Friday, August 22, 2008

Do You Miss New York?

Sometimes people ask me “What’s your favorite song?” but it’s an impossible question. There are songs with staggering good lyrics -- some polished jewels, some elaborate palaces of words. Some are great for their cleverness, some for their lack of it There are songs I admire. Songs I love. Songs I try to emulate.

Since this is a songwriting blog, every so often I’ll talk about one of these songs and why I think it’s great. Or at least why I love it without it’s achieving greatness.

But when people do ask me for a favorite and make me answer, my fallback song is “Do You Miss New York?” by Dave Frishberg. Frishberg is a personal lyric-writing hero, able to make fabulous rhymes consistently without ever sounding forced. It’s an ease that, as a writer, I know is the product of a lot of sweat.

Frishberg is a jazz pianist and at first played other folks’ tunes, and eventually penned his own. He’s a generous collaborator, writing a melody here, contributing a lyric there, but his song have a very personal stamp on them. He’s the Woody Allen of jazz pianists, and I don’t mean that as any sort of insult.

“Do You Miss New York?” is a series of questions, comparing the hustle of life in NYC with a more peaceful life now. The questions are needling (“If you had to face it now, do you still think you could hack it?”) and funny (“Did you trade the whole parade for a pair of parking places?”) and wistful (“Does it feel like home or just another nice place to visit?”)

The lyrics float on a light, lilting jazz setting, that lulls you into a false sense of security. It’s comfortable, melodic and you nod along with it, smiling, agreeing with him that “this laid-back lifestyle” lacks “a certain satisfaction.” It has an odd structure – it has an intro (very retro), and instead of verses and bridge and chorus/refrain, it has an “A” melody and “B” melody. The song goes ABAB-ending straight through, and repeats that structure completely without repeating any lyrics. There are clever rhymes, unusual rhymes, internal rhymes, but they never overwhelm the song. They fall into place (seemingly) effortlessly.

And that’s when he gets you. The questions get more pointed. More honest – “Do you view your new terrain with a touch of condescension?” – and unhappy – “Do you dream your dreams out here, or is that passé?”

For this is not a song about leaving a place. It’s a song about having been young, and being young no longer. It’s not a song for anyone under 30. Everyone gets to a place where they remember being young but have trouble conjuring the feeling again –the recklessness, “the anger, the action,” the “tension” It all seems so far away. And you can’t go back, really, ever, try as you might (and doesn’t everyone try, despite the folly? Try to fix the mistakes? Or at least get a mulligan?) New York” in this song is not a place, it’s that time in your life when you had energy and opportunity and time and were too stupid to realize it. And now it’s too late.

When he gets to the end of the song, and asks, “Do you ever run into that guy who used to be you?” – I lose it, every time.

The song makes me laugh, smile, gasp in astonishment at the craftsmanship, and finally gets me right where I live, hard, even when I know what’s coming. It is a great, great, great song. It makes me want to try to write a song that great, and at the same time makes me want to give up songwriting in frustration that I’ll never write anything half this good.

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