Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Glenn Frey's "You Belong to the City"

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, much of the global population has left rural spaces for urban ones. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, "a whole shitload of people live in the City now." Of course, there are major differences between the City and the Country. Where the Country is full of self-reliant, weather-beaten figures who live off the fat of the land and generate home-spun wisdom like Creationism, the City is filled with "Street Smart" people who can't live without cell phones, public transportation, or Whole Foods supermarkets. These are not stereotypes, but unfalsifiable facts. Where the Country might get you eaten by bears if you're not careful, the City will literally eat you alive. If the City was a person, it would be a cannibal. The growling stomach of this metaphorical cannibal actually produces a soundtrack of city sounds: car horns, corkscrew gusts of wind winding their way through high-rise buildings, subway trains, bass-heavy music, jackhammers, and the intrusive voices of self-delusionally important people talking on their iPhones. But for the real City person, the ultimate soundtrack of the urban existence is the slow-burn saxophone solo. You City folk know EXACTLY what I'm talking about: When you're walking down a poorly lit street in a sketchy neighborhood, brooding and lost in thought, those pesky, puppy-dog sounds of the the slow-burn sax solo follow your every footstep until you step into Starbucks. It took nearly 150 years for a musical genius to put this urban reality into a brilliant pop song. We can thank Eagles veteran Glenn Frey for realizing this in his 1985 classic "You Belong to the City."

Glenn Frey, one of the tortured angels behind the 1970s supergroup the Eagles, proves his solo bona fides once again with "You Belong to the City," as truthful a song as has ever been composed. Completing the career trifecta begun by "The Heat is On" and "Smuggler's Blues," this track is his tour de force and a definitive moment in the history of song. Sure, it's not the first song to prominently feature a sexed-out saxophone lead. We must not forget another one of the 1980s' most fabulous songs, "Careless Whisper," by Wham. The lead that begins that sultry track, played by Steve Gregory, literalizes George Michael's poetry when he sings, "Guilty feet ain't got no rhythm." Truer words have not been spoken.

However, in "You Belong to the City," underrated saxophonist Bill Bergman takes the slow-burn saxophone lead into a whole other dimension of sheer awesomeness. Thanks to Frey's great skills as an arranger, the listener is initiated into this musical cityscape by Bergman's sax. The tone is sensuous yet menacing, approximating the film noir reality of city life, except now it's rendered in glorious Technicolor and stars Don Johnson. Then, brilliantly, Glenn Frey turns on the sweet sounds of the drum machine, which is perfectly timed to the speed of feet walking on city concrete, creating the perfect urban rhythm. I can't even begin to tell you how genius this is. Frey's voice, soothing as lotion, spins a seedy narrative about a man probably not unlike himself, unable to express himself in words--or not without double negatives--a wandering soul, "movin' through the crowd," an apparition, anonymous in the hustle and bustle of the city night. He lives "in a river of darkness / beneath the neon lights," while being "on the run." The only way for him to express himself is for saxophonist Bill Bergman to literally follow him around aimlessly as he broods about the city being "in [his] moves" and "in [his] blood." I think we all know exactly how he feels. After listening to this great cut, we all belong to the city, even if we literally live in vast wilds of Australia or in Wasilla, Alaska. It is exactly Glenn Frey's knack for generic melodrama and 80s music-by-numbers studio wizardry that makes "You Belong to the City" such a universal listening experience.

Here is the monumental video for this song:

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