Lyric of the Week: BELT PARKWAY SONG
The heat comes down
On Brooklyn town
I should take it easy but I’m working like a dog
New York City
Take a whiff of that fresh July smog
The Verrazano Bridge
Running dirty errands for the borough prez
Who gives a damn ‘bout what my boss man sez
Well I thought I got far when I went to work for the city
They gave me a car but nothing else looks pretty
A hundred and eighty bucks a week don’t make ends meet
Down on my luck wrong way up a one way street
Always on the mark
I get all the red lights in the neighborhood
in the rush hour push
As far as the eye can see it doesn’t look good
Weird twist of fate
I’m stuck in traffic creeping down the Belt
I think that very soon I’m gonna melt
This time of day traffic never moves fast
Trucks get stuck under the overpass
Overheat shutdown dehydration busted hoses
No damn luck with dirty looks or tough guy poses
Oh what a thrill
Part of the municipal scam
Loss of speech
Tryin’ hard to avoid the jam
What could be worse
The sights go by in a whirl
Nothing here to see
But tonight I’m gonna see my girl
You gotta be real before you call a spade a spade
Working away your life just to get a Cadillac just ain’t a fair trade
It don’t matter where you are it’s still the same
Down on my luck and it’s a cryin’ shame
©2016 The Hesh Inc.
These lyrics were written in June 1986, when I was stationed with my army unit in an open field in the Golan Heights, facing the Syrian border. The words have absolutely nothing to do with that situation, except that they completely took me out of there to a remembered part of the titular Brooklyn highway. Yes, I was in the east but my heart and mind were very much in the west.
Radio was a very important part of that leg of my service, because we'd often endure long stretches with absolutely nothing to do except wait for an alert that would hopefully never come. Two of the songs on the radio at the time were "City Boy Blues" by Mötley Crüe and "Lessons in Love" by Level 42. Using these songs as a template, I wrote these words, imagining the singer/narrator/main character as a small-time hood who was dragooned into the municipal service doing odd jobs for under-the-table remuneration.
The music came about five years later, when I was working as a limousine driver on trips that often took me down that very same Belt described in the song as I made my way to and from JFK Airport. The chord progression in the verses is a little bit from "Constant Craving" by k. d. lang, and in the chorus from "We Don't Talk Anymore" by Cliff Richard (amazing what sorts of bits and pieces remain stored in the memory banks for future use). The first two verses and choruses move along at a midtempo clip, with a guitar-harmonic 'blip' on the 1 and the 3 beats signifying streetlights and/or airplane signal flashers slipping along by the roadside as the car proceeds toward the airport. (The 'blip,' by the way, dates back to a much earlier time—I imagined that the plane-signaling flashers made that sound when I traveled past them as a small child in the back of my parents' car during our numerous trips on the Belt.)
Then, somewhere near Flatbush Avenue/Marine Park, traffic gets weird, and the music metamorphoses into a string-driven Hungarian csárdás interlude (influenced heavily by the orchestration style of my grade-school music teacher, Hershel Lebovits, on several notable Jewish-music albums in the 1970s; in the interlude, the strings chug over a piano figure I came up with myself, at around age 8 or so) and then a high-kicking pseudo-jazz interlude (nicked from the "Number Painter" comedy sketches on TV's Sesame Street) before coming back to the midtempo cruise in the third verse. By the last chorus, the singer realizes his life is going nowhere and hints that he wants out, but he keeps cruising eastward down the Belt, music fading out until all that are left are the streetlamps.
While the song was never performed live, it was recorded at the Electronic Music Lab at Brookdale Community College, where I was working on my AA degree, in the winter of 1994. It was my high honors project for the Electronic Music class. The professor, Joe Accurso, a Brooklyn native, loved the arrangement and said the various segments of the song really evoked the various parts of the Belt sonically. I am proud to say that the recording put me over the top, guaranteeing my A+ grade (don't mind my bragging; my time at Brookdale was a good time in my life!).
What you are hearing in the recording is an E-Mu Proteus synthesizer run through a MIDI interface to a Voyetra Sequencer Plus Gold digital sequencing program, considered cutting edge at the time. None of the instruments are analog. Vocals were added later at a studio outside of Philadelphia and mixed there.
The song was released on a collection of my demos titled Everybody's in the Money, released in 2002 on the now-defunct mp3.com. The album is out of print but you can find the song on SoundCloud, embed link above.