One of my favourite authors, Christopher Brookmyre, in his book Not The End Of The World described New York City (NYC) as a place where “An outgoing personality and a trusting nature would be filed as contributory negligence on an NYPD homicide sheet” and the average citizens’s level of paranoia as “a constant state of heightened alertness like mainlining caffeine”. Like many other assessments of NYC, this is probably three parts hyperbole and one part reality. For no matter where you live there’s always a certain level of heightened awareness when you step out of the sanctuary of your own house.
As I once said to a person I knew who lives in NYC, my small city with a population of just over 100,000 has all the disadvantages of living in a big city, crime, pollution etc., with none of the advantages that come with a major metropolis. A small city is often very parochial as its population never has the opportunity to expand its world view through galleries, museums, theatres or other such venues displaying works from other parts of the world. When culture is limited to only what you can produce locally, with injections of new blood few and far between, it stagnates. No matter how hard an artist tries to grow, without inspiration or examples it’s next to impossible.
I was reminded of all this listening to the latest album from NYC musician Steve Conte, The Steve Conte NYC Album. In his last solo release, Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth, Conte captured the spirit of the wild ride NYC can be in a series of brilliantly done rock and roll songs. Having played with the New York Dolls and the Mink DeVille Band, he’s been enough of a part of the city’s rock and roll story to offer a perspective of life in NYC few others can. On this occasion he’s delved even deeper into its psyche to show us the city through the stories of the people who live there.
The other change you’ll discover on this album is how much he’s expanded his musical horizons. While there are still some wonderful New York rock and roll songs, he’s also drawn upon other musical influences. Both the disc’s eighth, “Broken Spoke Saloon” and tenth, “Tax Free”, tracks have definite country/blues feels to them, which makes the stories they tell all the more powerful. What’s even better is neither song feels like they’re some sort of token piece of “Americana” tossed off because its the in thing right now. Instead, their content and placement on the album make them feel like they are part of a natural progression in the overall story Conte is trying to tell us.
The disc opens with wonderfully ironic “Dark in the Spotlight”, which takes aim at those who want to find fame through infamy. If you don’t have talent, at least make sure you’re found with a needle in your arm and make a suitably impressive corpse. “Well you’re a medical wonder/You’re no Johnny Thunders/But you kept up quite a pace/Always severely high and ya didn’t die trying/Well lord knows it ain’t no race/Somehow you stayed out of the headlines/The whose nearly deadlines/Guess you missed out on the press.” Unlike Thunders, who was a talented musician with genuine demons, the subject of this song is just another sad story of the pursuit of fame for fame’s sake. Not only doesn’t he or she have the required talent and desire to be a great musician, they can’t even get the dying young part right.
This isn’t the only New York stereotype Conte’s sharp pen pricks with the bite of satire/sarcasm. He also takes aim at the supercool dudes with their machismo attitudes who have long been celebrated in song and emulated by every half wit whose walked into a bar and hit on some unsuspecting victim. “Lady Luck” tells the story one of these dudes who finally comes to the end of his run of luck. “You’re the king of the world with a crooked crown/Another day in the life of a fool falling down/With your face in the muck/That’s Lady Luck… She busted your glass jaw, it’s the karmic law/She really left you raw”. There’s nothing cool or glamorous about the life of a low rent hood getting by on the luck of the draw. A player in his own mind, once he steps outside of his comfort zone his world comes tumbling down around him.
By the time Conte’s tour of NYC brings us to the “Broken Spoke Saloon”, we’re almost prepared for the song’s bittersweet ode to friendships which have withstood the test of time and two people going in opposite directions. “You couldn’t make the rent so you went straight/But I kept on believing I’d get my twist of fate/Now I wonder when you look at me/Do you see a piece of your history?/Something that’s too far gone to reclaim/I love you just the same.” How many times has a friendship ended due to the resentment one feels towards the other’s success, especially when they had met while pursuing the same dream?
In a city like New York, this is probably a scene played out in many different bars between many different people. For every person who is able to find a way of making their living doing what they love, there are going to be 20 who have had to give up their dreams. Of course just because you’ve made it to the point where you’re living the life you thought you wanted doesn’t mean its without frustration and thoughts of just giving it all up and running away.
The final track on the disc, “Tax Free”, shows Conte giving voice to those thoughts. While the song is funny, there’s also an element of seriousness to it’s expression of how even the most dedicated of artists can get frustrated. “Yeah I’m big joke to the New York Press/So I wake up on the floor/I’m just an aging freelance whore/Don’t want to die in this den of despair/There’s always death and taxes, but no tax down in Delaware”.
The Steve Conte NYC Album is a wonderful mixture of music, thought and emotion which takes you on a tour of NYC as seen through descriptions of a wide variety of people who inhabit the city. Sometimes ironic, sometimes funny but always insightful and intelligent, Conte shows himself to be more than just another rock and roller. The portraits he has created give what most people see as a highly impersonal city the sense of being a place not much different from where they might live. With this release Conte has found a way of reminding us there might be millions of people jammed into NYC’s many boroughs, but each one of them is an individual and their stories are what give the city its character.