South Philly through your arteries

One of the things I love about music is how it frames one’s mental images about events, time and place. A song, album or band might remind you of an era in your life, say a semester in college or a particularly tough breakup; or of a certain activity, driving to high school in your first car, looking out your apartment window on a rainy day; or of a more abstract time, like Sunday. It’s cliché to say music is the soundtrack to our lives, but it is also a reality, a fact, except if you’re deaf or something. Music is like an audible manifestation of our emotions – at least it is for me, and I suspect other readers here.

South Philly

I’m spending a month at my sister’s house in Philadelphia, South Philly to be exact. The home of the Roots, King Britt, Jill Scott, Schoolly D and dozens of other artists. Not surprisingly, references to Philadelphia are abundant in their music, and as I make my way about the city, lyrics will pop out of my subconscious and become a lens through which I see my environs.

Jogging south down Broad Street on Monday, my earbuds blaring the track “In The Music” by the Roots, I came to appreciate (okay, not for the first time, but for the sake of this post just bear with me) the influence music has on my perception of place and time.

As I jog towards Marconi Plaza, ?uestlove drops a beat; the bass line, slow and steady, comes in; the guitar riff starts; and two measures later, Black Thought begins his lyrical tour of the city:

I’m from the illest part of the western hemisphere,
So if you’re into sight seeing don’t visit there,
It’s somewhere between Jersey and Delaware…
Philly never scared…

He goes on to describe the violence, drugs and general malaise afflicting South Philly – a description that fits perfectly with what my eyes are seeing as I run down the street. His lyrics transform my thoughts from the quotidian to the intense, as I imagine the events that have unfolded on these streets just minutes, days, weeks before my arrival, what will happened when I’m gone, and what might happen while I am there.

I turn around at Marconi Plaza and head back up Broad towards City Hall. My iPod is on a playlist I made just for running, which is coincidentally heavy on Philadelphia artists. After an Angie Stone tune and some other miscellany, just as I’m getting into Center City, another Roots gem comes on, and Black Thought again provides the overdub for my jog through downtown:

Where I’ma start it at, look I’ma part of that
Downtown Philly where it’s realer than a heart attack
It wasn’t really that ill until the start of crack
Now it’s a body caught every night on the Almanac
Rock bottom where them cops gotta problem at
Where them outsiders getting popped for they wallet at
I had nothin but I made somethin outta that
Now I’m the first out the limo like Charlie Mack
From 215 it’s him the livest one
And he’s representin Philly to the fullest

Aside from Black Thought’s lyrical agility, which never ceases to amaze, his storytelling is unrivaled. As I ran along Broad Street, it was as though I was running through a picture he had painted, past crack heads, prostitutes, a cop with an attitude, etc.

As much as I appreciate the effect that music has on me and my impressions about places, I also enjoy thinking about the impact that these places had on the artist. Black Thought penning lyrics about his neighborhood going to shit, Mos Def paying homage to his block.

As I intimated earlier, this isn’t the first time my visit to a city has been almost overshadowed by music from and about that city. My last trip to New York was so thick with references by GangStarr, Digable Planets, Mos Def, and KRS-One, that I could barely get off at a metro stop with out breaking into rhyme.

Back to Oakland

It’s not only hip-hop music, and it isn’t just east coast cities either. I can’t cross the San Francisco Bay Bridge with out thinking about Tower of Power, and their seminal Funk album Back to Oakland, and in particular their song “Don’t Change Horses.” I can’t think of the Bahamas without thinking about, strangely, Snoop Dogg (on my trip there, we drank a lot of Gin & Juice).

Laid Back

The list goes on and on.

Sadly, as big a part in my life as music plays, my listening habits trend towards the myopic, and I can easily listen to the same stuff over and over. Which is why I’m writing this post: What songs are intrinsically linked to places and times for you? What’s the song that says the most about your neighborhood, where you grew up, or a vacation you took? And what about that song makes it so characteristic of your experience?

