September 29, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Amy Shearn's new novel Unseen City showcases her estimable storytelling skills and is a vivid portrait of life in New York City.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Shearn’s nimble storytelling unearths a fascinating and fraught history.""
Unseen City, which takes place in the New York City of the present moment and of the 1860s, took about six years to research and write, and then another two to find its way to publication. In that time, my life has changed, and the city has changed, and my relationship to the city has changed.
This novel is in many ways a love letter to the city, but that’s not to say it’s all sweet nothings and admiration. It’s… complicated, as Facebook used to suggest. It’s a book about how gentrification is a kind of haunting. It’s a book about the way the city’s economics force out the kinds of people who have always made it what it is – diverse and alive and full of art and culture and risk and fascination. It’s a book about race and racism and the way these forces have shaped our country and infused our lives with ambiguous loss and an undercurrent of grief. It’s a book about the history of New York City, and how densely layered and infinitely repeating it is. But it’s also a book about how fucking fun it is just to walk and walk and walk around the city; about the astounding ways lost souls collide and very different people come together; about how we make a city our home, and how we make our homes our worlds.
It's been very strange to start talking about this book, and having people read it and process it, in this moment in time. Pandemic New York is a weird place; in some moments as hushed as if it were blanketed in snow, in others noisy with sirens (remember March and April?), chaotic with a bizarre plague of nightly fireworks (remember June and July?), shocked back to life when -- after some cloistered months during which we hid from Covid inside – yet another rash of police murders of Black people jumpstarted uprisings and protests that brought everyone thronging to the streets. “It’s dead!” proclaim thinkpieces, and “It will never die,” answer others, while people pen their good byes to all that and decamp for (literally) greener pastures.
So, between the book, and the pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about what New York City means, and it just seems to make sense to compile here some NYC songs.
“New York New York,” Cat Power
Haha just kidding I hate this song. Okay, fine, I don’t hate it – but only because they play the Frank Sinatra version at Yankees games which means my baseball-obsessed son loves it. If I can picture him singing along to it, I’m okay with the song (I’d only ever listen on purpose to the Cat Power version, obviously). Because seriously, that “if I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere” attitude is why everyone hates us. I mean, it’s just problematic! [Insert screed on the power of privilege and generational wealth here.]
“Autumn in New York,” Billie Holiday
This is, for me, the most iconic New York song. “Autumn in New York / Is often mingled with pain” – that’s right. Here the dreamers aren’t the “king of the hill,” nope, they have “empty hands” and “sigh for exotic lands.” But then, you know what? Billie Holiday’s right – you sit with the right person on a bench at dusk in Central Park and hey, it’s “good to live it again.”
“Cradle and All,” Ani DiFranco
I’m not a native New Yorker; I grew up in Midwestern suburbia and like so many people around the world, first experienced NYC hypothetically. I can still remember the curdle of mid-'90s excitement I experienced listening to this song, DiFranco’s growly singing about swirling 14th Street garbage and heading home on the F train “last night’s underwear in my back pocket” – what grungy excitement must be in store, I guessed. Re-listening recently, in my current crotchety adult iteration, I was most struck by the line, “I live in New York, New York / city that never shuts up.” Truth.
“Pacifics” (Sdtrk “NY is Red Hot”), Digable Planets
Speaking of the '90s! I really did think, listening to this song in 1994 or so, that if I got here eventually, it would be like, me, Ladybug from Digable Planets, and somehow, the staff of Sassy Magazine, hanging out at the Chelsea Hotel, and then strolling around, slightly stoned, early on a Sunday morning (as specified in this song), just taking in everything because “New York is a museum with its posters and graffiti.” This has not technically happened yet, but…? I do still love this song.
“Chelsea Hotel No 2,” Leonard Cohen
Here’s another one that, to me, in sound and story, captures so much about the weird aching painful romance of this city. Leonard Cohen wrote it about a brief affair with Janis Joplin, who he met in 1968 in the elevator of the Chelsea Hotel, which, what? I know. (Apparently she later described him “a bummer.” No kidding!) That’s the kind of story that made me want to come here in the first place; as an aspiring New Yorker I always pictured myself more Leonard Cohen than Carrie Bradshaw. And you know what? For all its problems, it is, after all, still a city where you can have a chance encounter with the kind of people who “have the music.”
“Chelsea Morning,” Joni Mitchell
Counterpoint: OMG Leonard Cohen, lighten up! Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea is a much cheerier, brighter place. There’s the sun, and a rainbow, and “the curtain opens on a portrait of today / And the streets are paved with passersby / And pigeons fly / And papers lie / Waiting to blow away.” Is that the loveliest portrait of a trash- and winged-vermin-filled city street, or what? Only a person freshly in love, very young, or maybe just in an incredibly great mood, could write such lyrics. But sure, it’s true: sometimes a certain something resolves, and everything around you looks just this enchanted. Yes, even in Manhattan.
“New York City,” Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek
This song is another, like, anti-“New York, New York”: “New York City gripped me like a big old machine,” Lenker sings. Yes okay, I’m with you. Did I mention I came here expecting to stay maybe a year, and 15 years later my entire adult life is rooted here (and still no hang outs with Ladybug OR Leonard Cohen!)? Anyway: “And oh, it’s easy to lose your mind.” Yes, and as I write that very sentence I receive a text from another panicked friend stressing over our kids’ Brooklyn public school. I’m sure that’s not exactly what Lenker is talking about but it feels apt, doesn’t it?
“Moon River,” Louis Armstrong
Well, I always thought this song was about the Hudson River, since Audrey Hepburn is in Manhattan when she sings it in that iconic fire escape scene from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but the internet tells me it’s maybe about some other river! Ah well. (I also love the Carla Bruni version, so shoot me!) There’s something about the wanderlust in this song that I love, and yes, something great about New York City is how many seekers you find here, which leads me to:
“Beautiful Dreamer,” Stephen Foster (I like Sheryl Crow’s stripped-down a capella version)
As I mentioned, half of my NYC-based novel takes place in the 1860s, and as I wrote I listened to a lot of the battle hymns and folk songs that were popular then. “Beautiful Dreamer” was a big hit in 1864. It’s not explicitly a New York City song, but maybe it actually is. For all my frustrations with the city’s expense and chaos (and all its insistence on being the city that never sleeps) of course it’s still full of beautiful dreamers: life dreamers I mean, artists and writers and performers and thought leaders and entrepreneurs and sometimes, as the song promises, even mermaids(!). Given all the creative energy that continues to buzz through the air here, I suspect, really, that rumors of New York’s demise are greatly exaggerated.
Amy Shearn is the author of the critically acclaimed novels How Far Is the Ocean from Here, chosen as a notable debut by Poets & Writers and a hot summer read by the Chicago Tribune, and The Mermaid of Brooklyn, which was a selection of Target's Emerging Authors program, a Hudson News Summer Reads pick, and was also published in the UK and as an audiobook. She is a fiction editor for Joyland Magazine, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Real Simple, and many literary publications. She earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota, has received a Promise Award grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and has participated in residencies at SPACE on Ryder Farm and elsewhere. Amy lives in New York City with her two children.