Tim O’Reagan was waiting in an airport somewhere — he doesn’t remember the city — when a voice on the intercom announced a flight had landed for a stopover.
The flight’s destination: Tulsa. Its origin: Tampa.
Tampa to Tulsa. O’Reagan, the drummer for the alternative county band the Jayhawks, liked the sound of that. He’d spent so much time on the road, on buses, on planes, just waiting to get back home, with only one more stop in the way. He knew the feeling of flying from Tampa to Tulsa with one last layover left, even if he’d never flown that route himself.
“I put a story to it based on my own experiences,” he said. “The real city wasn’t exactly Tampa, it was south of there; and the other wasn’t exactly Tulsa, it was north of there. But the real cities didn’t sound as good.”
The song, Tampa to Tulsa, ended up on the Jayhawks’ 2003 album Rainy Day Music. It’s been covered by Bon Iver and is a staple of the Jayhawks’ live shows. And it’s near the top of the playlist on a genre of music only locals will hold near and dear: songs that mention Tampa Bay.
Geography has more than a trivial place in pop history. Songs bestow romance upon cities, in some cases almost defining them. We’re always going to Kansas City, walking in Memphis, shipping up to Boston or standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. Every city or region has songs of its own, mostly written by outsiders.
So it is with Tampa Bay. Dozens of artists, from Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty to Ray Charles to the Rolling Stones, have name-dropped the region in lyrics. Each song is different. Yet when studied all at once, they begin to reveal patterns. You start seeing how songwriters see us.
Some songs, like Johnny Cash’s I’ve Been Everywhere or Dear Evan Hansen’s You Will Be Found, mention Tampa only in passing, as a dot on the map that could be any city. Others use Tampa and far-flung Florida as a metaphor for distance. It’s a place to get back to — Ry Cooder’s Going to Tampa, Tom Petty’s Bus to Tampa Bay, Joe Nichols’ Talk Me Out of Tampa — or, sometimes, a place to get home from (“Tampa to Tulsa, one layover …”).
There are songs for which the writers obviously needed a two-syllable, consonant-popping town to fit the lyrics. You can picture a songwriter’s wheels clicking: Tempe … Topeka … Tacoma … Tupelo … aha! Tampa! That was partly the case with Talk Me Out of Tampa: “The alliteration of the title flowed beautifully off the tongue,” said co-writer Casey Beathard.
Other songs get more specific, taking listeners to Busch Gardens or Clearwater Beach or the bumpy bricked alleys of Ybor City. Randy Newman wrote about circus folk in St. Pete. Jimmy Buffett wrote about military brass in South Tampa. Allen Ginsberg wrote about the Tampa mob’s purported ties to the Kennedy assassination.
Many male songwriters have penned odes to Tampa women, often in less-than-flattering terms. They’re teenage runaways, desperate streetwalkers, strippers and groupies and junkies and killers. They could have been from anywhere, but no, they came from Tampa. This, they have concluded, is us.
Is it, though? Local songwriters see it differently. When Tampa singer-songwriter Jeremy Gloff wrote an earnest ode to his adopted hometown last year, he worried his opening verse might sound defensive.
Might not be the best city in the world
It's the place that I call home
Might not have the best galleries
Win polls in magazines
If you put down Tampa Florida
You’re my enemy
“It’s so programmed in our heads that anything and everything has to be ‘the best,’” Gloff said. “I always try to be honest when I write — and I realized to be honest this time was to accept that I love Tampa because we aren’t ‘the best.’ And we don’t want to be. We are just us. Perhaps I love it here so much because we are the underdog sometimes.”
Tampa will never be New Orleans or Miami, but it’s still its own tangerine thing. Even when it’s an Anytown, it can evoke something special and unique. And the songs that showcase it best are those with an underlying affection for the city.
Jeffrey Steele co-wrote Montgomery Gentry’s She Loved Me “after a million road dates,” he said, “the trials and tribs of every working musician in the world.” The song opens with a memory of a Tampa Bay gig during Spring Break ’88, but goes on to explore the life of a struggling, alcoholic musician pining for the woman he fell for that night.
After he’d finished a draft, some songwriters thought the lyrics felt depressing, he said. Craig Wiseman, Steele’s co-writer, thought otherwise.
