Track-by-Track: “66th and City”

Back in June, I read an article about prog rock in the New Yorker. If you’re not familiar with prog, it’s a category of rock exemplified by bands like Yes, King Crimson, early Genesis, and arguably Pink Floyd whose songs tended to be fairly long pieces marked by various movements akin to those in classical music. One point the New Yorker article made was that prog pushed rock far beyond the boundaries of the three-minute pop song, an idea that inspired me to explore alternative song structures in tracks like “Thank You for Holding” and this one, “66th and City.” Not coincidentally, before I started writing and recording vocals for “66th and City,” its filename was “Progger.”

Many prog acts of the late 60s used an early ancestor of the synthesizer called a Mellotron to give their music the full, lush sound of an orchestra — or at least to attempt to do so. Mellotrons have a fairly distinctive sound, and I used Mellotron samples in a few different places throughout Thank You for Holding, most notably the flute solo that makes appearances on various tracks. For “66th and City,” I used a Mellotron sample that sounds more like a string section than a flute, and I played it against a fairly rudimentary drum beat and guitar riff.

At about the same time I was reading the New Yorker article and laying down the basic track for the song that would become “66th and City,” my wife and I were painting our living room, stairway, and upstairs hallway. One thing that kept occurring to me as I painted some of the more obscure corners of these spaces was that nobody would ever see them — and that, in fact, I would probably never look at them again myself, at least not until the next time they need a fresh coat of paint. Hence, “I painted corners of this house nobody will ever see.”

From there, I started to think about houses that have been reclaimed by nature. Every now and then, I’ll be driving somewhere and see an abandoned house with weeds pushing through the basement windows or trees poking through what’s left of the roof. Whenever I see a house in such a condition, I think about the people who lived there once — what their lives were like, what they did to keep the house up, how they loved their home before it fell on harder times. That’s essentially what this piece is about.

The title “66th and City” refers to a house I saw once while I was driving through a particular city. It had all the telltale signs of an abandoned home, and I started thinking my usual thoughts about such places. That’s when I connected my train of thought regarding painting my own living room to the kinds of dilapidated, abandoned homes that always catch my eye: At some point, someone who lived in this house also took the time to paint corners nobody would ever see!

Then I started thinking about all of the people and various families who may have lived in that house over the years– and how the house itself is a kind of repository of memories. What if all those people left impressions in the house? What if those impressions — or ghosts, for lack of a better word — started to blend into each other? What if as the house started to deteriorate, the boundaries between all of the ghosts of the people who once lived there started to blur?

That’s basically what’s going on in the song. The house is trying to make sense of all of the memories it holds, but the memories are starting to bleed into one another. That’s why I included the otherwise howlinglly unlikely line, “We had a child once if I remember right, but then again it could have been a dog.” The house, having taken on the identities of everyone who’s lived within its walls, remembers at least two of its resident families but has clearly confused them.

Granted, its an odd conceit for a song, but prog rock is full of odd conceits. Consider, for example, “Tarkus” by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which follows the adventures of a tank-like Armadillo. By comparison, the ruminations of a confused abandoned house come off as somewhat pedestrian.

Another way this track reflects elements of prog is that I recorded it as three separate movements and considered making them separate tracks on the album before eventually deciding to splice them all together. The first movement is the “I painted corners of this house” section, the second is the the confused dilapidated house segment, and the third is the part where the trees and other plants take over and nature reclaims its territory.

66th and City

I’ve painted corners of this house
Nobody will ever see.
These lives I’ve led.
These tears I’ve shed.
I’ve painted corners of this house.

We lived, we laughed, we longed, we loved within these walls.
We dreamed, we planned, we fought, we cried, we played.
And now old photographs are all that’s left of us,
The memories have all begun to fade.

And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
Where people used to sleep.

We had a child once, I think, if I remember right.
Then again it could have been a dog.
We drift like ghosts and pass among these plasterboards,
The house a living catalog.

And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
And now the weeds grow
Where people used to sleep.

The sun shines bitter on the roof.
The rain falls uglier than truth.
Windows crack, the ceiling drips,
Floorboards rot, lead paint chips.

Thick roots wrap like fingers
’Round rusted sewer pipes
Green shoots poke through cracks in concrete
Reaching for the light.

The sun shines bitter on the roof.
The rain falls heavier than truth.
I’ve painted corners of this house
Nobody will ever see.
And now the weeds grow
Where people used to sleep.

10 thoughts on “Track-by-Track: “66th and City”

  1. Genius. You made me cry. I love it. I love the sound, and the lyrics, the whole thing. It is amazing. I also love to look at those old houses. Right now I am living in one of them, 107 years old, abandoned and loved again. Well, I didn’t paint the walls, I boarded them. I want everybody to enjoy this song so much, that I am going to share the post. The Grievers became a favorite book that earned a permanent place on my bookshelf, and this song I have to say, is very special. Boy, you have a gift to get people’s locked feelings out. Keep up the amazing work. God bless you.

  2. Holy cow, Marc, well, you also made me shed a tear! Damn, but this is a powerful tune!

    I do the same thing when I pass by these kinds of once-homes…I try to reach into the house-memories and get the feel of all who’ve lived there before…get the FEEL of the house in its heydays. I simply love: “I’ve painted corners of this house/Nobody will ever see.” And: “We had a child once, I think, if I remember right./Then again it could have been a dog.”

    The imagery…the lyrics!…the music…are the most emotionally powerful of all your tunes I’ve heard so far! As inkspeare above said, this is genius–*you* are genius!

    I also have to admit, I’ve been having difficulty with a certain short story I’d written about a dilapidated and deserted house wherein which nasty things had occurred and have been unsure and conflicted about how to deal with the storyline…and your song has given me a way to perhaps better approach it, and I thank you for that!

    “And now the weeds grow/Where people used to sleep.”

    Wow. EXCELLENT work, Marc! You have positively blown me away!

    • Thanks, Frank! I’m so glad that this song is reaching the people it needs to reach! At a little over six-and-a-half minutes and given the subject matter, it definitely isn’t music for the masses… But given your thinky proclivities (not to mention the kinds of things you think about!), I was hoping you’d enjoy this one… Glad to offer some perspective on the story you’re working on, and I can’t wait to read it!

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