There are some places that tend to figure more in songs as an image for something else, as a symbol or metaphor, rather than as a place in reality. This was touched on in the column on Rome (Weekend a Rome), where a song is as likely to reference the place with lyrics about ‘all roads lead to Rome’ or ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ as to be about the actual city itself. There are other examples, sometimes with places seemingly so remote that actual travel there seems akin to going to the moon. The trend was perhaps started by an early 50’s big band record, Kalamazoo to Timbuktu (which also became the title of a children’s story book later). Both are real places but the train journey the song describes is as unlikely as the names themselves. In fact, ‘going to Timbuktu’ passed into everyday speech as the epitome of something that would definitely never happen: as in ‘ Try getting to North Walsham by bus from Norwich after 3pm. It’s like going to Timbuktu’. Billy Joel later used another real place ,the Great Wall of China, with a similar intention in his song of the same name:“We could have gone all the way to the Great Wall of China,if you'd only had a little more faith in me”.
There is another famous landmark that has cropped up time again in songs not as a place to actually visit and see but as a metaphor: Niagara Falls. There are many other spectacular waterfalls across the world, of course: Iceland has several, including one at Gullfoss. However, it is Niagara Falls that has captured the imagination most, with assorted folks going over it in a barrel or walking across it on a tightrope for the past 150 years or so. Yet it has also been the inspiration of several songs that have turned it into imagery for something else. Take Niagara Falls by Sara Evans, which starts off with the promising and undeniably true statement of “Standing at the edge of this cliff, gravity being what it is, I'm afraid that I might stumble” but then resorts to a lyrical cliché in “asking me not to love you is like asking Niagara not to fall” . Chicago used the same metaphor in their Niagara Falls: “As long as Niagara falls, as long as Gibraltar stands, till hell freezes over I'll always be your man” (Gibraltar is roped in presumably to supply a suitable rhyme for ‘man’). Rapper Lil’ Wayne came up with an inevitable – actually the only possible - rhyme in Love Me or Hate Me:”I've been through it all, the fails, the falls. I'm like Niagara but I got right back up like Viagra.”
Perhaps the best example here is Everybody Knows (Niagra Falls) by Elliott Murphy. He was one of those singers who had the misfortune to be labelled ‘the new Dylan’, a phrase thrown at selected artists from Phil Ochs onwards, taking in Bruce Springsteen , John Prine, Conor Oberst and a long list of others on the way. In Everybody Knows, Elliott Murphy not only uses the image of going over the Falls in a barrel without it seeming contrived but gets in a mention of Buffalo, a kind of staging post 20 miles away from Niagara Falls. Buffalo seemed to me in the same category as Westward Ho!, a town whose title doesn’t live up to current reality. With a name redolent of the Old West, it should look like this, with a tumbleweed or two drifting down the main street:
Link to photo
Link to photo
The bit I saw was more like an industrial estate, with –somewhat incongruously- a prominent House of Horrors as a main attraction.
The song here from 2009 - another titled Niagara Falls - by Brooklyn indie rock band, Harlem Shakes, is a more lyrical ode , driven by piano and drum machine and a simple chorus that nevertheless captures something of the sight of Niagara Falls, something difficult to do in words: ” Always awake, you break and break and crash and crash, and flow and flow”. Sailing through the spray below on the Maid of the Mist, or standing watching at night as the light show turns the waters blue and red and purple like a vision from an unsettled dream, you get a sense of what has inspired the musicians and novelists over the years - though it did come as a surprise to discover that the Falls can effectively be turned off (which would mess up Chicago’s song). You can also see why observers turn so readily to symbolic meaning, with the endless and powerful falling of water, the drop down into an abyss, the mists and rainbows. But maybe best to see it for what it is - a place to remember.