While sitting on the can the other day, I thought of Warren Zevon.
I thought of his East LA anthem “Carmelita”, a song where the lead character calmly admits to being “all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town.” From there I moved onto Zevon’s more personal “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”. In this song also about Los Angeles, Zevon speaks of drinking up all the salty margaritas in the city and having difficulty finding a girl who understands him. My last Zevon thought came in the form of “The French Inhaler”, a song about a lazy actress and her even lazier boyfriend.”You said you were an actress, yes, I believed you,” Zevon sings. “I thought you’d be a star, so I drank up all the money. Yes, I drank up all the money with these phonies in this Hollywood bar. These friends of mine in this Hollywood bar.”
By the end of my Zevon mental assault, I thought, “Shit, there are so many sad, pathetic, heartbreaking and lonely songs about Los Angeles.” It’s not just Zevon who sang about the fucked-upness of LA, there are others too.
This thought didn’t surprise me since those are all emotions I can confidently say I felt while living there.
I also experienced excitement, joy, inspiration and adventure. Unfortunately, I can’t think of many songs that highlight those nouns. Outside of Randy Newman’s blatant “I Love LA”, has there been such a flagrant musical admission of love for the City of Angels? (I know the answer is yes, but those songs are not nearly as popular as say, “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Under the Bridge” or “Hotel California”).
I then started thinking about New York. Did NYC have an equally sad lyrical side? NYC is no stranger to songs about its more dark and desperate characteristics. Within a matters of seconds, the song “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” by LCD Soundsystem came to mind. Like many love-hate songs about Los Angeles, the voice in “New York, I Love You…” states that, “But you’re still the one pool where I’d happily drown”. Why are artists such masochists?
By the time I got off of the can, I began running with an idea, “Which city has the most depressing songs? LA or NYC?”
Below are snippets from some of Los Angeles and NYC’s most famous songs. What do you think? What city do you think is most sad according to music? LA or NYC? After doing a few hours of research, my vote is Los Angeles, though NYC’s songs have a grittiness that can’t be beat. Also, New York has a tendency to have songs where the lyricists don’t beat around the bush (“New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”, “New York is Killing Me”, “New York City’s Killing Me”), where as in Los Angeles they conceal their disdain in flowery text. Guess that confirms the ol’ cliche that New Yorkers are up front and Angelenos aren’t.
Don’t get me wrong, both cities have their wonderful aspects, I just want to focus on the negative today.
Welcome to the Jungle/Guns n’ Roses/1987:
“Welcome to the jungle it gets worse here every day, ya learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play.”
There doesn’t appear to be a very interesting story behind this song. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because it’s not like Gun n’Roses is a very deep band. According to Wikipedia, Axl wrote the song after visiting a friend in rural Washington and comparing it to the 100% availability of things in LA. Though Axl sounds like the vocal equivalent of tires screeching before an accident, the way he sputters says, “na-na-na-kneeez-kneez-kneeez!” is audibly delicious. Los Angeles is a jungle, except it doesn’t have many trees. It has dying palms and tall skyscrapers. When I think of this song, I think of self-loathing, drugs and hateful sex. Mmmm.
Under the Bridge/Red Hot Chili Peppers/1992:
“It’s hard to believe that there’s nobody out there. It’s hard to believe that I’m all alone. At least I have her love, the city she loves me. Lonely as I am, together we cry.”
I feel like of all the songs about Los Angeles, the lyrics to the Chili Pepper’s “Under the Bridge” hits the nail on the head in terms of relatability. According to Wikipedia, Kiedis wrote this song after sobering up and feeling alienated from his drug-using bandmates (awwww). Through this loneliness, he felt a kinship with his city and ascertained that the city felt the same loneliness. There is a sense of loneliness within all the inhabitants of Los Angeles but so few people admit it. Way to be a champion, Kiedis!
Hotel California/The Eagles/1977: “Mirrors on the ceiling, pink champagne on ice. And she said, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”. In the master’s chambers, they gathered for the feast they stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast. Last thing I remember, I was running for the door. I had to find the passage back to the place I was before. “Relax, ” said the night man, “We are programmed to receive. You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave!”
According to Henley, Hotel California is about excess in American and living the high life in Los Angeles. Huh. I couldn’t have guessed that. The Eagles were recording Hotel California during a down n’ dirty time. When I think of late 70s LA, I think of bell bottoms on the beach, gold-plated cocaine spoons and Lindsey Buckingham’s hair. Actually I think of Lindsey Buckingham’s hair all of the time. What I would give to be a fly on the wall during a The Eagles/Fleetwood Mac orgy.
Why You’d Want to Live Here/Death Cab for Cutie/2001: “It’s a lovely summer’s day and I can almost see a skyline through a thickening shroud of egos (Is this the city of angels or demons?). Here the names are what remain. Stars encapsulate the gold lame and they need constant cleaning for when the tourists begin salivating. You can’t swim in a town this shallow – you will most assuredly drown tomorrow.”
Gibbard lives in Los Angeles but it’s fair to say he doesn’t like his city. He doesn’t even try to hide his disdain for the city. This has to be one of the whiniest songs about Los Angeles. Though poetic, it’s filled to the max with cliches. It almost makes me want to defend Los Angeles. If you hate it so much, why the f do you live there?
Free Fallin‘/Tom Petty/1989: “All the vampires walkin’ through the Valley move west down Ventura Blvd. And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows, all the good girls are home with broken hearts. I wanna glide down over Mulholland, I wanna write her name in the sky. I wanna free fall out into nothin’, gonna leave this world for awhile.”