“We talked about the guy,” Steele said. “He was everybody we knew. He was us. Dreams. Life broken. Dreams. Redemption. Tampa Bay was where I sat when it first started.”
It’s been that kind of muse for many songwriters. Their lyrics ensure the world will always know it.
To study how Tampa Bay comes across in song, we scoured lyrics sites like Genius and Lyrics.com to find dozens of tracks that mention cities, landmarks and people from the area. We focused on national acts, rather than local artists, because we wanted to see how the rest of the world sees us. We settled on more than 40 songs that merited a bit of critical analysis — a thorough, if not comprehensive, list that revealed some common themes. We created a playlist of those songs that are streaming on Spotify, and embedded each individual song below. Let’s start the music.
The Hold Steady, ‘Killer Parties’
And we found out Virginia really is for the lovers / Philly is full of friendly friends that will love you like a brother / Pensacola parties hard with poppers, pills, and Pepsi / Ybor City is tres speedy, but they throw such killer parties ...
Craig Finn loves writing about Ybor City. He’s woven it into at least four Hold Steady songs, including Slapped Actress, Cattle and the Creeping Things and Most People are DJs (“Well, hold steady Ybor City / you’re up to your neck in the sweat and wet confetti”). But the line “Ybor City is tres speedy, but they throw such killer parties” became something of a local indie-rock rallying cry in the mid-2000s. Finn began writing about Ybor before he even played there, just because he liked the sound of it. “I’ve always written a lot of real geographic references into my songs, and I just like saying ‘Ybor City’ and spelling it," he said in 2014. “It was somewhere I had never been so it was mysterious and romantic.”
The Jayhawks, ‘Tampa to Tulsa’
I know that you’re running, but you don’t know what from / Tampa to Tulsa, one layover …
Jayhawks drummer Tim O’Reagan wrote this wistful song about the road, about distance, about wanting to get home to a loved one. Tampa represents what it feels like to be far-flung, far from home. Artists who have covered Tampa to Tulsa include Bon Iver, who played it on a tour-closing show in 2009 at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg.
Atlanta Rhythm Section, ‘Cuban Crisis’
I drank all the wine in Tampa last night, and most of the beer / I woke up with a dark-eyed woman, what am I doing here / It’s another Cuban crisis / Ybor City on a Saturday night...
The narrator falls in love with a beguiling Cuban dancer named — wait for it — Marguerita, making this yet another in a line of songs about how La Septima likes to party. Atlanta Rhythm Section’s website calls this 1975 ditty a “lilting, uptempo remembrance of a Saturday night on the town in Ybor City, FL and the characters encountered there.” Sure, that fits.
Cassadee Pope, ‘Summer’
Rolled in as wild and free / as a Clearwater Beach-at-17 memory…
It’s a perfectly sweet and nostalgic lyric, evoking images of spring break and family vacations. Now, are you ready to get cynical? According to Pope, a West Palm Beach native who found country fame after winning The Voice, the line was originally about Panama City. She and her co-writers changed it to Clearwater Beach after Pinellas County tourism agency Visit St. Pete-Clearwater coughed up some money and resources to have her film the video in Clearwater Beach. “It was a pretty seamless process,” she said in 2016. So there’s another way Tampa Bay has been utilized in song: product placement.
We the Kings, ‘Skyway Avenue’
'Cause if you jump, I will jump too / We will fall together / from the building’s ledge / never looking back at what we’ve done / We’ll say it was love / 'cause I would die for you / on Skyway Avenue …
Bradenton pop-punk group We the Kings wrote more specifically about their home base in This Is Our Town (“Dear Bradentown, you have been good to me …”), but this surging song about young lovers taking a leap of faith borrows its central metaphor from the Sunshine Skyway bridge. “It was my first time getting into a relationship,” singer Travis Clark told Move magazine in 2014, “and I compared it, oddly enough, to when people jump off the Skyway bridge, and it’s all about, ‘If you jump, I’ll jump too.’ It’s a really dark way of saying, ‘I’m in this together with you.’”
