If the album Some Time In New York City was occasionally dominated by the overt political content of the lyrics, the song ‘New York City’ was John Lennon at his rock ‘n’ roll best, written straight from the heart as a tribute to the adopted home he had come to love.
As early as 1969 Lennon had settled on the idea of writing songs as a snapshot of a situation. The Beatles’ single ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ had recounted the whirlwind weeks which saw Lennon and Yoko Ono marry and stage their first bed-in for peace; the following year’s ‘Instant Karma’ was born of his belief in writing and recording songs quickly; and ‘Cold Turkey’, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions and Wedding Album were similarly concerned with particular moments in his life.
Two demos of ‘New York City’ was recorded on 10 September 1971 at the St Regis Hotel, where Lennon and Ono first stayed upon arriving in the city. On that day they made a film, Clock, the soundtrack of which featured Lennon performing acoustic versions of rock ‘n’ roll classics and original compositions.
The first St Regis recording of ‘New York City’ featured the up-tempo rhythm of the studio version, but had a completely different set of lyrics. Lennon’s unclear delivery suggests he was improvising the words, although the refrain “Que pasa, New York?” was present. A second attempt was briefer and saw the lyrics taking shape. It was issued on the John Lennon Anthology box set in 1998.
A second demo was made at their street-level apartment at 105 Bank Street, Greenwich Village, which Lennon and Ono had moved to on 16 October 1971. The demo was made just weeks later, and had a mostly-completed first verse. The second verse was more improvised and later rewritten, and at this stage had the opening line “Well I was shooting up speed”.
Some Time In New York City was recorded with Elephant’s Memory, a local group, in February and March 1972. By this time the song was fully formed, with a series of vignettes from Lennon and Ono’s early months living in the Big Apple.
‘New York City’ began with references to the radical social activist Jerry Rubin, and David Peel, the street musician who performed with the Lower East Side Band. Lennon first saw Peel performing in Washington Square Park in 1971, and later signed him to Apple Records.
The Jerry was Jerry Rubin. The bloke with a guitar was David Peel. You see how the album’s represented as a newspaper. Well, the song’s a bit of a journalese, like ‘Ballad Of John And Yoko’. It tells the story.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
The lyrics went on to describe Lennon’s recruitment of Elephant’s Memory into the Plastic Ono Band; his film-making with Yoko Ono, and their joy at being free to wander the streets of the city despite the Nixon administration’s efforts to deport him.
Well nobody came to bug us
Hustle us or shove us
So we decided to make it our home
If the Man wants to shove us out
We gonna jump and shout
The Statue of Liberty said, ‘Come!’
The song was performed at the One To One concerts at Madison Square Garden on 30 August 1972. Lennon and Ono headlined both the afternoon and evening shows, which were in aid of handicapped children and were Lennon’s final full-length concert appearances.
A recording from the first show was issued in 1986 as Live In New York City. The performance of ‘New York City’ opened both the concerts and the album; the recording shows that it was performed without the final verse, and in the opening lines Lennon was “waiting for her [Ono’s] album to land” rather than waiting for Jerry Rubin.