Describing New York

Standing in a field in Kent at the weekend, I realised that my imagined New York – we all have one – was almost entirely described during my adolescence by Lou Reed. Before the placeless audacity of Iggy and the English pomp of Morrissey, Mr Reed had scowled his way onto the stage at Hop Farm to grate every last shred of bitterness and regret from Who Loves the Sun. From then on, I got lost in his songs and stories (until his ‘challenging’ reworking of Sunday Morning – he really can’t sing anymore).

And it struck me: it’s not just the words, the tales of sordid lives in New York City, but the sound and the look that evoked everything that made up my Gotham. Long before I visited the place, I had a sense of what it would be. Of course, countless movies and TV series meant I knew it would look like. But the smell, sound and feel of the place, the essence of New York, was distilled for me in the dreamy, crunchy, fuzzy, angry, dirty, melancholia of VU and Lou Reed records (Blondie records also helped).

Of course it wasn’t real. New York isn’t like the sound of Lou Reed’s Telecaster, nor the gravel in his voice; it isn’t his sunglasses or his sneer. It’s more complex than that, and almost certainly a much nicer place to live and work as a result. But it’s not the place I imagined when I was growing up and fell in love with the metropolis, with the idea of the metropolis.

A day or so later, I am sitting having a coffee on Goodge St. I know the area as Fitzrovia, although some would redefine it as Noho, in a marvellous example of ahistoricism, of chronological and geographical laxity, of NYLon elasticity. And it strikes me that if I was busy constructing my own private Gotham, there must have been teenagers in the States doing the same for my adopted city.

I wonder which cultural reference point would describe London in those terms. At first, I can’t think of anything, safe in my assumption that London is just too complex for that. Then, with horror, I realise that the imagined London of thousands of US teenagers could well be forged in the image of the movie, Notting Hill. Even remembering the Kinks and the Clash, love them as I do, doesn’t help, and I suddenly feel that, as cool an envoy as Lou Reed is, I have done a disservice to the second greatest city on earth all these years.

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