25 responses to “South Philly through your arteries”

  1. Dave says:

    I’ve been trying to think of responses, but not much has come to mind. I’ll always associate Mojave 3’s second album with my back porch in Salt Lake, since I spent a whole summer listening to it in various states of intoxication. Neil Young’s “Albuquerque” now reminds me of my home town, although I didn’t hear it till long after I left. Actually, AC/DC puts me more in mind of Albuquerque than anything else.

  2. lisa t. says:

    Should I be embarassed to admit that Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet” is the heart of the soundtrack to my senior year of high school?

  3. Miller says:

    I totally relate to this post, as many will I’m sure. I was actually thinking of writing a post on my own blog about how certain albums are seasonal for me… the start of summer isn’t complete wihout Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, winter seems to draw me towards more electronic sounds such as Mum’s Finally We Are No One or Bjork’s Vespertine. There are so many more, hence the topic being blog worthy for me, but I always find it interesting to see what a person’s seasonal picks are. And I love when I listen to a new album and it fits perfectly into that season.

    Anyway, great post. Oh, and high school for me is all Depeche Mode…

  4. Jeremy says:

    Music that reminds me of Philly: The Fiery Furnaces’ “Chris Michaels,” Joanna Newsom’s “Sadie,” and any Polyphonic Spree (since I saw them there, with the Philly gang, in that beautiful church…). Ah, good times… Now, I’m looking forward to seeing what songs will always remind me of Montreal…

  5. Rachel says:

    Great topic, Brooke, and it’s nice to hear from you again.

    So much of the music I love is “intrinsically linked to times and places.” This is especially true of my early listening years, because I had both a smaller frame of reference and a smaller income–so every album made a bigger impact.

    The record (tape) I listened to the most when I first got my driver’s license was Squeeze’s “Singles 45s and Under.” It still reminds me of the excitement and freedom of driving around my hometown with the windows down, singing along.

    The first time I heard the Pixies’ “Debaser”, it absolutely blew the top of my skull off. I was up in the mountains with a couple of friends, where we went to blow off steam and break stuff–it’s all about cathartic violence.

    R.E.M.’s “Automatic For The People” is the soundtrack to one of my first big heartbreaks, but listening to it doesn’t make me sad, even though I associate it with walking around in a snowstorm at night. Funny–I remember Rolling Stone giving it 4.5 stars and thinking, “Well, at least this won’t embarrass me in 15 years.’ And it doesn’t!

    The New Pornographers are the best and worst of high summer: at best, a ray of pure sunshine; at worst, a sticky popsicle melting down your arm.

    Lately I’ve been listening to Fujiya & Miyagi a lot at work–hope that doesn’t ruin it for me! More likely, it will always trigger memories of how happy I was in my first year as a prof.

  6. AW says:

    Really enjoy your reflections about how music not only evokes time, or certain experiences, but also place. This is especially true for me.

  7. brooke — i’ve been drafting (well, in my brain at least) a related post for next week about what, for me, is this year’s song of the summer. it’s related, too, to last wkend’s wedding. so i’ll reserve the rest of the comment i would have written on this post and just say hey, i liked this!

    #2: yes, you should be embarrassed. but that album does remind me of my hometown, and how miserable i was there.

    my high school soundtracks: louder than bombs & staring at the sea.

  8. oh yeah — philly for me is bowie’s “station to station,” which i listened to repeatedly the summer i hung out with farrell and trixie while i finished my book (2004).

  9. Tim Wager says:

    Galaxie 500’s “On Fire” is so very much a part of my memories of the summer of 1990, when I was in grad school in Charlottesville. Pretty much everyone I knew had a copy of it, and it would invariably be playing whenever I arrived at friends’ houses for an evening of just hanging out. So many barbecues, so many beers, so much idle time in the heat and humidity of central Virginia. And such a good record.

  10. Matt Coats says:

    Great post, Brooke. It reminded me that when I was an exchange student I kept a diary where I noted (in red ink) what songs I happened to be listening to at the moment or, if I was in a particularly dramatic mood, what songs best expressed my given rage/happiness/whathaveyou. Even as a teenager I guess I knew that certain songs can carry embedded emotions better than text. Can’t wait to see ya’ll!!

