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“But I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive like suicide…” Original Goodnight New York Lyrics

BJA "Goodnight New York" Lyrics Owned by Mary Rosenblatt

Back in late September-October 2010 when Billie Joe Armstrong first performed in American Idiot for a week on Broadway, he ended his run on October 3. That night he penned a little song and sang it to New York City before the Good Riddance encore. No one knew then, not even him, that he was going to come back for two months in 2011 to star in the show as St. Jimmy. I went to a lot of the shows that week for fear of never seeing him perform again in the show. Hearing him sing this little song live was one of those bittersweet moments that you only get once or so in a lifetime. Sweet because it was a love song to my city of New York and the amazing experience of the theater, and bitter because all fleeting moments of pure happiness are like that in the end.

The song was called, Goodnight New York.

“I left my blood like bullets over broadway… the fire of the footlights at the St. James… with broken in legs and roses over New York… these goodnight songs of long lost love and war… But I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive like suicide… So goodnight, goodnight, New York.”

The tune possessed a strain of both joy and melancholy that cut right through my heart. Sometimes when I’m really down in New York (as has been the case a lot this winter, particularly since the holiday season started), I repeat in my mind the lyrical refrain, “But I’m alive… I’m alive… I’m alive like suicide… .” I grab onto it like a lifeline so that I hold on and hold out for yet another winter of being alive. Winter is my least favorite season and I get all kinds of down throughout it. The lyric has helped me to fiercely remember the actual joy of life and encourages me to grab onto every bit of it through the tough times, as well as the good ones, that I can.

The lyric itself is a bit of a puzzle and has an odd dichotomy. How can anyone be alive or find life through suicide? What is the nature of that state of being? Is it a metaphorical case of leaving one facet of your life behind and steadfastly screaming out in amazement at the very fact of being alive, or finding life through ending it? No, certainly not the latter example. He sang, “I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive” so emphatically that it cancels out all thoughts of a real suicide. “Alive” sounds like one of those screams of urgency to “rally out the demons of your soul,” not to give up, certainly. It’s a problematic lyric, much like a Japanese koan puzzle or a quote by the Iranian/Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. We all know how much Billie Joe hearts Rumi.

Back to that night in October: Mary Rosenblatt was sitting at the very front of the St. James in Row AA. Mary brought with her a single red rose to give to Billie Joe. After the encore, she gave him the single rose and he ended up giving her the lyrics.

I know Mary from here and there. I saw her and asked if I could take photos of the lyrics, one of which I put up on Plixi that night. Mary was so happy and shocked, and a little dazed at the same time! What a wealth of emotions and memories that one little sheet of torn-off legal paper can give to one person, let alone to people all over the world.

BJA Lyrics with American Idiot Pic - Photo by Mary Rosenblatt - Click to view

I’m an archivist, someone who takes care of the correspondence, photos, audio and video of people and institutions. I’ve held numerous kinds of documents in my hands, from the American Revolution and the Civil War, from famous activists, presidents, and performers. When I briefly held Billie Joe’s lyrics in my hands, the only thing I thought was how, in an instant, one piece of slightly torn paper with scribbles on it can go from the mundane to something that is worth framing and keeping safe for Mary’s lifetime and beyond. This one piece of paper, with scratched out words and chords, is one of those pieces of paper.

After the show, I sent Mary some special archival polyester sheets and an acid-free folder to keep the lyrics safe and free from damage until she could get the sheet properly framed, which she recently did. The framed lyric sheet is now somewhere on her wall, a wonderful piece of instant history. I can see it one day being exhibited in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Goodnight, New York Snapshot of Mary's Lyrics Taken by GDM After the Show

Goodnight, New York Snapshot of Mary's Lyrics Taken by GDM After the Show

Full video of “Good Night, New York,” sung by Billie Joe Armstrong on October 3, 2010, shown giving Mary the lyrics. Watch for the funny moment with him giving the guitar away, too. It had a transponder in it, and there was a slight hullabaloo when the person who got it wanted to keep the guitar, but the stage hands had to take the transponder out first. She did get the guitar (or one similar to it) at the end of the night.

Spalding Gray Archive Acquired by Ransom Center in Texas

Spalding Gray

Image via Wikipedia

One of the reasons why I started this blog at the start of Green Day’s tour last year was their sense of performance: how they perform, their synergy with the audience, and how the audience reacted to their performance. I saw Green Day for the first time live at a crazy show in Central Park in May 2009 and I was blown away by their interaction with the audience.

One of the primary reasons why I enjoyed going to so many Green Day shows this year is that they encompass the kind of performance that I love, a sort of experimental theater of music that directly engaged the audience and demanded their participation. The basis of experimental theater attempts to renegotiate the connection of the audience with the performer by breaking down the traditional view of how theater is presented. It actively engages the audience in the performance by directly confronting them and demolishing the traditional and invisible “fourth wall” separating performers and audience. One of my favorite actors who successfully connected with their audience in such a way was the monologist, Spalding Gray. Gray was a member one of the premiere experimental troupes from the 1960s, the Performance Group and a founding member of probably the most successful experimental theater company of them all, the still running Wooster Group, whose members include Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe.

Not all performance demands the crazed punk-influence interaction of a Green Day show, of course. A good performance, however, captivates an audience and engages their mind and imagination. Gray’s monologue performances were simple: he sat behind a table in front of a microphone with a glass of water and his script placed before him. Once he started his monologue, he would take you on a trip, to Cambodia, to New York, to his mother’s suicide, to a ski trip, to the inner workings of his mind and emotions. How he broke that fourth wall was directly talking to the audience, looking them straight in the eye, and divulging his most intimate fears and emotions, many of which the audience could relate to within themselves.

Spalding Gray – Swimming to Cambodia

Gray’s most successful monologue performance was based on his time filming the 1984 film, The Killing Fields, which depicted the experiences of three journalists reporting from Cambodia during the horrific war and subsequent genocide that occurred in that country under the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. Gray’s monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, told the tale of his time in Thailand with the film’s actors and crew, and delves into his life with his future wife as well. The monologue was made into a film in 1987, directed by Jonathan Demme.

Gray was a master storyteller and who doesn’t like a good story? Unfortunately, his life story ended tragically. After suffering injuries from a car accident in Ireland in 2001, Gray succumbed to the depression that dogged him during his life, and he committed suicide by jumping off of the Staten Island ferry as it crossed from Manhattan to Staten Island in 2004.

I’m a former performer who studied experimental theater and also created and performed several one-woman shows. Spalding Gray was one of my heroes. I loved his work and was devastated when he died. I was lucky to see two of his monologues, Monster in a Box and It’s a Slippery Slope. I’m also an archivist and read today in the New York Times Artsbeat blog that Gray’s archive has been acquired by the Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. The Ransom Center is one of the most excellent repositories of archives in art, film, and theater, and a few years ago acquired the prop and script collection of actor Robert DeNiro. The Center will now hold Gray’s original working notebooks [IMAGE], diaries, correspondence, cassettes and videos of his performances. Reading the Ransom Center’s description of the collection, it’s an incredible archive of an incredible performer. On the whole, though, while I’m happy that the Center now has this incredible archive of Gray’s work, I wish that we still had Spalding Gray himself. His death was such a tragedy and I miss his voice. Luckily, his archive will keep his voice alive.