Friday, November 19, 2010

City of Angels

City of Angels (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe)


Heaven, is this heaven where we are?

See them walking, if you dare
if you call that walking
stumble, stagger, fall and drag themselves
along the streets of heaven

Where is the blessed table
to feed all who hunger on earth
welcomed and seated each one joyfully served?
see them walking, if you dare
if you call that walking
stumble, stagger, fall and drag themselves
along the streets of heaven

Where is the halo
that should glow 'round your face
and where are the wings that
should grow from your shoulder blades?

show them to me

These sobering sights I've seen
in the City of Angels
have all been one rude awakening
that was due to me in heaven

There would have been heavenly music
I was convinced before
and a host of the dearly to meet me
with hosannas sung at the door

But these sobering sights I've seen
in the City of Angels
have all been one rude awakening
that was due to me
in this city of fallen angels

You can't escape your hometown. You can leave it, but it will follow you wherever you go, hiding in your luggage and traveling on your back no matter how far away from home you get. Most people have a complicated relationship with the place where they grew up. Some have absolute love for their hometown, others have absolute hate (especially if they grew up in a small town, it seems), but the majority of people fall somewhere in between those two extremes. I am definitely in the latter category. So it seems relevant for me to now make a hometown is Los Angeles.

Don't you judge me!

I was still relatively young when my family left L.A. and I distinctly remember a conversation that took place within days of our move. My sister told a new acquaintance that we were from Los Angeles and the girl replied, " you're one of those girls who cries when she breaks a nail." I was outraged! And a little amused because the truth was my sister was exactly the kind of person who would cry when she broke a nail. It was eye-opening to see how others viewed us.

But childhood nostalgia is a powerful thing. And since nostalgia has no greater companion than music, songs about Los Angeles have always had a special place in my heart. I was just a kid when I first heard the song Free Fallin' by Tom Petty, but I remember thrilling at the lines "Move west down Ventura Boulevard" and "I wanna glide down over Valhalla." That's my city he's talking about!

I know that at this point you must be thinking I have completely forgotten about the Natalie Merchant portion of Annie's Natalie Merchant Compendium Blog, but I haven't. And I'm not about to massively twist the meaning of this week's song into some sort of ode to the city of my youth. Rather, I acknowledge that City of Angels delivers Los Angeles a searing denunciation that is richly deserved.

Lots of people have concluded that the song speaks strictly about the homelessness in L.A., but I found this quote from Natalie particularly insightful:

"When we were there, I was out walking - which is an unusual thing in L.A. - and I saw this man sobbing in the middle of the sidewalk, in front of a bank. And he didn't look like a homeless person, just a crushed person, really distraught. It just made me really resolved to write the song." - Sounds, October 1987

When I read those words, it struck me that only in a big city could something like this happen and go widely unnoticed, or rather, unacknowledged. When you live in a place that is filled to the brim with hopeless, desperate and unstable people, it's easy to become impervious to their displays of emotion.

But in walks Natalie, eyes wide open. This has been a key to her songwriting from the very beginning. Her natural abilities as a writer likely meant that she would have written decent songs no matter what topics she chose to write about. Those topics could very easily have been any of the following: boys, drugs, parties, boys, unspecified rage, dancing, boys, general rebellion, overdrinking, and maybe even boys. But instead, she wisely chose from the outset of her career to focus her compassions on the world around her. My guess is that this wasn't entirely a conscientious decision, but a natural result of a kind-hearted disposition.

City of Angels reminds me not to tune people out, for emotional self-preservation or any other selfish reason. It also reminds me to avoid over-romanticizing my geographical past and keep my hometown reminiscing in the proper perspective. Take that, Tom Petty!

One more quick note before I sign off - did anyone get a chance to hear Natalie performing City of Angels on her most recent tour? I did and I thought it sounded incredible. Incredible enough to make me start fantasizing about an album wherein which Natalie does her own renditions of some of those older Maniacs songs. Not likely, I know, but one can dream.

See you next week!

Download City of Angels on Itunes: City of Angels - In My Tribe

1 comment:

  1. Great summary of the song and the insights for writing the song. Natalie is kind hearted and is moved by her experiences.