“New York, New York”, “I left my heart in San Francisco”, “Philadelphia Freedom”. Big cities have big songs. Why not Jersey City?
It was the inspiration seven years ago when two childhood friends, drummer Stanley Stapinski and guitarist Robert Ligenza, came together.
“I ran into Robert out shopping or something and he was like, ‘Are you still playing drums? We should start a band,'” Stapinski recalled. he said, ‘You know, nobody’s ever written a song about Jersey City, we should,’ and I said, ‘Good’.”
Although no one has ever written a song about Jersey City, Ligenza soon penned “My Ol’ JC”, a sentimental and nostalgic ode to the city of his youth in the 1960s and 1970s. With the late Michael Centanni on second guitar and Ligenza’s wife Elizabeth on bass, the band KaTz In TrEble formed and recorded the track. (Listen to it at soundcloud.com/katz-in-treble/my-ol-jc?fbclid=IwAR1o_CN229dvjDdjK0m4dzK4HuGloxCDeQZHXqxOZUhbrV91ykkr5uAyEsM.)
“We tried to make it the official song of the city. I called the town hall and other places, but at the time nobody did anything,” Stapninski said. “And then, over the years, we didn’t do anything else after that. Robert’s father fell ill, and we let ourselves go a little. And then I said the other day, let’s see if I can do it again. Try it, you know. It’s a cute song, it’s about the good old days, how Jersey City has changed.
Set to a steady rock four/four beat and a simple but pleasant melody, “My Ol’ JC” recalls the Jersey town of the band’s childhood: the old green and red buses that preceded the New Jersey Transit, the clock Colgate when Colgate was still making toothpaste on a busy waterfront, all the movie theaters in Journal Square, “and the best part, the rock shows we used to see in the stadium on Route 440.”
As the city’s anthem, however, the song might be a bit too nostalgic to win City Hall’s approval: “My old JC, not like before, but still the best place to be.”
So if it’s not this song, what else?
There’s Tris McCall, of course. The multi-talented musician, author and critic wrote an entire album called “Let the Night Fall” which is set in Jersey City.
“It really couldn’t have happened anywhere else,” McCall noted.
McCall, who did a stint as Star-Ledger music critic and now covers visual arts for the Jersey City Times and NJ Arts Daily, had a few other suggestions.
“Jersey City’s great musical export is PM Dawn,” he noted. “Maybe ‘Reality Used to Be a My Friend of Mine’ or ‘Watcher’s Point of View’ might fit — oh, and ‘Plastic’ has a very JC attitude, I think!
“If you’re looking for a song that’s explicitly set in Jersey City (and isn’t a Tris McCall song), it’s hard to beat (the Front Bottoms) ‘Montgomery Forever’,” he added.
Written when the Front Bottoms lived in Jersey City Heights, “Montgomery Forever” shares frontman Brian Sella’s feelings upon seeing the Montgomery Gardens public housing complex being demolished.
If it doesn’t quite work as an anthem for Jersey City, the track does a simple and effective job of encapsulating the gentrification Hudson County has seen over the past 30 years.
“Montgomery forever,” Sella sings. “Now they’re blowing it up.”
“Some people will say Joe Budden and ‘Pump It Up!’ and I hear that, but… it’s kinda triumphant. Jersey City ain’t too triumphant. I think “Whatever It Takes” would be a better choice. And you know who everyone forgets? Chill Rob G. He preceded PM Dawn – he was really the first JC rapper with a national (rather) profile.
These rappers might bring a Chill Town attitude to their rhymes, but their lyrics don’t actually mention Jersey City, so maybe it’d be best to look locally.
Jersey City’s ageless punk-rockers, the Hudson City Rats, have a strong contender with “Daybreak on the 1&9.” After all, what’s more JC than being stuck in the traffic jam of an industrial bypass?
Rabid JC music fan Joe Castrianni has named Wyldlife the ‘City of Inbreds’, whose kinky ethos might prove a tough sell to the city council. The same could be said of “Heart of Gold, Jacket of Leather” by the typical Jersey City band, Rye Coalition, whose chorus announces: “Gigolos and gigolettes, they ride in their corvettes / In the streets, there are signs that say / Welcome to Jersey City!”
Walter Parks’ Swamp Cabbage has a song called “Jersey City,” but it’s more gumbo and moonshine than pizza and hoagies.
Closer to the mark is Big Wake’s “Over the Viaduct,” a love song about driving through town: “Take Palisade, Congress, Central and then/come over the viaduct again.”
Long ago, “Jersey Bounce”, a hit for Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, begins “It started in Journal Square”, but that’s the only reference to anything Jersey. Bobby Long’s “Jersey City” is basically “Kansas City” with the words reversed. And Doris Day’s “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block” mentions Jersey City, but she looks at it from across the Hudson in Manhattan.
More recently, there’s 2009’s “Jersey City Anthem” by Block Royal. The video, dedicated to the late boxer Arturo Gatti Jr., is packed with iconic scenes from the city, but the lyrics aren’t exactly appropriate for a family diary. (See at: youtube.com/watch?v=o3Rqq1RPRsM.)
The pandemic inspired Carol Lester and Art House Productions to create an original crowdsourced song called “Jersey City Community Song: Stronger” inspired by the Jersey City Community Poem. (Listen to it at: arthouseproductions.org/pages/jersey-city-community-song.)
In 1947, Pennsylvania coal miner Ted Lovick won a contest sponsored by “Boss” Hague and the semi-pro Jersey City Giants and had his song “Jersey City, NJ” named “The Official Song of Jersey City”. It appears, however, that the song was only performed once, at the State Theater when the winner of the contest was announced. It has since fallen into oblivion.
What’s your favorite Jersey City song? Let us know on my new Facebook page, facebook.com/Constant-Listener-Jim-Testa-On-Hudson-Music-108591071738628.
Jim Testa can be reached at [email protected].