Listen to this track by former Whiskytown principle turned 21st century roots-rock poster boy Ryan Adams. It’s “New York, New York”, a stormingly anthemic single as taken from his smash 2001 record Gold his second album as a solo artist.
Apart from the ambitious scope of the record that touches on a number of classic rock textures that reference Dylan, Van Morrison, The Band, and late ’60s Rolling Stones, it had time on its side, too. Released only a couple of weeks after New York made the news in a shocking and tragic manner during the events of September 11, 2001 , this song became a love song to a city during a very troubled and heartbreaking time.
The madness of these times was palpable, and this was an anathema, like a balm during a time that felt like the end of one era, and the beginning of a much darker one. The song won him a Grammy for best male rock vocal, and raised his profile among peers, critics, and record buyers. Yet, that darkness followed this song, impossible to separate from how celebratory it sounds due to that timing which could not be forseen. Amazingly, the video for this song was shot four days before the skyline of the city to which the song became a tribute would change forever.
New York City has been the subject of many a song over the decades, from “Autumn In New York” to “Coney Island Baby”. This may be the reason for this song, playing into the intention of its author to create a classic rock record to stand up to those that came before. But, it seems to me that it’s the mythical pull of the city that was the inspiration for this song. New York is not just a city. It stands for something that one can get lost in, a place that becomes a character in the story of one’s life when one makes it one’s home. That what this song centers on.
This is a story of a memory, and a bittersweet one. It mingles regret, fondness, and sentimentality all in one. But, in the background is the city, with a reminder that millions and millions of stories like this have unfolded, or will unfold, with New York as their backdrop. Even if you’ve never been there, the myth of New York lives in the cultural consciousness as well as being a physical location one can visit. This is one of the reasons that the events of September 11, 2001 were so shocking, so offensive on a level that was hard to describe at the time. The city and its people were attacked. But the idea of New York was attacked, too.
When this song was written, and when the video was shot, the story told in it was one story among many. But, after those terrible real life events transpired, this song was transformed. It was no longer about a lost love of one person, and the feelings of melancholy and wistfulness that are embued in that single story. In an instant, it became more universal, as everyone’s hearts and minds turned to a wounded city, with that larger story of New York interrupted by violence. Adams couldn’t have anticipated that, but it’s not the first time a piece of art had taken on a life of it’s own outside of the original intention of a creator. Promoting the song became something that he was not entirely comfortable with, unwilling to attach it to a tragedy and in looking as though he had tried to cash in on what had happened.
Adams was interviewed by Billboard magazine as to his thoughts about “New York, New York” and the eerie timing of its release and video.
You know, you couldn’t take a photograph of New York back then without the Towers being in there. It was always the way to frame your photograph. Even if you didn’t want the towers in the photograph, if you were pointing your camera in that direction, they would show up, as if they were omnipresent. They would get into photos without you even thinking about them. I made a lot of good decisions in my life, and making that song unavailable (for commercial exploitation) was good. I allowed the Yankees, NYPD and the fire department to use it if they wanted. I actually heard the beginning at a Yankee game in the old stadium, which was cool, because it wasn’t getting exploited. (Read the whole article)
That old tension between expression, culture, and commercialism reared its head. Yet, Adams pretty much escaped the accusation that this song was written and marketed off of the back of a tragic event. But, it certainly did prove itself to be an anthem to celebrate all that was good in the city that suffered so soon after it was released. That sense of fondness and wistfulness, and even regret, are still the active ingredients in this song. The associations changed at the time. But, today those things that were good about the song when Adams wrote it still work, along with a defiant joy that made it such a go-to song during a very dark time. It ‘s still a love song, a story with a mythical New York at its centre, untouched by those who would seek to bury it.
Gold became an international hit, selling well and capturing the accolades of the critics and peers alike. But, the idea of New York and the stories it has inspired was embodied once again. Despite religious extremism and the violence that it tends to spread, it’s the stories of real people every day that endure. The moments in our lives and the settings and times where they take place become mythical all on their own when we look back on them. In a world full of violent ideology, it remains to be this that we treasure the most.
Ryan Adams is an active musician and songwriter today. Here’s an interview with him from 2014 that helps you play catch up to his career to date.
And speaking of stories of New York, do yourself a favour by investigating humansofnewyork.com, a site dedicated to stories of New Yorkers of every walk of life.