14th Street - Rufus Wainwright
You walked me down 14th Street
For the doctor to meet after thoughts of the grave
In the home of the brave and of the weak
I’m kicking off this week by talking about the song that first introduced me to Rufus in the first place, and what is, personally, the ultimate torch song to both a city and to a person.
I first heard this song when a friend had recommended it to me when I told her I was visiting New York for a few weeks. She sent me a playlist she had put together of songs to score the journey she had made just a few months back, all about New York one way or another. When I heard this song, I didn’t listen to a single other one on the list, nor many other songs for that matter, for a good week or so – and then more, when I was lying on the floor of the balcony of the shared apartment, looking at the sunset over the Manhattan skyline, breathlessly trying to recover from the first Broadway show I had ever seen.
And a few nights later, bestockinged and in a red dress, I actually watched Rufus! In the flesh, all by myself! Having failed to convince my friends to accompany me to what they considered an altogether too niche artiste. Sitting alone, looking up in awe at the glorious ceiling of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, holding my breath as Montauk segued, as I knew it would, into 14th Street and absolutely everything in the world stopped.
For a long time after, when I needed to refill the part of me that lacked soul, I listened to this song, let an ode to the city of dreams set to soaring theatrics make me feel whole again. It’s about heartbreak, I knew, but I was young, I was twenty two, and heartbreak or no, emotions that ran that deep and that true still rang net good to bad for me. The pain Rufus sang about was a price I thought I was more than willing to pay, just so as to inhabit streets as alive as New York.
Fast forward some time - I couldn’t listen to this song at all for the past year. It curdled, turned into a reminder of a heartbreak so acute, and what felt like at that time, so massive, that anything remotely related to New York felt like it was gouging me out with several scalpels at once. Rufus sings, Why’d you have to break / all my heart? / Couldn’t you have saved / a minor part of it? And he asks the question we all ask in such heartbreaks, when the person does not simply walk away but ensures that they leave you an utter devastation – rubble where there was once a towering city.
That’s the thing with some kinds of loves, in some kinds of places.
The year I broke up, he left me feeling like I was holding him back from living a life better, bigger, brighter than I could ever be – and said I was the complete opposite of, really. Holding him back from living in New York, holding him back from living a life that meant everything I wasn’t – or so he said. So 14th Street, from being a song that embodied everything I loved about an idea of a future me in a future city, to a particularly cruel reminder of a world I was now barred from ever having with him. The song just hurt too much – the yearning of a person and a city, as Rufus describes streets that have been lit in your memory with the kind of acuteness borne from stepping down them hand in hand with a lover. It voided me more than I could bear.
Some months ago it came up on shuffle on my phone again, and I didn’t press skip. That night, and many nights after, on rides home I simply hit repeat on iTunes and let the song play again, and again, and again.
14th Street for me is the kind of love that’s a love for a person but also for a place. For when you have a love that mixes up the two, for when you have a place that’s come to represent altogether too much, in a way you know you should pry apart but can’t, when the memory of a person is so seared into your head and your heart with so much of yourself – your past, your present, and what you thought was your future. The memories in your head of a place that you got to know with them, and which you finally, after some time, after a lot of new streets travelled inward and outward, can revisit and rewrite with new dreams, with new loves, with a newly imagined idea of home.
Don’t ever change, don’t ever worry
Because I’m coming back home tomorrow
To 14th Street where I won’t hurry
And where I’ll learn how to save, not just borrow
And they’ll be rainbows and we will finally know