in the Bathroom, Elizabeth Goodman’s oral history of the Strokes-era post-9/11 New York music scene, begins with a series of quotes from assorted musicians and hangers on discussing what New York meant to them. Jimi Goodwin of Doves describes its draw like this:
“We wrote a song called 'New York'. It was about New York as an idea. A place where anything is possible, a place where you can find complete artistic freedom. We wrote that song on a fucking Scottish island in the middle of nowhere, before we’d ever been to the city, that’s how powerful it is.”
The Strokes gave me my first impression of New York, and unfortunately left me with a semi-permanent attraction to malnourished rich boys with long hair and tight jackets. I bought Is This It and Room On Fire when I was 13, having been tipped off by a particularly with-it friend of my mother’s. I listened to them and listened to them and cut their pictures out of magazines and read reviews of their gigs once I figured out what blogs were. They seemed like a gang, they and the other bands they played with and the beautiful people who followed them around and fucked them. They were the beginning of how I came to perceive belonging, why I craved a “scene”, whatever that was. They were the beginning of associating partying with friendship, beauty with success, coolness with artistic merit. In New York, I imagined, I would be one of those people, the people other people want to photograph and document, the sheer glow of youth and abandon too dazzling to look away from.
It was nearly fatal for me, eventually, this way of thinking. When I left school and moved away, all I cared about was belonging to something that felt the way their scene had looked. I wanted to feel the raw energy I heard in their records. But I didn’t have their energy, or their talent, or their looks. I put on a performance of a person having a good time for several years too long. My life was entirely centred around what I did at night – the getting ready, the pre drinks, the bar, the photographs which would be taken there, who I went home with at the end. I had no other life than that, and despite sporadically and half-heartedly reviving my brief stint as a DJ, I couldn’t convince myself that it was legitimate to live that way. I knew somewhere inside me that I was merely putting on a poor show of imitating the enjoyment of others. The excess, the wildness, which looked so elegant and iconic on others began to look merely sad on me. My short lived stint as a party girl ended – my desire to be a beautiful young thing sapped, before I was yet 20.
I loathed Leonard Cohen as a child – I would scream and put my hands over my ears when my mother played him in the car – but when I was older, New Skin for the Old Ceremony worked its way into my rotation, probably nicked from the teetering wine-stained pile of albums kept in the kitchen. I fell in love with “Chelsea Hotel No 2”. I was old enough now for the startling sound of adulthood to be seductive rather than alienating.
I could hear the clatter and hum of the streets outside, could feel the stagnant summer air in the room implied by that line “giving me head on the unmade bed”. I could feel with such precision the feeling of having sex with someone you were not in love with in a room neither of you lived in, in New York City, in 1974. I wept along, moved and fascinated, to the keening ambivalence in his voice when he sings “I need you / I don’t need you”.
I wanted so badly to be in love then, or what I thought of as love – really what I wanted were the things Chelsea Hotel describes. I wanted sexual encounters and melancholy and friendship. I wanted to be young and talented and confused in a big city.
The actual Chelsea Hotel, like the Chateau Marmont and like New York itself, is a real place which stands in to mean more than itself individually, becoming a synonym for a particular feeling. Jeffrey Lewis's great “The Chelsea Hotel Song" explores the inevitable disassociation between places like these and their blurry, iconic idealised versions. In it, he is walking by the Chelsea Hotel and has the sort of sexy spontaneous flirtatious encounter with a woman – the kind of thing which seems to only happen in films – but is too awkward and embarrassed to pursue it. Here, we see the inevitable gulf between fantasy and reality, our undeniable, schlubby humanity always arriving to remind us that we are not in the song.
In February I heard the song “Colour Green” by Sibylle Baier, by mistake. I was lying in bed, falling asleep, in a bedroom I wasn’t sure how to pay the rent on. I had left London in 2016 for an autumn in Greece and a winter in Ireland. When I returned in the new year, I was afraid. I had never figured out how to survive in London, on a practical level as well as most others. That was a part of why I had left, and nothing had been resolved in the leaving.
It was bitterly cold the week I moved back, and the French doors in my bedroom, which would never quite shut completely, rattled and howled. I lay there running through various bills I didn’t know how to pay, and anxiously considering various people I wasn’t quite sure if I was dating. I was half-listening to a Karen Dalton album on Spotify and when it ended Sibylle Baier started playing. She sang, in a voice whose sadness was as perfectly calm and clear as a still pool:
“I’d been a girl and one dream / frequented my late afternoon / saw me in New York City / wearing a sweater colour green / so one night I sat down on a chair, and knitted there” – and then a yearning sigh: “Hmm-mmm” which marks the end of each verse. The song is all delicate, crushing nostalgia, torn notes to lovers and fragments of half-recalled drunken parties which accumulate over time and come to mean a city. It’s the sadness and exhaustion of living in a place that people leave all the time to live elsewhere. It’s the joy of friendships which sometimes manage to weather the constant flux and recur unexpectedly:
“He wrote to me, 'Woman, I’d like to stay / Liberty Statue has got so many stairs / but when you need help I will be there'”
When I looked up Sibylle Baier, shocked I had never heard something so obviously brilliant and beautiful, I found that she had home-recorded the songs in the early 70s in Germany and never released them nor pursued a music career. Over 30 years later her son had uncovered them and compiled them on a CD. Although she would eventually move to the US, by the time she recorded “Colour Green”, Baier had never been to New York.
That’s why “Colour Green” is, for me, the perfect New York song – it’s the construction of internal fantasies which take on their own life. It’s pure distilled nostalgia for a place never visited, a time never lived through. It’s proof that the things we build inside of ourselves can be as real as experience. It’s the New York assembled from film stills and postcards and melodies, the one you can never quite touch, and in that way it becomes all cities. When Baier sings “The city has changed me / I am no longer the same”, she is singing for all of them.
You can find Megan on Twitter.