Lou Reed’s New York, 30 Years Later: A Personal Reflection

“People say, ‘Lou, are you political?’ I say give me an issue, I’ll give you a tissue…you can wipe my ass with it.”

-Lou Reed, Take No Prisoners Live, 1978

Lou Reed would never be mistaken for Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, or any social justice icon of rock and roll. When others were singing about Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, Lou was singing about scoring heroin, kinky sex, broken hearts, and tragic women. By the late 80s, though, Lou was apparently as sick of Reagan’s shit as everyone else, but more specifically, he had a few choice things to say about his dear old New York City, and what assholes like Rudy Guilliani and Donald Trump (heard of those pricks?) were doing to it. He crafted a number of vignettes, touching on a wide range of issues, like racism, poverty, environmentalism, how AIDs was ravaging the gay community, homeless veterans, and even Andy Warhol.

New York wasn’t my first Lou album, that would be The Words and Music of Lou Reed; The Best of the Velvet Underground. That album came into my freshman year of high school, coinciding with Nirvana’s Nevermind exploding and me getting Pigface’s Welcome To Mexico…Asshole. Needless to say my brain was on fire at 14/15 years old. Once I heard Lou, everything changed. The Velvets came from the time of the hippies, but they were scoring drugs, and writing odes to OD’d girls, and bondage sex, and putting it all out there without metaphor or double entendre. So, before I even got to Clive Barker, William S Burroughs, or Lydia Lunch, Lou was already inspiring me as a writer to question and push boundaries. I’ve said in conversations and essays numerous times, that Lou had a bigger influence on me as a writer than any actual writers. Which isn’t quite as true these days, but still…

I knew New York’s single “Dirty Boulevard,” prior to purchasing which was what I based my decision of where to go next on. What I loved immediately, was the wealth of diversity in the songs, each one having a different flavor, from noisy guitar rock to Dylan-esque talking blues, to jazz-with the connective tissue of Lou’s talk-sing voice and guitar tone. The album really is a short story collection put to music, which in and of itself isn’t unique to Lou, but New York could be his most focused since Berlin.

The opening track, “Romeo Had Juliette” is simply perfect; profane, romantic, and funny.

Caught between the twisted stars the plotted lines the faulty map
that brought Columbus to New York
Betwixt between the East and west he calls on her wearing a leather vest
the earth squeals and shudders to a halt
A diamond crucifix in his ear is used to help ward off the fear
that he has left his soul in someone’s rented car
Inside his pants he hides a mop to clean the mess that he has dropped
into the life of lithesome Juliette Bell
And Romeo wanted Juliette
And Juliette wanted Romeo

Lou did more than just adapt Shakespeare to The Big Apple, he used it to comment on love amidst squalor, crime, and violence. That beauty and salvation can be found in the most unlikely of situations. It’s a current that runs through most of Side A, little shimmers of hope, but there’s plenty of no fucks given on Side B. Example, in “Sick of You,” Lou back hands Trump, Guillini, Morton Downey, Oliver North, and the world in general, while he tells off his lover, who’s about to leave him for the neighbor. Then there’s “Good Evening Mr Waldheim,” some of Lou’s most vicious lyrics, taking dead aim at former Nazi SS officer and UN secretary general in the 80’s, Kurt Waldheim, and Jesse Jackson, who had at the time made some shockingly anti-Semetic remarks, with the Pope’s ass thrown in there for good measure.

Jesse you say Common Ground 

Does that include the PLO?

What about people right here right now 

who fought for you not so long ago? [3]

The words that flow so freely

falling dancing from your lips

I hope that you don’t cheapen them

with a racist slip

Oh Common Ground

Is Common Ground a word or just a sound

Common Ground—remember those civil rights workers buried in the ground

“Strawman” might be the most punk song on the album, railing against class division and wasteful spending, as the 1%ers drag the country straight to Hell. And then it ends with a noisy rumination on Christ, philosophy, and the death of Andy Warhol.

New York, for me is part one in a three album trilogy that marks the peak of Lou’s songwriting craft. Yes, you can point to the Velvets, or songs like “Walk on the Wild Side” or “Coney Island Baby” or even the album Berlin as great moments, but none of his albums as a whole, without John Cale, were ever so beautifully crafted as New York, Magic and Loss, and Set The Twilight Reeling. And New York is the best of the set, an indispensable rock album made by one of rock’s most troubled and endearing souls.


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