Lou Reed “New York” (Rhino). This week’s music pick is a deluxe reissue of the fifteenth studio album by Lou Reed which was originally released in January 1989. The album received critical success upon release and is widely considered to be among Reed’s strongest solo efforts. A new reissue highlights the ongoing relevance of Lou Reed’s opus about his hometown in the era of AIDS and Reaganism, a protest album unlike any other. Here we are in the year 2020 and we have our own issues during this trying time, including COVID-19 and the presidency of Donald Trump.
These days, New York City feels like Disneyland for the 1%. Crime is at a 50-year low, decrepit warehouses have been succeeded by trendy lofts, and chic cocktails cost upwards of $15. But back in the ‘80s, the Big Apple was a starkly different place. The crack epidemic was ravaging poor communities, violent crime was a constant threat, and the wealthy were fleeing for the suburbs. Lou Reed’s ‘89 concept album “New York” paints a vivid picture of this pre-Giuliani Gotham inundated with grime, crime, and corruption. But despite NYC’s maladies, Reed manages to highlight some stunning glimmers of love and hope.
“New York” is a record of unmistakeable conviction, direct and literary
Lou Reed was unusually hard to pin down in the 1980s. After the gay-rights-rallying cry of “Transformer” in 1972, he spent a decade mating queerness with rock-and-roll and flirting with his own homosexuality in public statements, an identity that seemed to culminate in 1979, when he came out to Creem magazine. Hardly a year later, he was celebrating married love on “Growing Up in Public” and, by 1982, heterosexuality in more general terms on the nonetheless excellent “The Blue Mask.” Reed’s subject matter changed because his life did — he got married in 1980 — yet his newfound pop persona as a successful heterosexual capitalist coincided with the rise of Ronald Reagan, who was ignoring the needs of gay people with his refusal to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic while helping to make greed and white-collar success culturally ubiquitous. Reed never supported Reagan’s policies, but he gave the impression of a star wearing the garb of his own era, scrawling an ode to his New Jersey country home as easily as he once caked on glam rock make-up. And then he made “New York,” a record of unmistakable conviction, one so direct and literary, erudite and rageful that it resembles no protest music written before or since.
Like much great fiction, Reed’s handling of his themes has aged into greater relevance today
Released in January of 1989, days before George H.W. Bush’s inauguration, “New York” treats straightforward hard rock and clean-toned, bold and shimmering guitar as blank pages on which to lay down his unique storytelling and liberal-minded principles. Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani appear in its hyperdense lyrics — gleefully, Reed subjects both to horrific calamities. He once stated that he wanted to write “the Great American Novel” using “the rock’n’roll song as a vehicle,” and on “New York,” the directive feels apt rather than pretentious. Like much great fiction, Reed’s handling of his themes — a depleted environment, indigenous persecution, pro-lifers, police killings, racial violence — has aged into greater relevance today.
Though Reagan is never named, New York is nonetheless a dispatch from the fear-ridden two terms of our 40th president, an album that touches on aspects of the ‘80s ignored by the era’s major-label music. Prince, Cyndi Lauper, and Reed himself worked HIV/AIDS into earlier songs, yet those few instances shied away from connecting the epidemic to the gay community. “Halloween Parade” uses the eponymous West Village tradition to show the hole that AIDS left in queer life.
The new deluxe set consists of 26 unreleased recordings
Reed’s songwriting always shined when he wrote about subjects other than himself, and “New York” is structured around characters: the Romeo Rodriguez of the thrilling opener “Romeo Had Juliette,” its turns of phrase packed as tightly as Dylan’s in the mid-’60s; the abused young Pedro on the three-chord single “Dirty Blvd.;” the proverbial whale — which might be a novel, or might be an endangered species — on the Velvet Underground-esque highlight “Last Great American Whale.” We have references to Michael Stewart, a black graffiti artist murdered by the police, and Bernhard Goetz, an NRA-embraced vigilante who shot four black teenagers on a subway train. Over 57 minutes, “New York” transforms from a collection of diffuse character studies into a concept album about the futility of the individual to be a meaningful agent of political change. On the track, “Strawman,” Reed provides his album with a thesis in reverse: “Does anyone need another self-righteous rock singer?”
This new deluxe set consists of 26 unreleased recordings. The first disc makes up the remastered album, the second consists of live versions and the final disc contains unreleased early versions of the album’s tracks — including a “work tape” and rough mix of the single “Dirty Blvd,” the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” and the Transformer track “Walk on the Wild Side.” This is a solid piece of work that holds up 31 years after its initial release.
Key tracks are “Romeo Had Juliette,” “Dirty Blvd.,” “Halloween Parade” and “The Last Great American Whale.”