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Tracy Chapman – at Roseland, New York … and so it goes on.

Screenshot 2019-03-31 at 19.10.46

I was in New York City at the dawn of our new millennium. One of the people staying with me on West 54th street said that Tracy Chapman would be ‘just down the road’ giving a concert in Roseland. So we went. He secured some last-minute tickets and we arrived just in time for her ‘set’ to begin. It was a great night – strangely hypnotic – and the lighting was mesmerising. Tracy Chapman performed most of the songs on her new album ‘Telling stories’.

She did not play her early song ‘Subcity’ which was not surprising but nonetheless I would have liked to hear it. I would have liked to hear it because a few blocks north of me a kind of cardboard city existed. It was just up the road from the site of the John Jay College of the City University, New York. (That’s where I was teaching.) Cardboard city was a version of Tracy Chapman’s Subcity. This was a place where people barely survived – barely existed. This was ground zero minus 1. This was the underclass.

Whilst I was in New York I thought a great deal about the various lives played out by the people of the great city. I thought about the bejewelled beauties going in and out of Trump tower and I thought of the contrasts – and of my students who were coming to the College from the distant parts of Queens and Brooklyn, the Bronx and even further – from Philadelphia and so on. Things were not easy for them. Life, as Tracy Chapman said was ‘hard’. It was hard for many of my students and some of them thought that the dream was over; in its place, there’s was to be a never-ending struggle.

I was reminded again – now almost two decades later – of Tracy and her ‘Subcity’ when I was shopping in my home town: Outside a supermarket was a man – a destitute man – arranged on cardboard – and accompanied by his dear sweet dog. He looked in a really bad way. And all round him in the car park were the most superb cars you could ever imagine. It’s strange that this is the way things are. This man is part of our own subcity; And, here in the UK, subcity morphs into, overlaps with, the shabby desolate unkempt places (‘communities’) up and down the whole of the land.

As I walked home from the supermarket I recalled my days in New York and the early songs of Tracy Chapman. And I sang a few lines from the song that, once again, played its tune to me: I sang:

Won’t you please, please give the prime minister my honest regards for disregarding me …’

Here are some verses from Tracy’s original lyrics: It’s a good song and perhaps we should give it a higher profile than we currently do.

People say it doesn’t exist
‘Cause no one would like to admit
That there is a city underground
Where people live everyday
Off the waste and decay
Off the discards of their fellow man

Here in subcity life is hard
We can’t receive any government relief
Won’t you please, please give the President my honest regards
For disregarding me

They say there’s too much crime in these city streets
My sentiments exactly
Government and big business hold the purse strings
When I worked I worked in the factories
I’m at the mercy of the world
I guess I’m lucky to be alive

Here in subcity life is hard
We can’t receive any government relief
Won’t you please, please give the President my honest regards
For disregarding me

They say we’ve fallen through the cracks
They say the system works
But we won’t let it help
I guess they never stop to think
We might just want handouts
Way to make an honest living
Living – this ain’t living …

… What did I do deserve this
Had my trust in god
Worked everyday of my life
Thought I had some guarantees
That’s what I thought
At least that’s what I thought

I’d like to please give the President my honest regards
Oh, for disregarding me

PS: The photos above and below are taken from an early open-air concert in which Tracy Chapman performed. It is not Roseland.

Screenshot 2019-03-31 at 19.24.00

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Hello Rob
    An interesting link back to your time at John Jay.
    I wonder if the British police still retain any link there?
    Incidentally, the misuse of the word ‘community’ files me with dread. A community centre is almost by definition, not a community centre. Real community centres do not have labels. Orwell, come back to us! Your words on the misuse of language are needed more than ever.
    Trump tower, on the other hand, is honest, and the US President, whatever his faults, is the spirit of the age…
    Best wishes
    Peter

    April 1, 2019

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