Well, not exactly. Just as famous Americans like Justin Bieber, Pamela Anderson, Jim Carrey, Alanis Morissette, Neil Young, and Michael J. Fox aren’t American at all, a number of things dubbed as being from New York are from a different State altogether. The New York Giants, the New York Jets and the New York Red Bulls (née Metrostars) all play in New Jersey.
Similarly, if you search for a flight to airport code NYC, your ticketing website will bring up flights to JFK and La Guardia airports in the New York City borough of Queens, and to Newark airport in Newark, NJ. That’s where my flight landed. The Airtrain that connects passengers to the MTA’s New York City subway was closed for repairs, so I spent the Friday evening rush hours on a bus crawling through the home state of Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Tony Soprano, and Kevin Smith’s Clerks.
The journey wasn’t a total bust. The odd play of the light on the bus’s window inspired a haiku that captured nicely, I hope, the spirit of transience at the centre of Zen practice:
of the road, a reflection.
the moving cars, real
As the bus continued its trip, I watched the sky. When I moved to Texas for a year in 1994, the sky seemed higher and wider than the one I’d left in Edinburgh. It was, I suppose, I suppose, a 19-year-old’s sky. The sky over New Jersey in 2014 looked Scottish, but without the light behind the Edinburgh clouds that the contented 39-year-old happily accepts as a promise of spring. A thunderstorm was gathering before unleashing itself on the city across the river.
If the Jets and Giants weren’t confusing enough, I was being ferried to Newark Penn Station, where a New Jersey Transit train would take me on to New York Penn Station. Y’know, as opposed to Penn Station in Philadelphia.
The express New Jersey Transit train to Manhattan stops just once on its way into the city, in Secaucus. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought that Secaucus is a great name for a place. It’s a derivation of the Algonquian words for “black” and “snake”, but that’s neither here nor there. The sound of it pleases me. Something in the play of the soft “s”s, the hard “c”s and the long vowel sounds.
I’m not alone in that. Anti-prolific Jersey band, The Wrens called their second album Secaucus. It elicited rave reviews, but seven years passed before the follow-up, The Meadowlands, emerged to a similar critical reaction in 2003. (I’m listening to The Meadowlands as I write this, and it is great. Makes the fact that we’re waiting for Wrens IV unfortunate. But The Wrens’ website does bear the motto “Keeping folks waiting since 1989.”
The reason for these delays is that the members of Wrens keep busy. Notwithstanding the good notices, neither Secaucus nor The Meadowlands was a radio-friendly unit-shifter. After the release of Secaucus, The Wrens’ record label was taken over by a guy “who wanted to refocus the label on scoring more mainstream popularity and hit songs.” He got his wish with Creed and Evanescence, the poor sod. The label issues, together with exhaustion, writer’s block, re-writing and the scrapping of songs led to The Meadowlands‘ long gestation. The problems with the record labels are usually cited as the reason for the slow progress on the album, although in a 2004 interview Charles Bissell conceded that a far bigger problem had been the combination of exhaustion, writer’s block and lack of confidence in the new material which caused them to extensively re-write or scrap many songs.
While we wait for [let’s call it The Pine Barrens, shall we?], Greg and Kevin Whelan have been working for a multinational pharmaceutical company in NYC, and Jerry MacDonald has been working in the sales division of a financial services company in Philly.
With this in mind, I sought out a copy of The Meadowlands upon my return to Scotland. I’m listening to it as I complete this post, and it’s great. Its long gestation, Heather Phares’ review in AllMusic suggests, may be what provides the album’s sprawling quality that demands repeat listens as it distils the best of American alternative music of the past forty years into an hour. The lyrics concentrate the disappointments of too many years into affecting songs, and listening to it now, knowing the circumstances in which The Wrens created this “nearly universally acclaimed disc of bright literate pop” (The New York Times) containing “some unique achievements within the stifling parameters of indie-rock” (NME) adds another layer of beauty.
The Meadowlands‘ existence is like the journey from New York to Newark. Amid the brutal bridges and thrusting smokestacks that punctuate and puncture Tony Soprano’s drive through the opening credits of his eponymous series, are the sprawling woodlands of Northern New Jersey. They’re quite beautiful, and emblematic of this State that lives in the shadow of the Empire State and produces dreamers and workers and worker-dreamers.
And that’s the thing, I suppose. Just as the best of our friends and lovers bring out the best in us, we can all imbue the everyday with the beauty we desire. Even if we live in our own private Jersey, and it takes a monumental act of will.