Wednesday, March 18, 2009

New York City: The Lost Romantics

Since I've been living in New York, I've delved pretty deeply into its history. I've been on a Scorsese kick, with Gangs of New York and Mean Steets. I've downloaded lots of Miles Davis, Coltrane and Monk. I've been listening to a lot of the hip hop to come out of Brooklyn, and I've been reading This Side of Paradise, which has its moments in the city.

Since watching Cassavettes' Shadows, the 1950's have emerged as this golden era of New York. Miles Davis and Coltrane are playing Carnegie Hall. NYU is starting to produce a great atmosphere of music in Greenwich Village, and the twenty-somethings are living in a glamorous utopia. Looking back, of course.

Maybe it was the movie Diner by Barry Levinson that did it. This has nothing to do with New York, and was filmed in 1982, but it is a look at 1950's Baltimore, and features Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, and Kevin Bacon in their very early years.

The whole lifestyle is just different. Marriage in your twenties, dating, dancing, etc. It's pretty great. The false innocence makes it appealing. Just the nightlife in general. I mean, check out this picture of a club in New York City from the 50's:

Real musicians making real music that they actually felt at the moment. They played it for people who felt it and danced because they were compelled to dance, not because everyone else was doing it. There were no DJs or mashups or impersonal grinding up on strangers. There was an art to it, and there was feeling. It took great effort and practice to dance in public, and if you cared to pick up a girl, you'd learn. Hard to find that in a bar nowadays. The dating scene is bleak, impersonal, and lifeless.

Woody Allen's Annie Hall or Manhattan also seem to capture the romanticism of the city. How you can step out of the bustle and enjoy the whole damn thing. That's kind of what hit me when I read Kerouac. The love of a place, rather than a person. How you could visit a place and just "dig" it. The bars, the buildings, the expensive restaurants...these aren't what make a city great. It's the view from the South Street Seaport at midnight, watching the waves break on the Manhattan Bridge. It's the graffiti on Morgan Avenue in Bushwick, the unknown artist El Camino reigning over the broken down buildings. It's the Spanish owner of the bodega on the corner, who will let us pay her back in a few days because we're her best customers. It's the feeling in your hair as you fly down the Williamsburg Bridge on a bike. It's the bartender at Mars Bar giving you shots and talking about punk rock.

Reading Fitzgerald, I always got a lost sense of romanticism. How could I keep living through this endless bustle, day by day, working, distracting myself, staying occupied without any sense to stop and appreciate anything. The Jazz Age. Romance at its finest. The saxophone is the dominant instrument, playing on pure feeling. Not an electric guitar noodling on already-written and re-written riffs. People are passionate for each other and for life, and they seem to have some standards that keep everything relatively wholesome. I want to stop entertaining myself and start living. I want to be enraptured by everything I do from now on.

"I'm a romantic; a sentimental person thinks things will last; a romantic person hopes against hope that they won't."
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

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