Here’s an interesting one*, I got into Lou Reed at university big time; I thought he was the living embodiment of sunglasses-after-dark cool for a few years and I was able to scientifically prove this by using a powerful analytical technique that has stood me in good stead ever since – simply use the evidence that agrees with your theory – junk the rest; I call it Evigree-Junkrest, feel free to use it too with my blessing. In Lou’s case this worked mostly by dint of allowing me to idolize him for the deeply cool bits of his output and studiously ignoring the crap stuff he put out because it didn’t fit the view I wanted to have of him of him.
Imagine if you will a little nightclub for LPs, where they get to hang out and take a break from spinning, or having Lego put on them endlessly. The doorman gets to check them in one at a time as they make a bid for the VIP area to hang with the Velvet Underground LP’s already in their booths:
Transformer, come on through, umm, honey?; Street Hassle, you can come in for a half; Metal Machine Music, fine, fine come in just don’t make me listen to you; Magic & Loss, okay, okay but don’t get everyone down; Mistrial? forget it son; Berlin? no, bugger off you’re far too depressing!; Oi, You! Rock & Roll Heart! Where the F- do you think you’re going ! And so on.
I’d definitely have let New York in, back in the day. It was the first LP he had released since I had discovered him and trumpeted by all as a real return to form. It had a cool urban cover, swearing, stories about low-lives, sex, drugs, and a mythical whale – what more could you want? It was a cultural experience too I also got to learn about Morton Downey, Bernhard Goetz and Rudy Giuliani too, none of whom had made much of an impression on my turf; that turf being of course the Very Far Lower West Side (Wales).
The LP is something of a state-of-the-nation address given by a gnarled old curmudgeon, veering between his usual story songs and strikingly direct approaches. I saw Henry Rollins on a spoken word tour once and he said about New York, words to the effect that,
‘it’s like Lou Reed looked out his window and said ‘Holy shit! There’s drug dealers out there!’ – Lou, remember you used to buy from them…?’
Which is fair enough, but let’s face it America in 1989 (hell, most places in 1989) gave Mr Reed more than enough fuel to stoke his fire with and to be entirely fair he does his best to set it all ablaze and light a cigarette on the bonfire. Bigotry, corruption, hypocrisy, inequality – all the good stuff. He trains all his guns on it squarely, coming up with a number of his best one-liners for years.
I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag with Latin written on it that says ‘It’s hard to give a shit these days’ – Romeo Had Juliette
It’s a lot like my painter friend Donald said to me ‘Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done’ – LGAW
I hadn’t listened to this LP for a good 5 years or so before today and what struck me is that, whilst I love the way New York seems to mark a re-engagement with life, rather than his customary detached-observer role, the songs with the lighter touch are by far the most successful ones here. When Lou gets all angry and righteously loud, it sounds a bit pedestrian no matter how justified his ire is, so the likes of ‘There Is No Time’ and ‘Strawman’ don’t cut up as sharp as they should. The lighter tunes such as ‘Halloween Parade (Aids)’ and the bitter fable of ‘Last Great American Whale’ (where the ‘..fork’ quote above comes from) are the ones that resonate the best here.
‘Halloween Parade (Aids)’ is my fave track here. It’s not an original observation, but it can be read as a late-80’s update on ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and it is redolent of the sometimes empty melancholy behind the hedonism, underscored by the new gaps in the crowd. It’s an excellent song and you get the sense that he really means it when he sings,
The past keeps knock-knock knocking on my door
And I don’t want to hear it anymore
If I had a political, rather than musical, criticism to offer on New York it’s simply that Lou offers no solutions, just the observation that we’re all pretty much screwed because of our intrinsically flawed humanity. Fine – he’s no guru, no politician, but in the same way I react when I meet someone like this, I do just want to say – that’s all great, we all get the picture down here, now suggest a way to make it better, or suggest off! Maybe that’s just me.
On the more detached side I love ‘Romeo Had Juliette’ and ‘Dirty Blvd.’ unequivocally, where the grimy reality is portrayed primarily through characters. The band, featuring Fred Maher on drums, Mike Rathke on guitar and Rob Wasserman on bass are excellent and rock it up particularly on these two tracks – incidentally for any fellow VU nerds out there, Moe tucker plays drums on two tracks. ‘Dirty Blvd.’ in particular is a rabble-rouser, with a classic angry tale of unjust squalor and escape, featuring some great backing vocals by Dion^. ‘Romeo Had Juliette’ on the other hand is Lou Reed just tapping directly into that mother lode of cool he has access to sometimes.
If I were to pick two other high points it would be the melancholy underdone veteran’s tale of ‘Xmas in February’ and the smug, kooky swing of ‘Beginning of a Great Adventure’ and its fantasy of breeding,
… a little liberal army in the woods
Just like these redneck lunatics I see at the local bar
With their tribe of mutant inbred piglets with cloven hooves
I really enjoyed listening to New York again. It’s clever, effortlessly cool but impassioned, smart-assed and witty in places – just like I’d really like to be. So stick a fork in my ass and turn me over, I’m done.
P.S – Just in case anyone ever asks you, the Latin for ‘It’s hard to give a shit these days’ is –
Durum pati, ut daret illis diebus[spotify id=”spotify:user:15371537:playlist:5EfGsW8lCeDg7UXbLvNcsi” width=”300″ height=”380″ /]
*to me anyway, those of you out there who are slightly less fascinated by me than I am** may not find it as fascinating, I guess.
**weirdos! Get with the programme!
^singer of my favourite ever New York song, ‘King of The New York Streets’ (^see above on Spotify), I don’t own it on vinyl so this is all you’ll hear about it from me – I think it’s Genius,
People called me the scandalizer
The world was my appetizer
I turned gangs into fertilizer
King of the New York streets