Songs and the City

The best in real estate rock: Is the house without windows good resale?

The best in real estate rock: Is the house without windows good resale?

It might not be the sexiest of subject matters, but history has shown that musicians have quite a lot to say about real estate. Granted, you won't find many tunes about home prices or the softening of the rental market, but you have to remember that the acts most often depicted in song — heartbreak and sex — have to happen somewhere.

And so by default, real estate — apartments, offices, houses, shopping malls — are actually quite prevalent in popular music.

Here are 11 examples that prove my point:

"House Without Windows" by Roy Orbison

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

Roy, I totally understand your reasoning for wanting to build a house without windows. Who wants to see your former flame walking by with her new love?

Sure, the lack of windows will prevent you from seeing the stars that shine ... shine on your ex and her new love. But Roy, you have to consider the resale value. In six months from now when your heart has finally healed, you'll certainly come to regret your real estate faux pas.

Plus, when that new lady comes into your life, how will you be able to write an upbeat ode to love if you can't even see the sun shining from your bedroom? Play it safe, build a house with windows and invest in some blackout shades.

"Subdivisions" by Rush

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

Drummer Neil Peart gets a lot of flack for his overly literate lyrics. Perhaps it's nostalgia talking, but I find the words to this outcast anthem to be right on the mark, a pitch perfect description of the stultifying effect that suburban living can have on the young: "In the basement bars/In the backs of cars/Be cool or be cast out/Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth/But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth."

"Penthouse Serenade" by Marianne Faithfull

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

This standard was made famous by Nat King Cole and covered by a slew of crooners (Sarah Vaughan, Anita O'Day, Tony Bennett), but I prefer Marianne Faithfull's world-weary rendition from 1987's "Strange Weather."

A famous rock casualty — the victim of terrible drug addiction and a devastating relationship with Mick Jagger — Faithfull reinvented herself as a "nicotine-stained chanteuse," as one reviewer put it. And it's from this perspective that she wistfully longs for the good life. You get the sense that Faithfull is a long way from the top, planted firmly in the gutter but looking at the stars.

"The Big Country" by Talking Heads

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

David Byrne has long had an interest in urban planning and this passion comes through in his songs as well as in his writings. An avid cyclist, Byrne travels with his bike on tour and informally documents the inner workings and rhythms of each city’s geography and population.

Here's a journal entry from his stop in Houston last June. "The Big Country" finds Byrne matter-of-factly describing the view from an airplane, noting the transformation of the terrain from the "factories and buildings" to the farmland and undeveloped areas. And as quickly as the urban turns to rural, Byrne switches from passive observer to editorialist, bristling at the thought of ever having to live outside the big city: "I wouldn't live there if you paid me/I couldn't live like that, no siree!"

"Woman of the Ghetto" by Marlena Shaw

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

Cleverly referencing Martin Luther King's inspiring and idealistic "I Have a Dream" speech, "Woman of the Ghetto" is actually a scathing indictment of U.S. domestic policies in the late 1960s.

Shaw bristles with anger as she addresses Washington's impotent politicians, "How do you raise your kids in a ghetto?/Do you feed one child and starve another?/Won't you tell me, legislator?" Never one to play the victim, Shaw turns in a defiant political statement that's a Black power, women's lib anthem of for the ages.

In terms of our real estate theme, there's plenty to ponder when considering so-called "ghettos" and the re-development/gentrification debates that surround them.     

"Old Old House" by Souled American

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

"There's an old old house that once was a mansion. On a hill overlooking a town." It sounds like the structure can use some work, but I smell a perfect fixer-upper. Somebody call Bungalow Revival!

"This Property is Condemned" by Maria McKee

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

Do you remember the mid-'80s alt-country band Lone Justice? Most people probably don't, but they had a nice run way back when (and even opened for U2 at the Summit on the Joshua Tree tour in 1987).

The band's secret weapon was powerhouse lead singer Maria McKee, who could belt it out with the best of them. For proof, take a listen to this slow-burning blues about a down and out dame in New Orleans. You can practically feel the sweat dripping when she sings, "You may call me jail bait but I ain't too little to take the heat."

"Jesusland" by Ben Folds

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

This track could be a companion piece to the Talking Head's "The Big Country" above. It takes the listener from the inner city ("Past all the stores and wig shops/quarter in a cup for every block/and watch the buildings grow smaller as you go") to the suburbs ("Beautiful McMansions on a hill that overlook a highway ... crosses flying high above the malls.") charting the jarring transformation of the built environment.

There are thousands of Jesuslands all over this country and Ben Folds' portrait of these ironically soulless enclaves is spot on: "They drop your name but no one knows your face/Billboards quoting things you'd never say/You hang your head and pray."

"Apartment Story" by The National

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

When I lived up in the northeast, sometimes I just wanted to curl up with a loved one and hunker down for the winter. That's the premise of this track, although I'm not sure whether the shut-in are being romantic or whether they've gone insane. You be the judge.

"This House is Not For Sale" by Ryan Adams

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

This weeper from Ryan Adams finds a couple being kicked out of their house, most likely for a lack of cash. The narrator tries to console his partner while at the same time ruminating on the memories of when they first found it: "Do you remember when we even bought this thing? I danced you across the wooden floor and you signed the lease."

The song concludes with the protagonist humorously suggesting they try to scare off potential buyers by donning white sheets. It's a ploy straight out of the Scooby Doo playbook and while he's clearly in jest, you can sense his desperation.

TDT (Token Dylan Track)

"Dear Landlord" by Bob Dylan

Adobe Flash Required for flash player.

This classic track from Dylan's 1967 "John Wesley Harding" album would make an ideal theme song for the current housing crisis. But don't think that he's really writing a plea from a renter to his landlord.

I've read multiple interpretations of this song. Some argue that the landlord is God. This seems plausible, especially when considering the first verse: "When that steamboat whistle blows" is when Dylan comes to judgment and the following lines are a plea not to judge him too harshly. I've also read that he's addressing his manager, Albert Grossman. Again, this is another valid interpretation. But no matter how you decipher the lyrics, there's no denying the song's simple power.

The soul-sucking capacity of the suburbs is prevalent in many songs.
Roy Orbison
Roy Orbison may want to reconsider that house without windows — for the resale market.
Neil Peart
Neil Peart knows drums and subdivisions.
Is this the penthouse Marianne Faithfull dreamed of in her good life vision?