JJ Grey and Mofro, ‘Ybor City’
I know a rowdy place where the whiskey’s warm and women are too / When I get to Ybor City, all them women going to love me through and through …
Jacksonville blues-rocker Grey has swamp water coursing through his veins, so it was inevitable he’d write about Tampa Bay at some point. This boot-stomping 2009 ode to “a place that smells of cigars and sweet, sweet perfume” captures the outside allure of Ybor City, while the image of a man “fighting for my life … around midnight” gets at the grit in Seventh Avenue’s alleys.
Jason Isbell, ‘Traveling Alone’
Damn near strangled by my appetite / in Ybor City on a Friday night / couldn’t even stand up right / so high, the street girls wouldn’t take my pay / she said, “Come see me on a better day,” and she just danced away …
An aching highlight of Isbell’s aching 2013 album Southeastern, Traveling Alone is another classic about loneliness on the road, featuring the indelible line: “I know every town worth passing through / but what good does knowing do, with no one to show it to?” Ybor City is the setting for a dismal Friday night, with Isbell too drunk to buy sex. Southeastern came about as Isbell got sober with the help of his now-wife Amanda Shires, who plays and sings backup on Traveling Alone. Ybor here isn’t pretty, but the song it inspired sure is.
David Dondero, ‘South of the South’
So I jumped my pogo stick / all the way to Ybor City / where they burned up a couple blocks / and to me seemed like a pity / that was once a Cuban district and a center for the arts / was now a mall-like atmosphere / homogeneous and insincere / They burned its heart right out / down south of the South ...
South of the South, from the album of the same name, is a reference to Florida, where Dondero, a Minnesota native, lived for a while. It’s all about the surreality of living like a “tender chicken in the Florida rotisserie,” surrounded by CSX trains and citrus and “coconuts and Coppertone.” But he nails the early-2000s gentrification of Ybor City, with the opening of Centro Ybor changing the flavor of La Septima forever.
Stuck in Florida one more night / 5 a.m., catch a Tampa flight / I’m just trying to get back home / to a girl who’s lied, but she don’t know I know / I’ve held it in 'cause I’ve been on the road / Paul, welcome home …
Once again, Tampa is a stand-in for distance and separation. Singer Paul Klein of Los Angeles indie-pop group LANY is pining to fly cross-country to a girlfriend, even though he knows she’s cheated on him. “I can do better than this,” he repeats over and over in the chorus, a lament that illustrates the frustrating stuckness of being a rising but itinerant rock star. Tampa’s just another city far from home.
Ry Cooder, ‘Going to Tampa’
Yes, I’m going to Tampa in the morning / Honey, will you miss me when I’m gone? / Now hope you packed my old bed sheet / ‘Cause I’m going down to get my ashes hauled ...
For his 2012 album Election Special, folk veteran Cooder wanted to write a song about that year’s Republican National Convention, and all the “distinguished friends” he imagined he’d see there — Mitt Romney, Rick Scott, Sarah Palin, the “NRA woman” and the “Tea Party man.” “We’ll spook the congregation and petrify the nation and blame the folks from Mexico somehow,” he sings. Putting himself in the mind-set of a conservative delegate was stressful and challenging, he said in 2016. “By the time I finished that record, I had hurt my back from the effort,” he said. “It was making these things get on my nerves, and I was getting pissed off.”
Blind Blake, ‘Tampa Bound’
I’m going back to Tampa, to that girl I left behind / I’m going back to Tampa, just to kill my worried mind …
The earliest song on our list was written by early 20th century bluesman Blind Blake, a mysterious figure who may or may not have been a Florida Man. If he was, he was from Jacksonville. Either way, 1927’s Tampa Bound is a scratchy blues ode to a woman he longs to see again. Blake was later covered by Bob Dylan, Leon Redbone and Ry Cooder. None of them ever sang Tampa Bound.
