New York City is the city that never sleeps. You can ride a subway across the Manhattan Bridge at 2 AM and watch a bicyclist dart along the bike path outside your window, because it’s impossible to be alone even if you’re traveling in the middle of the night. And while the city provides its own sonic soundtrack of sirens, car horns, and chatter, New York City also possesses a wide range of strong musical cultures.
There’s Broadway, of course, a prime destination for theater geeks of all stripes. The marquees may change, but the excitement for musicals has never died down. Before he was known for “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda captured the traditions of the Dominican-American community of Washington Heights through his Tony Award winning musical “In the Heights.” While so many songwriters head to Nashville and Los Angeles to make it big, there’s no denying that musicians flock to New York for its energy as a cultural capital.
Highbrow, lowbrow: New York manages to operate on multiple levels. Buskers play for tips on the dirty concrete platforms below ground while cabaret singers enjoy the intimacy of velvet-lined walls in hotel bars. Midtown Manhattan boasts the famed Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall.
Today, those in the know head downtown to the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, and Bushwick for the cutting edge in contemporary music. Historically, the downtown music scene was a crucible for the punk movement. CBGBs hosted the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, and the Talking Heads. Max’s Kansas City was where the art world mixed with the music world. Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids chronicles the deep conversation between artists and musicians. The crossover extends to literature as well.
Several novels capture the varied experience of musicians who have struggled and triumphed in New York City. Recent years have brought a rush of novels centered around music, but they are part of a long tradition. Here are some titles you should know.
Hari Kunzru is known for his provocative and unflinching novels. In White Tears, two men in their twenties, Seth and Carter, have little in common save their obsessive passion for music. After Seth happens to record an unknown blues musician that he hears in a New York City park, Carter sees an opportunity. Alleging that he’s uncovered a long lost recording from the 1920s by a musician named Charlie Shaw, Carter circulates the music on the Internet. Too arrogant to think this charade would be called out, they are shocked when a seasoned collector reaches out to unveil the truth behind their lies. This revelation triggers a spiral into the illicit underground world of blues record collectors and the profound history of racist acts and cultural suppression that surrounds it. White Tears captures the interplay between art, appropriation, and genius.
While some would argue that A Visit from the Goon Squad is a series of interconnected stories, others would say it’s as much a novel as an album is a coherent unit comprised of individual songs. Call it what you will, Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle winning book is a soaring tribute to the romance of music. At the book’s heart are two central characters. Bennie is a former punk icon and record executive. Sasha is his employee. Their life stories and the stories of those in their circles compose a fantastic book that is as much about time as it is about the grit of cities like New York.
When Jude’s best friend Teddy overdoses on New Year’s Eve 1987, his mother sends him from Vermont to New York City’s East Village to live with his pot-dealing father. Once there, Teddy falls in with a crowd of straight edge punks including his half-brother Johnny. In New York, he reconnects with Eliza, the elusive daughter of his father’s girlfriend who had partied with Jude and Teddy on the night Teddy died. Set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel Ten Thousand Saints charts the lives of young people coping with issues beyond their experience. These lost children stumble and struggle to find themselves on St Mark’s Place, in CBGBs at shows, and in Thompkins Square Park. This warm and challenging novel is reminiscent of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. Henderson’s highly anticipated sophomore novel The Twelve-Mile Straight will be published in September 2017.
Another Pulitzer and National Book Award Critics Circle winner (twenty years before A Visit from the Goon Squad, in 1990), Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love revolves around two young Cuban musicians. In the immediate years after World War II, the Castillo brothers start out performing in Havana only to make their way to the bright lights of New York City. While they work by day, their nights are occupied by Mambo and the dance halls where they play. These golden years are reflected upon thirty years later through a lens marked by loss and desire.
While other DeLillo novels loom larger in contemporary culture, Great Jones Street is a biting satire of the shallow celebrity-driven world of rock and roll. Bored with the life of a successful rock career, Bucky Wunderlick drops out of his band mid-tour. Opting out of fame, he retreats to a bare bones apartment on Great Jones Street in downtown Manhattan hoping to escape. Instead, his rejection only fuels the flame of fan interest. Try as he may, there’s no way for him to leave the pull of rock stardom. Great Jones Street problematizes the fate of the individual artist in a capitalist society. It also exposes the power of obsession.