On my first trip to New York I spent an idle moment trying to compose an email consisting of names of songs about the place. It started off something like, ‘I am an Englishman in New York, having arrived in Manhattan by a Big Yellow Taxi to stay in the apartment of a Native New Yorker. Looking over the Manhattan Skyline, however, I realise I am not The Only Living Boy in New York...’. It didn’t progress much further. However, it did make me think about the significance of names here. The subject of the last column – Harlem - is, of course, part of Manhattan but the names themselves carry a very different set of associations : rather as, in London, Soho signifies something different from the larger area of Westminster.
Perhaps more than any other part of New York, just the name ‘Manhattan’ carries before it a history of images from songs, films and TV, images that were cinematically summarised in the opening credits of Woody Allen’s Manhattan as Rhapsody in Blue plays. These have become so pervasive that it has become hard to separate reality and myth, perhaps not surprising given the importance of the advertising industry there However, the generic picture that has persisted seems to hark back to a specific ‘golden age’, roughly from post - WW2 to the mid-sixties. It is the Manhattan of Madison Avenue and Mad Men; of Holly Golightly and Breakfast at Tiffany’s; of Frank Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours of the Morning that has lingered in the popular imagination, rather than, say, the Manhattan of Wall Street and the 1980’s.
It is the triumph of a mythical era in the UK as much as the USA itself: hence the popularity of Mad Men or the peculiar success of the various Rat Pack Experiences (Manhattan plus Las Vegas), coming to a theatre, club, pub or corporate event near you soon so the ‘ unforgettable halcyon days of hip, cool and style’ can re-appear at Hainault Golf Club. In this phenomenon of buying into another country’s myths I am reminded of a radio interview I heard a few years ago with Dennis Locorierre (ex-Dr Hook singer ), who had been asked to join a reformed Lovin’ Spoonful as vocalist. His reply was “I don’t want to sing my old hits. Why would I want to sing someone else’s old hits?”.The same comment could apply to mythologies.
There have, of course, been plenty of songs inspired by Manhattan, from the Hart-Rodgers classic - “We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy “ – onwards, a tune turned into an evocation of a smoky New York jazz club by Sonny Rollins’ saxophone interpretation. In Manhattan Skyline, Julia Fordham compared the iconic skyline to a doomed and broken relationship between a New Yorker and Londoner (containing the winceable line, ‘You are my Ireland, I am your ‘Nam’). Kate Voegele extended this metaphor by describing the lover in Manhattan from the Sky as ‘ You are my Manhattan from the sky, you look so neat and tidy when I am way up high’. In a further display of lyricism the singer in Death Cab for Cutie fantasised about a marching band of Manhattan coming out of his mouth ‘to make your name sing,and bend through alleys and bounce off all the buildings.” (Marching Bands of Manhattan)
The song here, Hey Manhattan by Prefab Sprout, neatly sums up the pervasive image of Manhattan in one line - ‘hey Manhattan, doobie doo’. For a while in the late 1980’s it appeared as though Prefab Sprout could be huge. The King of Rock ‘n Roll was a big hit in 1988, Stevie Wonder and Pete Townsend guested on the album, From Langley Park to Memphis, from which this song came and Prefab Sprout mainman Paddy McAloon was spoken of as a lyricist in the same league as Sondheim and Cole Porter. It didn’t really work out that way, however, and the Prefab Sprout distinctive sound, with the half-whispered vocals, was not to everyone’s taste: ‘too-clever by half’ was a comment sometimes heard.
Hey Manhattan is perhaps not one of their best songs but shows McAloon’s typically neat ways with words. Written as a kind of faux show-tune, it manages to look behind the myths of Manhattan –‘just to think the poor could live here too’ - whilst recognising their allure: ‘These myths we can’t undo, they lie in wait for you, We live them till they're true’. You see in a place what you want to see: for the narrator, this includes Sinatra, Fifth Avenue and the Carlyle Hotel, where Kennedy owned his own apartment. My own initial experience of Manhattan was more prosaic but probably more enjoyable. My daughter took me to the Morning Star diner (I went in vaguely expecting, from the name, a communist menu) between 50th and 51st Street : waffles, eggs over easy and not a doobie-doo to be heard.