Joe Nichols, ‘Talk Me Out of Tampa’
Talk me out of Tampa / I mean surely there’s a hurricane due to hit there any day / Won’t that close the beaches and the airport? / Or maybe it’s still way too hot; or did I hear / somewhere you stopped flying into that part of the country? / You can think of something, can’t you? / Just talk me out of Tampa …
Tampa, in the memory of Nichols (or songwriters Casey Beathard and Don Sampson), is home to an ex the singer is flying back to see — that is, if he can’t get the person selling him the plane ticket to talk him out of it first. The song name-drops both Busch Gardens and a fictional “Bayside Motel,” but the city also represents any setting where you’ve had good times and bad. For Beathard, the emphasis is on the former. “It’s a hard sell trying to think of something to make a person give second thoughts to vacationing in the Tampa area,” he said. “We love that town.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Bus to Tampa Bay’
I’ve lost no sleep over where I’m leaving / Bit by bit, I slowly stop believing / that it was me and only me I was deceiving / and I’m waiting for the bus to Tampa Bay …
As Florida’s favorite songwriting son — and a onetime St. Petersburg resident to boot — it seems obvious Petty would have written about Tampa Bay at some point. We just didn’t get to hear it until he died. The posthumous rarities collection An American Treasure included the unreleased, late-‘90s Gainesville, which mentions Clearwater; and Bus to Tampa Bay, from 2011. The latter sees a young version of our narrator observing the state around him and realizing there’s something better in the big city of Tampa, where “there’s maybe something better down the road” and “good work if you can get it.” Perhaps only Petty would see Tampa as the land of opportunity.
Outkast, ‘Crumblin’ Erb’
Got a Tampa Nugget blunt box, it’s empty / That’s where the herb be dropping / It’s simply marvelous, time is ticking …
Back in 1994, Outkast dropped this jazzy ode to smoking blunts on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Hey, what’s a city that knows a thing or two about smoking? Why, Tampa, of course! It’s just a fun, breezy song about weed, but hearing a young Big Boi rap about stashing his blunts in an empty Tampa Nugget cigar box is cooler than a polar bear’s toenails.
The Rolling Stones, ‘Rip This Joint’
Mr. President, Mr. Immigration Man / Let me in, sweetie, to your fair land / I’m Tampa bound, and Memphis too / Short Fat Fanny is on the loose …
The Stones have an iconic connection to Tampa Bay: Clearwater, legend has it, is where Keith Richards and Mick Jagger wrote (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Maybe that’s why they shout out Tampa in this rip-roaring, fast-paced blues track from Exile on Main St. Tampa ends up being just a dot on the map of Southern cities mentioned in Rip This Joint, but it’s still cool to hear Jagger yowl “I’m Tampa bound!”
The Mountain Goats, ‘First Few Desperate Hours’
Bad luck comes in from Tampa / on the back of a truck / doing 90 up the interstate …
The Mountain Goats’ 2002 album Tallahassee was about a couple constantly on the brink of a breakup, a frequent lyrical subject for braniac indie-rock wordsmith John Darnielle. When a truck from Tampa delivers their belongings to their new home up I-75, it doesn’t represent the fresh start they’d hoped for. “The sun peeks in like a killer through the curtain,” he sings. You can run from a troubled past in sunny Tampa, but it’s always going to follow you. Darnielle has name-dropped the city many times — there’s even an unreleased Mountain Goats song called Tampa — but this appearance is its most memorable.
Randy Newman, ‘Miami’
I know this double-jointed guy with the circus in St. Pete / He’s with me now; he says hello from 14th Street / in Miami ...
Leave it to Randy Newman to reference Tampa Bay’s circus industry legacy, from the Ringling campus in Sarasota to the carnival workers of Gibsonton, in a song about South Beach. Miami’s got enough songs. One of Florida’s quirkier cities deserves a shout-out from one of America’s quirkiest songwriters.
Graham Parker, ‘I’ll Never Play Jacksonville Again’
Two young girls were swept down the culverts in the rain / St. Petersburg was flooded again / I reached my hand out for them, but I watched them slip away / and I had to get up to Jacksonville that day …
Another song about another Florida city, in which Tampa Bay has a mere cameo. But this one really happened. Parker had flown into St. Petersburg for a gig at the State Theatre on Sept. 27, 1997 — a deluge of a day in which two young women got swept into drainage ditches by floodwaters. One 13-year-old girl died. The British songwriter saw the news and it stuck with him. He merged the imagery of the two young women with his own experience playing less-than-stellar gigs around the state. Years later, the woman who didn’t die heard the song for the first time. “It’s a nice song. I like it," Ann Tucker said in 2005. "It’s really surprising that somebody would write a song about me.”
