1989 could be known as “the year of ageing rock stars releasing comeback albums,” or something a little more concise if I could be bothered to think about it. But regardless of the name, you get the message. Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney and Lou Reed all released albums that garnered a lot of critical acclaim and commercial attention in the year 1989. In retrospect, some of these albums (namely Dylan’s Oh Mercy and The Stones’ Steel Wheels) have been re-evaluated in a slightly more unfavourable light, the general consensus being that, while they were good albums, they weren’t classics, and were so acclaimed at the time because they sounded so much better than the artists’ preceding work. Not the case with Lou Reed’s New York. Sure, it might have been a while since he had troubled the charts or given reviewers anything special to write about, so even if the album was merely good it would have been a success. But New York, an album concerning the city itself, isn’t good. It’s astounding.
It’s important to note that the New York City that Lou Reed would have traversed was very different to the New York today. Anyone who has visited the city in the last fifteen years will no doubt have found it very pleasant. The pavements are clean, the streets are safe, the people are friendly and the city is a hub of tourism, industry and culture. This was NOT the case before Rudy Guiliani’s crackdown on crime. The city had been seething with decay for many years and was a shadow of its former self. Crime rates, unemployment rates and racial tension soared. You didn’t go to Times Square unless you wanted to watch a porno or purchase the services of a cheap prostitute. THIS is the New York described on this album – and on other songs, too. Some of Reed’s best-known works, such as The Velvet Underground song I’m Waiting For The Man and his top 10 solo hit Walk On The Wild Side [Eds note – Only Lou Reed had the clarity of purpose to write a song like Walk on the Wild Side, something that clambers into your head and looks out your eyes every time you hear it], tell stories of the junkies, drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes and low-lives of the city. Lou Reed had been singing about New York ever since being part of The Velvet Underground in the late sixties, but while this theme popped up frequently in his work, he had never dedicated a full-length work to the city and its strange characters. Not until now.
The album begins with one of the best songs on the album; Romeo Had Juliette. With Reed’s ironic lyrics and the guitar-heavy sound, we’re in familiar territory here, but is that a bad thing? The tale of the two “star-cross’d lovers” is made by Reed into less of a tale about tragedy than a tale of two lovers struggling to exist in the turmoil around them. The lyrics couldn’t have put it more aptly: “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock/Into the filthy Hudson, what a shock/They wrote a book about it/They said it was like ancient Rome.” The ambiguous, unexpected fade-out begs the question: did they make it? We’ll never know.
A great number of the following songs go the way of Walk on the Wild Side by celebrating the bizarre characters of the city, characters who would not be out of place in a Bob Dylan song or a Fellini movie. The Halloween Parade mentions “some Southern Queen,” “some black Jamaican stud” and “a girl from SoHo with a t-shirt saying “I blow”;” Last Great American Whale mentions a “racist mayor’s son,” Beginning Of A Great Adventure describes “redneck lunatics… with their tribe of mutant inbred piglets.” I could go on, but that would be frivolous. I think the idea is pretty clear. There are a lot of “freaks,” outcasts, weirdos in New York, and Reed wishes to mention them. Why? Is he offering his support? Is this an ironic condemnation of them? Or is he simply telling it like it is - that New York is an ugly place - offering a rebuff to Milton Glaser’s shallow “I ♥ N Y” campaign? Reed lets you decide. No commentary, no opinions; just stories, anecdotes.
Dirty Blvd is the closest a song comes on this album to offering a glimpse of hope, of escape from the city. After painting the picture of hopelessness in the lyrics: “No-one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything/They dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard,” the song ends on the optimistic mantra “I want to fly/From Dirty Boulevard.” Having said that, this isn’t a pessimistic album. Musically it’s quite pleasant in many places, with uplifting melodies and exquisite guitar playing. In particular, Halloween Parade and Beginning of a Great Adventure almost have a lounge-jazz type feel. But in several songs, Reed lets rip with his dissatisfaction with hypocrites, liars and the US government. (Or are they all the same thing?) There Is No Time and Busload of Faith are list type songs, running through lists of things that we have no time for and things we can’t trust in. He sounds bitter and preachy, and this I find is a slight criticism of the album. But nevertheless, his message gets across. In Last Great American Whale we find perhaps his harshest condemnation of his country:
“Well Americans don’t care much of anything/Land and water the last/And animal life is low on the totem pole/With human life not worth more than infected yeast/Americans don’t care too much for beauty/They’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream/They’ll watch dead rats wash up on the beach/And complain if they can’t swim.”
Yes, the world Lou Reed commits to record is ugly, imperfect and dangerous. But I ask you; what isn’t? In an almost Biblical parallel, Reed takes these imperfect, troubled characters and makes them perfect and immortal in this album. What is ugly in real life is beautiful in the context of this album. And it’s done with such ease and finesse. New York isn’t just a legitimate comeback album; it’s a highlight of Lou Reed's solo career and a masterpiece of intelligent rock music.
Words - Adam