To determine that The Apple Stretching is, in fact, the best song ever about New York, I constructed my own intensive, if unscientific, research model to litmus test the theory. It involved sitting in my living room for a couple of hours and listening to some of my favourite songs about the city, very loud, to see if any felt unequivocally superior to the others.
I sunk into the warmly voluptuous melody of Billy Joel’s New York State Of Mind and then shouted along to Beastie Boys No Sleep ’Til Brooklyn. I pondered how one place could stand to such complete and adverse romantic dissections as New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by LCD Soundsystem and then Tom Waits’s Downtown Train. I heard songs about streets (Rufus Wainwright’s 14th Street, Iggy Pop’s Avenue B, Bruce Springsteen’s Incident on 57th Street, The Ramones 53rd and 3rd) and songs about neighbourhoods (Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning, Magnetic Fields’ The Luckiest Guy In The Lower East Side, Mos Def’s Brooklyn), all of which I experienced in song way before I ever experienced them in the flesh.
I listened to soul music (R Kelly’s Gotham City, Bill Wither’s Harlem, Odyssey’s Native New Yorker), rock (The Strokes’ New York City Cops, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Yeah! New York) and, somewhat inevitably, great swathes of fantastic, golden age hip hop (Gang Starr’s New York Strait Talk, Stetsasonic’s Go Brooklyn, Wu Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M., KRS-One’s 5 Boroughs).
This experiment was, all told, a pastime as worthwhile as going to New York itself – a thoroughly joyous experience of which no two journeys were quite the same. And it led to a most satisfactory prognosis, in that nothing got quite to the diametric kernel of what New York is with the same precision as Grace Jones’ languid, bassy, lover’s rock ballad.
The Apple Stretching appears on Jones’ 1982 album Living My Life, a record as famous for Jean Paul Goude’s genius art direction as it is its music. The cover features Jones’s disembodied head with slices cut from her face to give her cheekbones actual corners and a plaster deftly placed over one eyebrow – just because.
Living My Life was conceived at the Compass Point Studios in the Bahamian idyll of Nassau. It was the last of her great albums, a bulletproof triumvirate, which also included Warm Leatherette, and Nightclubbing, although The Apple Stretching was not the last of her classic singles – Slave To The Rhythm was still to come.
Hanging with expert reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and working under the personal instruction of then Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, Jones fashioned her masterpiece. The greatest keyboard player in the world at the time, Wally Badarou, tottered along to tinkle some casually brilliant electronic ivories. Its recording engineer, Alex Sadkin, would henceforth be drafted in to work with Duran Duran, an attempt to channel some of the exquisite, luxurious sonics in evidence here into their own work.
But The Apple Stretching began life much earlier. It is, in fact, a cover. It was originally – astonishingly and perfectly – the closing number in Act 1 of Melvin Van Peebles’s short-lived Broadway musical Waltz Of The Stork. In the last five years, I’ve spent many hours Googling to see if any of the music from this show has survived into the digital age, but to no avail. I’ll stand anyone who can pass on a link to the original The Apple Stretching a couple of pints, though Grace’s version of the song is lent a sort of mysterious otherness by its unusual conception, as if it appeared from nowhere, one of those genius moments of pop collision. Knowing that its genesis was in a blaxploitation star’s head-set, some ten year’s after Van Peebles’s star had fully faded, is another mystical element to its journey onto vinyl.
The central metaphor of the chorus is a scene that will be familiar to anyone that has flown to New York from the UK. In one of those superb tricks the body can occasionally play on the mind, your internal timer is set five hours ahead of New York’s naturally speedy rhythm. The first day you wake up in the city you are preternaturally bound to witness daybreak, to see the stunning arousal of New York, springing magically and apocalyptically into life.
Daybreak hours in Manhattan are its best, whether you are waking amongst them or – even better – going home during them. It doesn’t matter where you are in the city, the palpable buzz, the increase in volume, light and smell of one of the world’s greatest cities, up close and with you as its central POV, can never fail to invigorate the sensory apparatus. In The Apple Stretching, this moment is crammed into a succession of effortless, comparative visual montages. No, it ain’t world war four. It ain’t Armageddon. It ain’t judgement day. “It’s just the apple stretching and yawning/Just morning/New York putting its feet on the floor.” The Big Apple is literally waking itself up and getting out of bed. If it weren’t so poignant, it would almost be a cartoon. And isn’t that just the city in its essence? No?
Each verse of the record builds together a collage of oddballs, vagabonds and misfits bringing their own unique mini psychodramas to the city. Grace lets them all slide into the multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of life in New York with a casual nonchalance that is best described as stately. The Jesus freak moonlighting at the Acme discount store in Queens, the bag lady in Times’ Square cursing the waiter for giving her a free coffee, the drowsy bum that hears thunder in the tin cans carousing down the street and the blind man looking for a pew in the park are all glimpsed through a cool, dispassionate gaze, as if she is passing them in a chauffeured limo, or possibly on roller-skates. The cop picking out his gun and yelling, Freeeeeeeze!, is invested with TONY award-winning largesse, the only moment that she really cuts loose with her unusually restrained, almost warm, one-take vocal. For not a second of the six minutes and 55 second duration of The Apple Stretching do you not believe that Grace Jones is in love with these myriad oddballs that she sequentially observes and, moreover, the city that showily stages them.
These were the post-disco Grace Jones diva years, the ebbing end of the Studio 54 epoch. The glamorous model that arrived in town with a suitcase and a head full of lyrical dreams had fulfilled her fantasy and found her star, shining above the Manhattan skyline. She had tasted all the chemicals and the sex and the icy cool the metropolis had to offer. And now she was ready to distill why she loved the city into song. The obvious move would have been to set her love letter to New York against the night, but she had already traced a casual fingerprint over the broodily lit dancefloors of Manhattan on her cover of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing one album earlier. Indeed, if Nightclubbing had been marked by a glacial kind of overview on bacchanalian excess, now it was time to connect with the city’s human heart.
And therein lies the beauty of The Apple Stretching. It is a love letter to New York, but it stretches through the undergrowth with a Rolex on its wrist to play with the trash for a brief second. Setting one of the most intoxicating, spirited toasts of its hip high society against its tramps and checkout chicks was a genius contradiction, extending the spell that its skyline casts over its most and least gilded denizens in one casually aloof brush stroke. In this instance, this majestic, striking record becomes a metaphor for human aspiration and self-improvement. Just like the city itself.
How clever is that?