The “walk down Broadway” is one of the motifs that we introduce on the first day of Writing New York and trace throughout the term. During the opening lecture, we look at  at early manifestations such as James Kirke Paulding’s “The Stranger at Home; or a Tour in Broadway,” published in 1807 in Salmagundi:

[A] man who resides in Pearl-street or Chatham-row, derives no kind of dignity from his domicil, but place him in a certain part of Broadway … any where between the battery and Wall-street, and he straightaway becomes entitled to figure in the beau-monde, and strut as a person of prodigious consequence! … Quere, whether there is a degree of purity in the air of that quarter which changes the gross particular of vulgarity, into gems of refinement and polish? … A question to be asked but not to be answered.

This is Bryan’s section of the lecture, and he usually mentions George G. Foster’s New York by Gas-Light (1850), which is on this year’s vWNY syllabus –

Fashionable, aristocratic Broadway! Certainly we shall find nothing here to shock our senses and make our very nerves thrill with horror. Broadway, with its gay throng and dashing lights beaming from a thousand palace-like shop-fronts, where fortunes are spread out to tempt the eye of the unwary or the extravagant, surely will not afford us material for much of the horrible. … On the contrary, we shall rather be in danger of envying the fortunate position of those we see and hear on the great fashionable promenade.

– noting the likely irony of “we shall find nothing here to shock our senses,” followed by brief nods to Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) –

The flight was a bold and perilous one; but here I am, in the great city of New York, safe and sound, without loss of blood and bone. In less than a week after leaving Baltimore, I was walking amid the hurrying throng, and gazing upon the dazzling wonders of Broadway.

– and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) –

So true and well understood was this fact, that several years later a popular song detailing this and other facts concerning the afternoon parade on matinée days and entitled “What Right has he on Broadway?” was published and had quite a vogue in the music halls of the city.

– before landing in an unexpected place: Glen Campbell’s popular 1970s song “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

Most of the undergraduates in our audience have never heard — or even heard of — the song. But even those who know the song well are surprised to discover — or, perhaps, to remember — that the song is, in fact, about walking down Broadway. Here are the lyrics:

I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long
Singin’ the same old song
I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway
Where hustle’s the name of the game
And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain
There’s been a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me

Like a rhinestone cowboy
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo
Like a rhinestone cowboy
Getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know
And offers comin’ over the phone

Well, I really don’t mind the rain
And a smile can hide all the pain
But you’re down when you’re ridin’ the train
That’s takin’ the long way
And I dream of the things I’ll do
With a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe
There’ll be a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me


Or you can just watch the video:

This year, however, I don’t hear the song in quite the same way, after writing my little book on The Rolling Stones’ album Some Girls, in which I described the Stones’ song “When the Whip Comes Down” as “the bastard child of Glen Campbell’s 1975 hit “Rhinestone Cowboy” and the Ramones’ second single, “53rd and 3rd,” which was released in 1976.”

The Ramones’ song is set a few blocks north and east of Broadway and Times Square at an intersection that was notorious in the mid-Seventies as a locale for male prostitution. And “When the Whip Comes Down” is, like “Rhinestone Cowboy,” a coming to New York story: following the advice of his “mama and papa,” the song’s narrator has left Los Angeles, where he’s disparaged as a “fag,” for New York, where he can simply be “gay.” But his hopes are dashed: “wherever I go they treat me the same.” The song’s second verse puts him at “53rd and Third,” where (like the Ramones’ protagonist), he’s “learning the ropes … learning a trade.” Puts me in mind of John Rechy’s classic hustler-in-New York book, City of Night, published in 1963 by Grove Press, the same press that published Henry Miller.

 Further reading: Bryan’s thoughts on Broadway from 2006.