Molly Hatchet, ‘Gator Country’
The Outlaws down in Tampa town, it’s a mighty fine place to be / They got green grass and they got high tides and sure looks good to me …
Florida’s got a strong Southern rock legacy, thanks largely to Jacksonville outfits Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band and Molly Hatchet. But on the second track from their debut album, late singer Danny Joe Brown seems to want to show those cats the door for singing so much about Alabama and Georgia. He also slings a bit of swamp mud at Charlie Daniels, Elvin Bishop and the Marshall Tucker Band. But he has kind words for the Outlaws, one of Tampa’s most successful bands ever, thanks to their hit Green Grass and High Tides. Game recognize game, as they say.
Yung Gravy, ‘Tampa Bay Bustdown'
Baby, cock the Glock and then I let it spray / Bust it out the Chevrolet / Goin’ fishing for your bitch today / We drunk in Tampa Bay / And we gon’ hit a lick, we getting rich today …
Until last year, Minnesota rapper Yung Gravy had never been to Tampa, although he has claimed to be a fan of the Bucs and Lightning. The silly, syrupy song, which interpolates Josh Turner’s Your Man, was a streaming success in the wake of Old Town Road, giving Tampa a taste of the country-rap party. “We chose the name Tampa Bay Bustdown because of how nicely that flows off the tongue,” Gravy said, “without realizing that Tampa isn’t exactly the most ‘Dirty South’ type of city that I’m singing about.”
Joe Jackson, ‘Big Black Cloud’
Hey, hey, today’s another day / Gonna ride the lawnmower down to Tampa Bay / Let’s go, come on let’s go / Sun’s out, I want to wear a fez / Want to do a dance but the weatherman says / ‘No go, you can’t go’ ...
Jackson’s 2019 album Fool staggers open with a song about an ominous portent looming overhead, and all the fun he can’t have as a result. If the cloud is aging, death, fatalism, pessimism — “No luck, no money, no sex, no fun” — Tampa represents the place he’d like to be, puttering around on his John Deere without a care in the world.
Josh Rouse, ‘Kentucky Flood’
So he got up, got in his truck and drove around / A stroke of bad luck, he figured as much, it won’t keep him down / He found fame, he lives in a place near Clearwater still / Works on a boat, carries a load, cause there’s lots to feel ...
Nebraska singer-songwriter Rouse used Clearwater as a place of solace and rebirth for a blue-collar Kentuckian who lost everything in a flood. Instead of fearing the water, he ran toward it, forging a new life where “he won’t be dead tonight.” The beaches wash everything clean, don’t they?
Johnny Cash, ‘That’s the Truth’
Saw a girl in Tampa, I asked her for a date / She said, “Baby I’m a sailor, this thing better wait” / I said, “I don’t believe you; would you show me some proof?” / She showed me her tattoo, then I knew that that’s the truth ...
The Man in Black famously mentioned Tampa in I’ve Been Everywhere, right between Oklahoma and Panama. But the city features more prominently in this mid-‘80s chugger written by Paul Kennerly, a prolific British songwriter and ex-husband of Emmylou Harris. Once again, a woman from Tampa turns out to be a wild child, a seafaring wild child with the ink to prove it.
Fleetwood Mac, ‘Bermuda Triangle’
They came from Galveston / They came from New Orleans / And then from Bloomington, and Delaware / They used St. Petersburg, they came from Tampa / And then from Mexico, it doesn’t matter where / They all completely share all of those ships and planes / A great big mystery that cannot be explained / down in Bermuda, in the pale blue sea ...
Before Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac, their lead male singer was Bob Welch, who occasionally wrote songs about the bizarre and paranormal. On some level, Bermuda Triangle might be about getting swept away on a spooky tropical night, amid “strange shapes in moonlight and shadows in the night.” Given that the Bermuda Triangle is in the Atlantic Ocean, Tampa and St. Petersburg don’t seem like great launch points. But as supernatural yacht rock goes, this song goes down smoothly.
Jimmy Buffett, ‘I’m No Russian’
A chick drone strike is a lethal attack / You never see it coming and you can’t fight back / They feel entitled to all access, from clubs to army camp-as / If you don’t believe it, ask those generals down in Tampa ...
