Posted on March 6, 2012
“Monitor Arms,” our Greenpoint anthem
The song “Monitor Arms” (which you can grab on mp3 over at Baeble Music) came about after I had visited the Museum of the City of New York and had learned that workers in Greenpoint, Brooklyn built the famous Civil War ship the Monitor. I thought about the rich history of my home neighborhood, as a shipbuilding center of the United States, and about how much of that history was lost in a ten-alarm fire.
As I left for work that morning in 2006, the fire was ablaze and it was still burning when I came home, which was bizarre. It burned for 36 hours, destroying 15 buildings on the Greenpoint waterfront, and was the worst fire in New York during the decade. The song takes place out of chronological order, starting with the detritus of the abandoned warehouses, then the fire, which may have been caused by two homeless men or may have been set by a ruthless real estate developer. “Monitor Arms” briefly follows the plight of a squatter who may have been framed. Then it travels back to the time when shipbuilders and sailors cavorted on cobble-stoned streets:
“Sleepy spent sailors stumble on cobblestones
Print setters and fruit stand peddlers stand alone
The barges weighed down with lime
Pushed up the canal one at a time”
I obliquely reference Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited New York in the early 19th century, as a “Parisian visitor waiting for his arm to heal.”
I wrote the music on the banjo initially, using the waltz time to evoke a sea chanty. We spent a lot of time in the studio getting this right: the build up from the nylon string guitar and vocals to the full band to the harmonies on the chorus; incorporating ideas from a low-fretted guitar riff to a harmonium together; ultimately leading to a coda that I hope evokes a sing-along of drunken sailors.