Songs about cities often fall into one of two categories. They can be a celebration of the place and most big cities – New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Rome, San Francisco-have such musical tributes. However, they can also cast the place in the role of mammon, leading the virtuous astray and wearing them down till they escape back to a simpler life - Do you Know the Way to San Jose?, Going Back to Country Living, Midnight Train to Georgia.
I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City brings another slant. At face value the song can seem a positive, start-of-a-hopeful journey take on New York. ‘I say goodbye to all my sorrows.... For the first time I’ll be free in New York City’. It appears to paint the historical view of New York as a beacon of opportunity, its Statue of Liberty welcoming the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
However, when you know that the song was written and sung by Harry Nilsson for Midnight Cowboy – though eventually dropped in favour of Everybody’s Talkin’ – it takes on a different meaning. It is not a celebration, neither is it a dream of escape back to a previous world. It is a song of arrival, not departure, but it reflects an optimism that the listener knows is misplaced.
The understanding of it, therefore, is mediated through another experience: knowing how Midnight Cowboy ends. In the same way, any visitor to New York has their view and perspective on it mediated by images received in countless films, TV shows, songs. People think they know what New York is like and, often, look to find what they expect or hope to see. Not just the standard tourist sights of the Empire State Building or Central Park but the smaller everyday sights – a big yellow taxi, a fire hydrant going off in the street, a large traffic cop with an Irish accent, a sign saying ‘Entering Queens’. All things glimpsed countless times in the course of any number of dramas, cop shows and comedies set in New York.
It is even tempting to take that imagery one step further and consciously replay films or songs in your mind as you go round the streets of the city. Wasn’t that Central Park Fountain featured in Enchanted? I am sure I remember seeing Kojak lay out a murder scene just there. Hey, I’m on Jones Street in Greenwich Village - surely Bob Dylan and Suzie Rotolo will be coming into view at any minute.
Because of why I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City was written, and because of its musical similarity to Everybody’s Talkin’, the imagery I remembered whilst walking through Times Square was drawn not just from Midnight Cowboy itself but from a memory of seeing that film for the first time, a time when I had never been to New York. My impressions were being formed long before I actually arrived there and Times Square thus appeared almost as a movie set come to life.
The song was eventually used in a movie - You’ve Got Mail. For me, however, it was the film it didn’t appear in that was the more significant for the prism through which I viewed New York.
Link to song