It was inevitable that the king of salt rock would get around to singing about Tampa. It’s unfortunate that it happened in this execrable reggae number from 2013’s Songs From St. Somewhere — and in a rap breakdown, no less. The song sees our hero swept into a life of luxurious intrigue among Russian oligarchs, and hoping he doesn’t “wind up like Pussy Riot” in prison. He gets points for his cheeky allusion to the high-flying lives of top brass at MacDill Air Force Base, which is insider knowledge you won’t find in a Margaritaville brochure. But he loses them again for trying to rhyme Tampa with “camp-as.”
Steely Dan, ‘Janie Runaway’
Down in Tampa the future looked desperate and dark / Now you’re the wonder-waif of Gramercy Park ...
The titular star of this song from Steely Dan’s Grammy-winning Two Against Nature is a woman who flees her Florida home for the company of a wealthy older man who wines and dines her at Dean and Deluca. That would be fair enough for what it is, if not for the song’s creepier undertones. The narrator wonders if taking Janie out of state would be a “federal case,” asks about a friend named Melanie “who’s not afraid to try new things,” and dangles a birthday trip to Spain as a reward for good behavior. As critic Robert Christgau once put it: “It’s sung in the voice of an aging pedophile trying to set up a threesome with his jailbait house guest and a friend of hers.” Not a great look for anyone involved.
Joe Exotic, ‘Here Kitty Kitty’
So if you’re ever down in Tampa on a big cat refuge, don’t pick a fight with your wife / 'Cause it’s a big 40 acres and if you’re not careful, you’ll be gone in the blink of an eye / No bones, no remains, but that won’t change the fact that Don sure ain’t coming back / But you can’t prosecute, there’s just no use; there’s nothing left but tiger tracks ...
Before you laugh, consider how far and how fast this song has spread. The phenomenal success of Netflix’s Tiger King docuseries made Here Kitty Kitty go mega-viral, getting covered by artists including the Offspring. Eccentric, incarcerated zoo entrepreneur Joe Exotic didn’t actually write or sing this song about Carole Baskin, the owner of Tampa’s Big Cat Rescue, and his alleged target of a murder-for-hire conspiracy. He merely gave co-writers Vince Johnson and Daniel Clinton the subject matter, and they ran with it. But Here Kitty Kitty does fit strangely well alongside all these other songs about mysterious, murderous Tampa women. Its success helped Johnson land his own record deal, which he celebrated with a new song about Baskin titled Killer Carole.
Butthole Surfers, ‘Moving to Florida’
Well I’m never going back to Florida / That’s why I’m leaving today / When I settle down in Florida / I’m gonna explode the whole damn Tampa Bay ...
Gibby Haynes and his Austin, Texas, freak-punk outfit filled this blast of guttural blues poetry with surrealist, mush-mouthed ravings about Julio Iglesias and Lyndon B. Johnson, Sidney Poitier and Mao Zedong. But between the self-made amputees (shades of Vernon, Florida) and “tadpoles the size of Mercuries,” it’s clear Haynes’ fascination with the state’s weirdness runs deep. It’s never made clear why Tampa Bay deserves the blame/credit for everything.
Montgomery Gentry, ‘She Loved Me’
I met her down in Tampa Bay / Spring Break, ’88 / She came in to hear my band play / and man we were on that night / Twin guitars and 20-minute jams / Tush, Cocaine and Sweet Home Alabam’ / I knew I had her in the palm of my hand …
You can picture yourself in this bar, can’t you? That’s the work of a great songwriter, and She Loved Me had two in Jeffrey Steele (Rascal Flatts’ What Hurts the Most) and Craig Wiseman (Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying; he also founded major Nashville publishing house Big Loud). The couple in the song grew up and drifted apart, but they always had that magical night of Clapton, Skynyrd and ZZ Top covers during Spring Break ’88.
Bruce Springsteen, ‘From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)’
She packed her bags / and with a Wyoming County real estate man / she ran down to Tampa / in an Eldorado Grand / She wrote back home, “Dear Mama / Life is just heaven in the sun / From small things, mama / big things one day come ...”
