The soul of New York City from an outsider’s perspective can be either of two things: incredibly big and scary or exciting and full of potential. With a myriad of streets, people, and smells, a traveler can either reject it or embrace it. Texas country singer Rich O’Toole opted to sink his spurs in the latter with his big and shining paean to the Big Apple, his new single “New York City”.
Equal parts John Mellencamp and Steve Earle, his music may be more suited to Nashville’s Broadway than NYC’s, but O’Toole proves that if you pronounce things like a New Yorker (e.g. pronouncing “Houston Street” HOW-stən and not HYOO-stən), there’s room for you in the Big Apple.
Sporting his cowboy boots into the bright lights of Theater Row, “New York City” reads a bit like a Fodors Guide to New York City, offering a geographic road map to his carousing. “From Broome Street to Amsterdam / Walked these streets with no plan” but with plenty of bars and “high class women” in between, he absorbed the nightlife with gusto.
“’New York City’ represents the record – it shows you the path I was taking personally,” he echoes. “I was going out a lot – going to restaurants and just kind of exploring the city which is wild.”
Thankfully, his accompanying video, which American Songwriter is premiering today, celebrates the down and grungy native hangouts instead of the tourist traps. From authentic late night Chinese cuisine at Wo Hop (where many music industry handshake deals have been made over a plate of lo mein), to Lower East Side’s storied music venue Arlene’s Grocery , to rotating the Alamo Cube in Astor Place, he sees the City through the wide eyes of a college kid from a small town who’s let loose for the first time sans parents. “New York City is a wild place, kind of like an adult playground – you can get in a lot of trouble,” he laughs.
The fond memories and fluky beauty he relives in his song “New York City” isn’t layered with coats of nostalgic gloss, but with nicks and cracks. While part of his sobering look is due to the city’s balance of glaring opulence and trashy dives, the actual circumstances that surrounded his sojourn in the city may have had an underlying influence. His friend whose apartment he subleased for four months committed suicide soon after she returned and he went home (the song “Kate” on this album was written as tribute to her). This adds a pallor of grayness onto the flashing lights of Times Square. “I’d rented her apartment in New York for the summer while she was in Martha’s Vineyard,” he says. “Right after she got back to her place she killed herself. There’s been death in my life, but hers was just so heartbreaking.”
But through it all, he still carries fond memories and sentimentality for that city. His cowboy boots may still be covered in grime and the rancid smells of New York City streets, but as he ends his song with a note of hope and pleasant approval. “These bars and women gave me a home /and kept me stoned / New York City, you’ve got my vote.”