The Greatest Song

Photo: Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images (Joel); David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images (Notorious B.I.G.); Doug McKenzie/Getty Images (Dylan)

“There but for the Grace of God Go I,” an amped-up 1979 disco track by Machine, might not be the ultimate New York song. Can we talk about it anyway? It tells a Bronx story: The Vidals have a baby girl. They decide to get her away from the neighborhood, preferably to a place with “no blacks, no Jews, and no gays.” They raise her strict and sheltering—until she hits her teens, turns out to be a “natural freak,” and runs away with some guy. It’s a tragic story for the Vidals, but if you were dancing to it in 1979—in a room full of blacks, Jews, gays, and every variety of natural freak—it probably sounded like a victory. It has the same spirit that connects a lot of music, and animates a lot of New Yorkers: the feeling that no authority can prevent people from coming together the way they want.

Alternately, there’s “New York Subway,” recorded in the forties by the calypso singer Lord Invader. It’s about going to Brooklyn to visit a lady, not being able to figure out the trains home, and getting excuses from cabbies who won’t pick you up. In the end, Invader figures that if any women want to see him, they can come up to his place in Harlem. I’m confident the same thing is happening to someone as I write this.

There are two famous tracks called, roughly, “New York State of Mind”—bullet-pocked tension in Nas’s version, a homecoming bus ride in Billy Joel’s. There’s Broadway romantic New York. There’s Dylan, the Velvet Underground, the arty downtown punk scene. There’s a Nuyorican New York, and there’s Bobby Womack singing about what it takes to get “Across 110th Street.” There’s the city of emcees arguing about the birth of hip-hop (“South Bronx”), and the one where Biz Markie rapped about hanging at the Albee Square Mall—plus the cities of Biggie, Gang Starr, the Wu-Tang Clan. There’s the nocturnal city of disco and house, and the one where cellist Arthur Russell holed up in his apartment to write “Losing My Taste for the Nightlife” and “A Little Lost.” There are immigrant cities whose radios speak Urdu or blast Polish disco or sound like Senegal.

These days, there’s the city of rock bands like the Strokes and LCD Soundsystem—though their greatest songs about New York tend to take the position that it was probably better when, say, the Bush Tetras were singing of “Too Many Creeps” in 1980.

But it’s easy to see a pattern: New York songs are about money. And real estate. Money is what Nas’s bullet holes were about. It’s why the Bush Tetras spent one verse saying the streets were full of creeps and the next pointing out that they couldn’t afford anything in the stores. It’s why Wu-Tang said, “Cash rules everything around me”; it’s what south of 110th means for Womack. The Columbia grads in Vampire Weekend sing: “Look up at the buildings, imagine who might live there.”

Which leads me to the conclusion that the ultimate New York song is just a brief tune written by a couple of kids from Brooklyn: Jeff Barry (who was born Joel Adelberg and went on, with his wife, Ellie Greenwich, to help create “Be My Baby” and other pop classics) and actress-singer Ja’net Dubois. Sometime around 1974, they put together a TV theme song called “Movin’ on Up.” As in: the swaggering, churchy tune that kicks off The Jeffersons, as George and Louise are rolling (in the taxi Lord Invader couldn’t get) to their dee-luxe apartment. A tune that, if you think about it, spits as well as any emcee’s—not to mention George’s strut past the doorman in the show’s opening. The sound of finally getting ahead, and putting your feet in the place you want.

The Greatest Song