Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Old 97s on Broadway

Times Square, old and new
Old 97's are a great American rock and roll band. It's no surprise to me that one of the best song about New York City in recent years was written by a guy born and raised in Dallas. Old 97s songwriter Rhett Miller moved from Dallas to Manhattan (via Los Angeles) in the late 1990s as his band was on the cusp of leaving the indie label Bloodshot for Elektra Records. "We landed [in New York]... and rode in a limousine to the Paramount, a swanky hotel 'just off Times Square'," Miller wrote. "The lobby was as massive as the rooms were tiny, and everything about the hotel seemed to ooze the kind of hipness that inflates the nightly rate by about 80%."
My room looked out across a narrow street, into the large windows of a dance studio where a ballet class was in full swing. If it is possible to fall in love with twenty-five women simultaneously, that is what happened to me the moment I looked out that window.

As I stood in that tiny room, I did the math. I could live for a month in my East Dallas garage apartment for the amount of money Elektra was paying per night at the Paramount Hotel. Granted, my accommodations in Dallas were humble to say the least, but this was some serious opulence. If you ever wonder why the old “major label” business model failed, look no further than the money lavished on our little Texas rock band by the dozen or so labels that wooed us that summer. Ridiculous.
Miller had his guitar, "a bunch of nervous energy, and an hour to kill before dinner." He wanted to impress his new label bosses, but mostly he wanted to capture "the feeling I had at that moment–the feeling of being on the brink of something huge. My life was changing right before my eyes. The dream I’d fostered since adolescence was coming true." The song came quickly.
I am the innocent of the song, but I’m not. I have always been too aware to be "unaware." That night, even as my dreams were coming true, I was laughing at the silliness of it all, the overblown nature of these things we build up, these goals to which we attach ultimate significance. You know what’s real? This moment, this breath, a long and lonesome high note, and that lovely roomful of dancers.
"Broadway" appears on 1997's Too Far to Care. Miller's lyrics capture his disorientation and fearful awe, and the rise and fall of his melody in the verses chart his hopes and realizations, but the transcendent chorus sends the song to a place that's somehow both timeless and new—what one feels visiting New York City for the first time. The yearning, ache, and melancholy of the chorus capture the splendor and the decadence, potential and heartbreak of the moment. Feeling crass or cynical about city living? Spin this cut and you'll feel innocence again. This moment, this breath, a long and lonesome high note, indeed.

Old '97s in '97.

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