When I first visited New York in 1991, there were two things I absolutely had to do. One was to see the Brill Building, the place that had spawned so much music I loved. The other was to visit a proper New York diner. An old friend, a grizzled industry man called Jerry Jaffe, took us to the Carnegie Deli, the setting for much of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose. I ordered a burger, which was huge, and picked it up. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” growled Jerry, “I’d use a knife and fork.” I ignored him, boiling juices ran over my fingers, and I dropped it back on the plate. Over coffee he called me a “fucking idiot” for pronouncing Laura Nyro as if it rhymed with Biro. I was in New York. It was exactly what I’d hoped for.
For me, these were the ingredients of the classic diner, the kind I’d seen in everything from Rosemary’s Baby to Rhoda: aluminium, stainless steel, vinyl booths, veteran waiters, neon signage and a counter with screwed-down leatherette stools. On the wall, framed photos of random celebrities: Al Martino, Steve Martin, maybe Lesley Gore. On the menu, matzo ball soup, stuffed cabbage, homemade chicken soup. On the table, a cup and saucer which magically fills with coffee before you’ve finished it. Walking around, I marvelled at the single-storey diners – with nothing but air conditioning units on the roof – sat right alongside skyscrapers. With the area’s unreal property prices and freshly discovered “air rights”, these places are now scarce. Like the London café, the Manhattan diner is an endangered species. Like the yellow cab, the diner made New York City look like New York City.
I had an image in my head of how New York diners had to look. So how should they sound? Well, that’s in the ear of the native or the visitor. This collection opens with the sound of the city at dusk, a finger-snapper from a bunch of sessioneers found on the flip of Frankie Valli’s ‘(You’re Gonna) Hurt Yourself’ in 1966. It ends with the sun coming up through the steamed-up window of the 24-hour diner, the sound of a new day from the Tradewinds: ‘New York’s A Lonely Town’ they’d sung in ’65; ‘Catch Me In The Meadow’ from two years later reflected the break for West Coast sunshine and space that so many of the Broadway songwriters were starting to make as the Brill Building era closed.