Written for The River but scrapped, it became a minor hit for Dave Edmunds in the ‘80s before Springsteen officially released his version in 2003. Tampa, once again, is a destination for depravity. The burger-slinging high school dropout left her husband and kids for another man, fleeing to sunny Florida, where she eventually shot him because “she couldn’t stand the way he drove.” Interesting interpretation of Florida’s “stand your ground” laws.
Allen Ginsberg, ‘Hadda Be Playing on the Juke Box’
Kennedy stretched and smiled and got double-crossed by lowlife goons and agents / rich bankers with criminal connections / dope pushers in CIA working with dope pushers from Cuba working with a / big-time syndicate from Tampa, Florida ...
This spoken-word piece — later covered by Rage Against the Machine — is the Beat icon’s look at violence, unrest and media saturation in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In addition to historical events like Attica, Kent State and the Bay of Pigs invasion, it references a popular theory that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was linked to Cuba and the mafia in Tampa, which he visited days before his death. Tampa: bit player in presidential history.
Owl City, ‘Fuzzy Blue Lights’
If I could open up my window / and see from Tampa Bay to Juneau / then I would survey all those open miles / and line them up in single file / Everywhere I look I see green scenic sublime / and all those oceanic vistas are so divine ...
Sitting more than 3,200 miles from Juneau, Alaska, Tampa is once again utilized in a metaphor for distance. The song sort of implies Owl City’s Adam Young either (A) is in Tampa, or (B) wants to see those 3,200 miles laid out horizontally before them. Either way, neither Tampa nor Juneau sits on an ocean, so there’s that.
Chris Cagle, ‘Anywhere But Here’
Tell her I’m in Tampa, on the causeway, watching the waves roll in / Tell her I’m in Aspen, in a cabin, finding myself again / Tell her that I’m happy and I’ve moved on / better than I’ve ever been / Just don’t tell her that you saw me drowning in this bottle, trying to make her disappear / Tell her I’m anywhere, anywhere but here ...
It’s a country-music booze song, about an alcoholic who returns to the bottle when his lady leaves — but he doesn’t want her to know. Tampa’s in pretty good company here, with Cagle likening the Courtney Campbell Causeway to a cabin in Aspen, Colorado. (A later verse subs in Baton Rouge, La., and Mobile, Ala.) But again, Tampa could be anyplace, because anyplace is better than where he ended up.
Boosie Badazz, ‘Distant Lover’
Now my Tampa chick, she 'bout what she be talking 'bout … Knew she was a freak when she got in the backseat / She said she wanted me / and peep, we left her shaking in the sheets ...
Louisiana rapper Boosie has girls all over the country — Michigan, California, Georgia and Jacksonville in this song alone — but apparently, the most sexually adventurous one hails from Tampa. See that ellipsis in the lyrics? That represents a line about a sexual act we can’t print here. Don’t Google it. Just know that’s how Boosie sees Tampa.
Rainbow Kitten Surprise, ‘Goodnight Chicago’
Twenty years to see New York reflected on subway trains / About 10 more I’ll be 44, head back to Tampa Bay / I killed a man there, in spite, and when he died, I took his place / Eighteen made you callous to the kisses that you gave ...
Is this Tampa’s answer to Folsom Prison Blues, in which Johnny Cash “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”? Hard to say. The math is confusing, and so is singer Sam Melo’s narrative. Did he really kill someone over a lover in Tampa Bay? Was he killing some past version of himself? Either way, Tampa, as usual, is but a seedy memory.
The Statler Brothers, ‘The Streets of San Francisco’
All through the day she sits alone and dreams of Tampa High / Wonders what the other kids are doing then she cries / Then with the California sun, she goes down every night / And hits the streets of San Francisco, walking for her life ...
Well, then. Here’s a deep cut by the Statler Brothers, country-gospel superstars in 1973, that imagines a young girl from Tampa who hitchhikes west and becomes “her mama’s disgrace,” going from cosmetology and the secretarial pool to, um, prostitution. First of all, Statlers, there IS no “Tampa High School,” okay? Second, couldn’t you decry the godless depravity of San Francisco in the early ‘70s WITHOUT bringing Tampa into it? What did we ever do to you?
