The juxtaposition of places has been a common literary device – A Tale of Two Cities, Down and Out in Paris and London, From Larkrise to Candleford. Sometimes it is for comparison, sometimes for contrast, sometimes to emphasise a distance . The same technique is seen in songs –seen already in a previous column with Kalamazoo to Timbuktu , from one unlikely sounding place to another. Actually it is perhaps more commonly seen by contrasting two different parts of the same town, usually to inject a bit of social drama into a relationship Hence, Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl (‘looking for a downtown guy’)or Randy Edelman’s Uptown Uptempo Woman, ('downtown, downbeat guy'). Or the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls (‘and East End boys’). It usually seems to be this way round in pop mythology – downtown guy/posh woman. That notion even turns up in musical dreams, as in Mungo Jerry’s Baby Jump –“I dreamt that you were Lady Chatterley and I was the gamekeeper”
However, on occasion the listener can gain a whole new perspective on a place when it is taken out of its usual context and juxtaposed with somewhere else. A good example here is New York’s Greenwich Village. The district is steeped in artistic and musical history of a specific time period, to the extent that you can feel you are walking round a living museum . I am not sure that there is an equivalent area in London – the best comparison might be Liverpool, where you can still do tours round the Cavern and other high-spots from the early 60’s and hear anecdotes about what Tony Jackson said to Chris Curtis outside the Iron Door club in 1963. Likewise, you could take, as I did recently, a Rock Junket tour round Greenwich Village and find out where Rambling Jack Elliott stayed (Room 312 in the Washington Square Hotel) or where John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful rehearsed and played (The Nite Owl Club, now Bleecker Bob's record shop). Far be it from me to sound like a train-spotter - but the photo below shows the same manhole cover that Fred Neil is standing by on the cover of his 1965 album, Bleecker and MacDougal.
Many of the songs about Greenwich Village come from the same era as its musical heyday. Apart from Fred Neil’s album just mentioned – one of the first electric folk rock offerings – there is, of course, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bleecker Street off the Wednesday Morning 3am album, though written earlier by Paul Simon: in the Sound of Silence mood, it remains evocative of a particular time and place. The same street turned up years later and wrapped in mythology in the Waterboys’ Bleecker Street- “Life is sexy, life is sweet, in Manhattan's ninety-six degree heat, Just pounding tar to my favourite beat, My down home one and only Bleecker Street “. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood did a rather belated (1969) sneer at the Village scene in their Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman song.
It is easy, then, to look at Greenwich Village solely in its own context and history and to walk round it as if you were in two time dimensions at once. The photo above is the same view near the corner of Jones Street and West 4th Street as on the cover of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan album, except Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo aren’t walking along. The song here, however – Paris Nights and New York Mornings by Corinne Bailey Rae from 2010 - takes Greenwich Village out of its customary place and time and deposits it in contemporary Paris. This works on two levels. Lyrically, the song, about 2 lovers meeting in two cities, switches between Bleecker Street and Paris to emphasise the similarities of the bohemian history, the cafes and boutiques and the same feel in walking the streets. At the end of the song video posted below, she gets into a New York cab on a Paris boulevard.
However, Corinne Bailey Rae’s own vocal style helps too. She is capable of creating the same kind of sunny, laid back, retro feel you can get from Sarah Cracknell and St Etienne, the sound of an open - top sports car driving past a corn field on a summer afternoon. (She is showcased better, I feel, in a smaller setting rather than a large venue and the second link given below gives an alternate version of a style she excels at.) Musically, it is a sound – from a British singer from Leeds - that somehow provides a neat link between the two places.
Sometimes, you can get a feel of a place by looking at the past, for a place’s history can define it. Sometimes, however, you can see what is close at hand by turning in a different direction. When I first went to Greenwich Village it immediately struck me that it seemed more like Europe than New York in some ways - maybe Bloomsbury in London but certainly Paris. So as you walk round there you can look backwards and see and hear the ghosts of the past – Phil Ochs playing at the Bitter End or Jimi Hendrix at the Electric Lady Studios. Or you can look sideways and get a glimpse of Paris past or present. In fact, you don’t have to look very far – the start of the Rock Junket tour I went on commenced at Washington Square Arch, itself modelled after the Arc de Triomphe. The past is a foreign country in more ways than one, perhaps.