  11. matt coats! not only do i love it when you comment (which happens far too infrequently), i love it even more when you insinuate that i’ll see you in only one week! i hadn’t fully realized how many friends would be at cedric and g-lock’s wedding. someone should live-blog it.

  12. Trixie Honeycups says:

    #2: Don’t be ashamed! Cheese is the new hip. Lionel Richie’s “Hello?” holds a special place in my heart and I’m proud of it.

    #3: Yes, seasons (at least here on the east coast) and certain music are definitely synced up for me as well. The first warm day of spring gets Lee Scratch Perry and maybe some vintage Bob Marley. Fall gets Charlie Mingus and some other jazz stuff, as well as Radiohead. Summer time runs the gambit. Winter usually brings a flurry (giggle) of new music – usually poppy indie stuff, as I am with family and exposed to new stuff I woudn’t normally listen to.

    #10: How cool to keep a diary of the songs that are most affecting you at the moment. A clever way to express your mood without stupid adjectives. I hate adjectives. They are stupid.

    #11: live blogging the wedding, what a great idea! we could shoot video and take pictures. oh wait…

    Looking forward to seeing/meeting lots of you this weekend!

  13. Trixie Honeycups says:

    Stupid wordpress. #12 was me, brooke. Not that freaky trixie chick.

  14. brooke — re: “hello?” … i wonder if it holds a special place for you for the same reason it does for me. we’ll have to compare notes at the wedding.

    and speaking of the wedding, since i’m finally meeting brooke that means i will rob from farrell and parrish the title of knows-each-and-every-whatsiter, since neither of them has met annie walker.

  15. brooke says:

    heh — could be Bryan. Definitely something to talk about offline ;)

    Farrell mentioned you were particularly excited to win your rightful title as knower of all the whatsiters. He’s dejected and might not even come to the wedding now.

  16. Dave says:

    Wow, so Bryan and Brooke hooked up to “Hello”?

  17. brooke says:

    oh don’t act like you weren’t there, Dave.

  18. you guys were at my music camp in 8th grade?

  19. Darrell says:

    If there is one song that epitomizes Philly (in my opinion) it has to be Summertime by Will Smith. Go to Kelly Drive on Saturday at 6:00 and you ‘ll know exaclty what Will’s talkin’ bout.

    You just finished wiping your car down
    Its time to cruise so you head to the summertime hangout
    It looks like a car show
    Everybody come lookin real fine
    Fresh from the barber shop or fly from the beauty salon
    Every moment frontin and maxin
    Chillin in the car they spent all day waxin
    Leanin to the side but you cant spead through
    Two miles an hour so everybody sees you
    Theres an air of love and of happiness
    And this is the fresh princes new defintion of summer madness

    That’s My Philly!

  20. Jen says:

    OMG – I JUST listened to Summertime by Will Smith right before I read your post, Darrell! (cue Twilight Zone music)

  21. i put summertime on a bday mix for farrell that was philly inspired a couple yrs ago. damn but i loves me that song.

  22. Brooke Maury says:

    Darrell! Awesome philly song. Good call – I wish I had that song on my iPod.

  23. Darrell says:

    Brooke – you can have any song you want on your iPod.

  24. Mamacita says:

    Perfect, timing, B, as I head my way over to see Olive Dance Theatre dance tonight on the east side in Austin. Not quite South Philly, but it has its similarities. Olive iis a hip-hop dance group from Philly, yo. Check ’em out sometime.

  25. […] Like Brooke Maury, I run to music and think about the music I run to. A month or two ago, I started listening to Dan Deacon’s frenentic new album, the beautifully named Spiderman of the Rings, just about every time I made this run. The timing was close to perfect, from the presiding trickster spirit of Woody Woodpecker on the opening track, all the way to intensifying diatonic scales on the album’s closer (is the Sol-Fa System named after another galaxy?), which would carry me through a final sprint into a cool down when I hit my block. Somewhere along the way, though, I became fixated on track 3, “Wham City,” the album’s clear standout number — and what for me quickly solidified its status as my song of summer 2007. That song clung like brand new 501s to the timing and experience of running the Manhattan Bridge. I liked it so much I started playing it again when I’d cross the other bridge on my way back. […]