Wyclef Jean, ‘Perfect Gentleman’
Yo, meet me at Sue’s Rendezvous! I’m going to send this one out to the Gentleman’s Club! Magic City! New York Dolls! Rollexx! Mons Venus! Crazy girls!
Okay, fine, Tampa IS known for its strip clubs. Joe Redner’s Mons Venus gets a shout-out from the former Fugee in an extended version of his ode to nudie bars and the women who work there, right alongside such esteemed establishments as Atlanta’s Magic City and Miami’s Rollexx. This one probably won’t make any tourism bureau commercials, but it is funny to picture a dancer coming out and doing her thing to Wyclef’s Gone Till November.
Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains, ‘Tampa Bay Song’
Well it’s hard to believe in much / when you’re in Tampa Bay / and the coastline is drowning beneath all the sunshine / and condos and cocaine / And everyone around’s just waiting ‘round here to be dead / From your rich grandma on down through the crackheads / Well, I guess that Florida’s the wrong kind of wasteland for me / And St. Petersburg is a city of ghosts and bad dreams ...
Cult folk-punk recluse Pat the Bunny (nee Schneeweis) has released music under a number of names, including the nihilist acoustic project Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains. Whether the Vermont native ever lived in Florida isn’t immediately clear (although he did allude to a “neighbor in St. Pete” in a song by another project, the Wingnut Dishwashers Union). But he paints an ugly picture of the Sunshine State here, even if “St. Petersburg: A City of Ghosts and Bad Dreams” would make a pretty sweet T-shirt.
Mark Kozelek, Ben Boye and Jim White, ‘My Brother Loves Seagulls’
I remember when I was just about to turn 40 / I was at a bar in Tampa when a girl approached me / She said, “How old are you?” / I said, “I’m pretty old Southern belle” / She said, “Come on just tell me, I don’t mind, just tell me, I won’t mind.” / I whimpered, “I’m 39.” / She stepped back and said, “Ah you’re not old yet” / And she walked off and she was exactly right / I wasn’t old yet ...
Kozelek, the singer for indie folk projects Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, crafts a poignant scene in this poetic new quasi-solo song. As his brother deals with a medical emergency, he reflects on a moment in Tampa that reminded him to look on the bright side of life. Kozelek actually played the Orpheum in Ybor City at age 39, back in 2006, so this woman at the bar might still be out there. (Also worth mentioning: Kozelek has featured on two other songs in which he sings about Tampa, Jesu’s Wheat Bread and Donny McCaslin’s The Opener. The latter is a shaggy-dog story about a gig in Tampa that starts with him being picked up in the airport, and ends with “four big rednecks” outside the door of the motel where he was holed up in bed with “two DTF rocker girls.” Dude’s had some adventures here, that’s for sure.)
Mickey Avalon, ‘Mickey’s Girl’
I fell in love with a teenage runaway / She come straight from Tampa, F-L-A / to be a topless dancer at Billy’s Place / And any which way that you cut the cake / she was a hustler, not just another pretty face ...
California rapper Avalon, who has toured with Snoop Dogg and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, sings about yet another wild child from the Big Guava transplanted to the big city. She’s a prostitute, a “femme fatale, New York darling” and “the hottest damn junkie I had ever seen.” The song is pretty laid-back and beach-bar-ready, which does feel like Florida. The lyrics, not so much.
Ray Charles, ‘I Found My Baby There’
Down in St. Pete, Florida, I found my baby there / Ooh, St. Pete, St. Pete, Florida, I found my baby there / No one’s ever loved me like my baby, any place, anywhere …
Born in Georgia but raised in Greenville, Fla., Charles made some of his first recordings in Tampa, where he wrote this syrupy ode to an early lady love. It later became known as St. Pete Florida Blues. “I didn’t consider it a composition, just a blues I made up,” he wrote in a memoir. “Called it Found My Baby There. It was a nasty little number, and that day we worked it out — along with a couple of other songs — with the recorder going. The sound quality was so bad it sounded like we were all locked away in a closet.” Be that as it may, there’s nothing sweeter than hearing Charles sing about St. Pete. The city proclaimed Feb. 15, 2019, Ray Charles Day, and adopted St. Pete Florida Blues as its official city song.