Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Dos: Day 258
Thursday, Sept 27, 2012

Cat Power


“♫ Don’t look
at the moon
tonight/ you’ll
be never be never

I hate to admit it but originally “Manhattan” wasn’t my favorite Cat Power song on Sun. Foolishly, I assumed Chan Marshall was singing about New York City. You see, I still want to be like the moon in New York City. I believed that “Manhattan” was like that lyric that Chan sung in 2006 “♫ Once I wanted to be the greatest… ♫” It felt like in “Manhattan,” Marshall’s voice had that same defeatist/waving the white flag kind of tone but then I realized, Cat Power was only singing about a particular part of NYC—“Manhattan.” So now, “Manhattan” is my favorite Sun song.

What is “Manhattan” really about? I actually thought “Manhattan” was written for Marshall’s former beau. But luckily, Chan explained the whole story behind “Manhattan” when she told Interview Magazine, “Oh, well, there’s this beautiful Langston Hughes poem about the Statue of Liberty—or that mentions the Statue of Liberty. I’d had this song in my head for a long time. It’s basically my homage to him, and to this weird idea of what liberty actually is. I kept thinking about the man in Manhattan, and the history of that word. People need to be reminded sometimes about what real liberty means—the idea that you can do whatever the fuck you want. And so much of the time people think they’re doing that, but really they’re just chasing money, not freedom.”

Chan’s right you know; maybe “Manhattan” is Cat Power’s anti-one percent song. She does mention “The 99%” in Sun’s “Peace in Love.” Regardless, Langston Hughes’ “Song of the Refugee Road” was the poem that sparked “Manhattan.” Here’s the section that specifically inspired Chan Marshall:
Oh, Statue of Liberty, lighting tomorrow
Look! And have pity on my sorrow:
Home nowhere! None to care!
Bitter my past! Tomorrow—what’s there?
Refugee road! Refugee road!
Where do I go from here?
Walking down the Refugee road.

What a beautiful poem! Chan Marshall has good poetic taste. It’s no mystery why Cat Power composes such timeless lyrics, inspired by one America’s finest poet masters—Langston Hughes. The coda at the end of “Manhattan” sounds like Marshall’s lyrical tribute to Hughes when she sings:
“♫ Liberty in the basement light
Free speech, lipstick and the moonlight
Howling to get me, howlin’ to get you
In Harlem, in a dark back room
Dancing to a different tune
Howling at me, howling at you
. ♫ ”

Chan Marshall further expanded on her ideas about “Manhattan” when she said, “Everybody needs to get out of somewhere. Lots of people don’t though. Some people don’t want to leave their cubicle on the farm. I’m not trying to be mean to Manhattan, though. There’s always gonna be something about this city, something that when you are here and you look up and see the moon, the most natural thing in the world, it makes everyone the same. Like, it reminds me of when I was little. If there was a full moon, my grandmother would get me and my sister out of bed and we’d go sit outside in our nightgowns. She’d have a scotch glass with a little Johnnie Walker Red and some of those ice cubes that look like little half moons—you know, they come out of an ice machine and they almost look like little ribs of ice—and her cigs. And me and my sister would run around and dance with the dew on the grass. When I was in the fifth grade, my mom did the same thing—woke us up so we could go outside and howl at the full moon. There’s a line in the song about that as well . . . “Howlin’ to get me / howlin’ to get you . . .””

Chan Marshall first came to NYC in the early nineties and lived in lower Manhattan before it became gentrified. Marshall described the creative dreamers than came to NYC back then when she said, “A lot of people came to New York not to go to school. A lot of people came here as survivalists. Misfits. Outsiders. Characters. because they felt displaced in whatever small town they were living in. If you’re a poet, you had a congregation of hope.

I never realized Langston Hughes was the main poetic inspiration behind Cat Power’s “Manhattan.” It makes me want to spin “Manhattan” on repeat and take in the timeless beauty of Marshall’s Hughes inspired look inside post modern NYC. I guarantee you will be hooked and desire many happy returns as Chan invites you to join her congregation of hope, inside the lyrical island of Cat Power’s “Manhattan.”

You can stream Sun and specifically “Manhattan” in all Cat Power’s glory here at Stereogum.