The beauty of this song is that between the lyrics and the music video, it truly encapsulates Californian livin’ and wanderin’ and dreamin’. I’ve always liked the line “vampires walkin’ through the Valley”, an image that Bret Easton Ellis used in his collection of short stories, “The Informers”. The music video is a perfect time capsule for 80s Los Angeles and Valley life. It’s impossible to drive down Ventura Boulevard and not sing this song.
Cracked Actor: “Crack, baby, crack, show me you’re real. Smack, baby, smack, is that all that you feel. Suck, baby, suck, give me your head before you start professing that you’re knocking me dead.”
There have been a lot of interpretations of this song, but the general consensus is that Bowie was just having fun writing a little story about a producer and a prostitute. When I first moved to LA and would encounter sleezy bigwig producers, this song always came to mind. In live performances, Bowie would whip out the Hamlet skull and sunglasses. No matter how over-the-top or cheesy Bowie’s songs or performances were, he was always able to pull off the “Ugh, I wish I was as cool as him” factor like no other.
New York, I Love But You’re Bringing Me Down/LCD Soundsystem/2007:
“New York, I love you but you’re bringing me down.”
This takes the prize for unnecessarily long-ass title. I’m a big fan of ellipses and would have liked to have seen the song titled, “New York, I Love You But…” Ending a song title on “but” is always a win. Unlike whiney bitch Gibbard, Murphy at least acknowledges that New York is making him sad, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He understands the shit he’s signed up for and he’s going to stick it out. He loves the dirty aspects that make New York the city it is. He speaks of the disillusionment he feels and his disconnect from the kids who come to the city with stars in their eyes. Perfect.
Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters/Elton John/1972:
“Subway’s no way for a good man to go down. Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown. And I thank the Lord for the people I have found. I thank the Lord for the people I have found.”
This song always makes me cry. I’m not sure why. I think it’s the way Elton sings, “And I thank the Lord for the people I have found…” I’m not a religious person, but the conviction spoke in that line always gets me. Bernie Taupin is the shit. Always has been, always will be. He has/had an amazing way of telling very vivid and moving stories. The lyrics were written by Taupin during his first visit to NY. He heard a gunshot outside his hotel and decided to add his take on the city to rock n’ roll history. Of many songs about NY, this one is supremely touching. I hear gunshots outside my window in East Austin all of the time. Should I write a song too?
New York Is Killing Me/Gil Scott-Heron/2010:
“Yeah the doctors don’t know, but New York was killing me. Bunch of doctors coming round, they don’t know that New York is killing me. Yeah I need to go home and take it slow in Jackson, Tennessee.”
Don’t know much about this song, but I do know that Scott-Heron grew up partially in Jackson, Tennessee and I do believe him when he says that New York was killing him. He’s dead now. Good job, New York.
Walk on the Wild Side/Lou Reed/1972:
“Candy came from out on the island. In the backroom she was everybody’s darling. But she never lost her head even when she was given head.”
Never been a fan of Lou Reed, but have always enjoyed his access to a time in New York that so many of us dream about. “Walk on the Wild Side” references a few of Andy Warhol’s superstars- Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Sugar Plum Fairy and Candy Darling. No song paints the contrasting colorful and bleak lifestyle of NY fame whores, transvestites and prostitutes more than this one. Reed was inspired to write this song by a book of the same title- A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren.
Shattered/The Rolling Stones/1978: “Don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up. To live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough! You got rats on the west side, bed bugs uptown. What a mess, this town’s in tatters, I’ve been shattered. My brain’s been battered, splattered all over Manhattan. This town’ full of money grabbers. Go ahead, bite the Big Apple, don’t mind the maggots.”
Jagger wrote this song in the backseat of a taxi cab in in the late 70s. Similar in feel and time period to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, this song expresses all the grittiness, crime and excitement of late 70s New York. This song makes me think of Studio 54, Jagger in size zero pants and honeycrisp apples. Mmm honeycrisp apples.
My favorite New York song is NYC by Interpol, closely followed by New York City’s Killing Me by Ray LaMontagne. Favorite LA song, Californication, Chili Peppers.
But, I can’t say which city is more of a downer, I’ve never been to LA.
NYC by Interpol is a terrific song! Good choice! You must visit LA. It’s worth checking out.
I second NYC by Interpol. I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. As melancholy as it is, musically, it also has the relatively uplifting lyric “It’s up to me now/Turn on the bright lights,” which I love, love, love.
I think it’s time for me to listen to that song again too!
This would have been an easy question in 1967. That year, “free love”, the hippie movement and psychedelia dominated the West Coast (Sgt Peppers, Monterey Pop Festival,Hendrix). The music scene reinforced ideas about peace, love and understanding.
Meanwhile, in NYC, the realities of life in the urban decay of downtown generated an entirely different perspective. That year, the Velvet Underground released their first album. The songs included “Heroin”, “Venus in Furs”, and “I’m Waiting for the Man”. These songs were about hard drugs, Sadomasochism and severe drug addiction, respectively. Of course, the album finisher is “The Black Angel’s Death Song”, which, if you haven’t guessed, is also very depressing.
Peter, excellent point. You’re so right. It’s interesting the changes both cities have had over the years. I feel like people look at NYC with romance now than LA.
Thank you for mentioning Cracked Actor and Shattered, two of my favorite songs. It really think it’s a toss up. LA has a slight advantage in the fact that Morrissey lives there, so it must be a little dreary.
I didn’t know that Morrissey lives in LA. Interesting…