“New York City Serenade” is perhaps the oddest album closer in the first half of Bruce Springsteen’s catalog. The longest (although just barely), it eschews what had already by this point, still early in his career, become a fairly standard and straightforward storytelling approach—one which he would streamline much, much further in the years to come—instead opting for a series of vignettes, almost character pieces.
The track opens with over a minute and a half of David Sancious improvising on the piano and, not surprising, given his brilliance as a player, brilliantly.
Springsteen’s acoustic guitar suddenly jumps in, his jazzy interjections combining a little flamenco with some blues.
And then we’re into the first verse, wherein we find Billy and Jackie down by the tracks. In what’s now thought of a Springsteen cliché, they’re in a car, but there are two things notable about this: on his first two albums, cars—in stark contrast to subsequent releases—are barely even featured, possibly because Springsteen himself had apparently not yet owned a car. The other interesting feature: the car isn’t moving, but is parked, static, a place rather than a vehicle. But the placement, by the train tracks, is also interesting, trains connoting movement, escape and even the rhythm which laid much of the foundation for rock and roll--perhaps ironic, then, that this track is in many ways musically one of the least rock and roll he would record. (Rock and roll being such a large tent, of course, it’s impossible to deny that it IS rock and roll—and if it’s not rock and roll, it’s hard to put a label on just what it is.)
The rest of the first verse is a series of descriptions and phrases which, really, don’t add up to much:
Billy he’s down by the railroad tracks
Sittin’ low in the back seat of his Cadillac
Diamond Jackie, she’s so intact
As she falls so softly beneath him
Jackie’s heels are stacked
Billy’s got cleats on his boots
Together they’re gonna boogaloo down Broadway and come back home with the loot
It’s midnight in Manhattan, this is no time to get cute
save the final couplet:
It’s a mad dog’s promenade
So walk tall or baby don’t walk at all
“Mad Dog” being the name of Vini Lopez, the original E Street Band drummer, it seems likely this is something of an in-joke. But it’s more than that. It feels like a fine description of the music industry Springsteen was still trying to find his footing in. For his first album he’d been shoehorned by the record company and his producers into going the then lucrative singer-songwriter route, which decidedly mixed results. On this, his second album, he’d stretched out musically, heading in a much more soulful, even jazzy direction. Most of all, his music became far more assertive—walking tall, one might say.
The next verse shifts focus to a prostitute who’s too discerning to take on just any customer:
Fish lady, oh fish lady
She baits them tenement walls
She won’t take corner boys
They ain’t got no money
And they’re so easy
but who might, he hopes, be persuaded to give the singer a chance:
I said “Hey, baby
Won’t you take my hand
Walk with me down Broadway
Well mama take my arm andmove with me down Broadway”
It’s interesting that on the record he changes the lyrics up slightly, singing “Hey, baby, I’m easy, won’t you take my hand,” a chance which seems to undercut his chances and, really, makes little to no sense.
Then he’s back to his sales pitch:
I’m a young man, I talk it real loud
Yeah babe I walk it real proud for you
Ah so shake it away
So shake away your street life
Shake away your city life
Hook up to the train
And hook up to the night train
While this song doesn’t have a chorus—and never even uses the actual title—we move into the song’s bridge:
But I know that she won’t take the train, no she won’t take the train
Oh she won’t take the train, no she won’t take the train
She’s afraid them tracks are gonna slow her down
And when she turns this boy’ll be gone
So long, sometimes you just gotta walk on, walk on
How’d this happen? How did we go from him trying to get her to give him the time of day to him suddenly blowing her off? An argument could perhaps be made that she was originally standoffish out of a fear of rejection, but the text doesn’t really support that assertion.
And then we’re into the third and final verse:
Hey vibes man, hey jazz man, play me your serenade
Any deeper blue and you’re playin’ in your grave
Save your notes, don’t spend ‘em on the blues boy
Save your notes, don’t spend ‘em on the darlin’ yearlin’ sharp boy
Straight for the church note ringin’, vibes man sting a trash can
Listen to your junk man
Listen to your junk man
Again, these lines sound good one by one, but they don’t really add up. The two things which jump out the most are the ideas of advising a jazz man to hold onto his notes, not to waste them on the blues but, rather, to save them for the church, implying gospel is inherently superior to the blues—an idea which was far from unique to Springsteen.
The other thing is the admonition to pay heed to the junk man. Here the junk man seems to assume the role of the fool, the wise man openly in disguise, the idiot who’s the only one brave and insightful and treasured enough to speak the truth. In other words, after going through jazz, blues and gospel, we come to...rock and roll. Because what’s the junk man doing? The only thing a poor boy can do.
He’s singin’, he’s singin’, he’s singin’
All dressed up in satin, walkin’ past the alley
He’s singin’, singin’, singin’, singin’
It’s a nice detail, the junk man being dressed in satin.
And that's it. When we get to the end we find what we've got is, really, a jumble of lyrics with some nice bits which just don’t add up to much. There’s no through-line, there’s no clear progression and lyrically, the three separate vignettes don’t build to a dramatic conclusion. Looked at on paper, it’s hard to argue this might not be the weakest song on his first two albums.
But the music.
Rock and roll is not poetry. John Lennon asserted that rock and roll never got better than “a wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom.” Because the fact of the matter is that some things in life, the most important things, can’t usually be put into words clearly, that there are some things felt crystal clearly but which just cannot be translated properly. And “da doo doo doo, da da da da” or “da do ron ron ron, da do ron ron” or “sha la la la la” or, yes, “a wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom” is the closest we can get to the heart of the matter.
So the words here are fine but aren’t up to his standards. So what? Doesn’t matter. Because the music is as glorious and gorgeous as any he would ever go on to make, and the performance somehow presides over the marriage of these arguably sub-par lyrics and the undeniably magnificent music and combine to create an absolutely transcendent recording, as lovely and powerful as any rock and roll ever committed to tape. And when Springsteen wails the final lines, as his cries of singing give way to wordless howls and the Big Man’s sax twists in and out of David Sancious’s piano, while Sancious’ string arrangement floats over the top, lifting and sweetening without overpowering or being cloying, and when the entire thing finally, inevitably, exhaustedly draws to a slow, serene, blissful close, it’s like dawn breaking after a tumultuous but magical night and it could not possibly be more right and more extraordinary and more simply and utterly perfect.
Listen to your junk man. He’s singin’.