You might recognize this one. Unlike most of the rest of the songs in this Almanac, it wasn’t written in 2015 or 2016. “(That’s What I Like About) Baltimore” dates back to late 2008, and it’s been performed a few times by a couple of different combos.It’s possible you heard it at a show and, given its simplicity, you might even be able to sing along to it. I posted the original bedroom demo of this song to this website years ago, and I think that recording was downloaded by a bunch of my pals. Maybe even you, reader.
It was never recorded for real, by a band, though — and, given its subject matter, it seemed like it was a good fit for this Almanac. A person who appreciated the original demo (or at least the silly doo-wop backing vocals) said to me, cleverly, that she felt it had more to do with Jersey City than it did with Baltimore. In 2008, my writing wastrending toward autobiography — this was the time of Let The Night Fall— so I guess it was only natural to assume that the criticism of what went on in “my town” was actual criticism of my town. But this isn’t supposed to be my voice. “Baltimore” was always meant to be a character song: one narrated by a guy whose perspective is, to say the least, problematic. I was thinking of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” and stuff from Good Old Boys like “Birmingham” — songs where the narrator’s superficial engagement with a place hints at some of the deep troubles beneath the sunny-day exterior. So “my town” could really be anywhere: just a place that the main character deems inauthentic by comparison with Baltimore as he imagines it.
Still, I entertained writing a different song about Baltimore and leaving this one out of the Almanac. Richmond comes close, and San Francisco is great for baseball (sometimes), but Baltimore is my favorite American city that isn’t in New Jersey. It’s already taken a beating in the popular imagination — which is kinda what motivated this song in the first place — and I didn’t want to pile on. I’ve never seen The Wire or Homicide, but whenever I’d go to Baltimore, people felt the need to bring them up and mention the desolation that inspired them. Songs about Baltimore do tend to be bleak: not just Randy Newman’s, but Lyle Lovett’s, and Gram Parsons via Bobby Bare, and “Hungry Heart” and etcetera throughout the pop catalog. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want a casual listener to think that I thought that Baltimore was just crab cakes and Berger cookies; a kitchy pit stop on I-95 where I can grab some stuff to eat and enjoy some local color as I joyride home. That would make me cry.
Ultimately, I decided that this song belonged in the Almanac — or belonged somewhere, so why not here? “Baltimore” is the rare Tris McCall number that I have good reason to believe that people like, and that I’ve actually market-tested a little before I tried to foist it on anybody. It’s about two minutes long, and I still think that’s the optimal length for a pop song. As for the accompanying story, it’s a sad one, and it trades in the same complex, ambivalent emotions that (I hope) peek through the spaces between the big, bouncy major chords. Liberal guilt is one of the debilitatingforces in American life at the moment, but risible as it is, I don’t think it’s all that pernicious. We’re dealing with worse. While I question Philip’s motivations and some of his methods, too, the poor schmuck certainly has my sympathy.