Lou Reed's "New York"
The album I’ve listened to the most on Spotify this year is, unsurprisingly, political. With references to and wisecracks about Rudy Giuliani, Oliver North and the Trump family, its tracks certainly aren’t Top 40-friendly or bound for an iPad commercial. A series of tracks dives, unrestrained, into a minefield of controversial issues, calling attention to the decaying environment and beached whales, insisting vociferously that black lives matter and mourns our medical and cultural treatment of LGBT people and the terminally ill. The catch is that none of its songs are new – they appear on Lou Reed’s New York, which celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this year.
They discovered some animal no one's ever seen
It was an inside trader eating a rubber tire
after running over Rudy Giuliani
Reed, who died in 2013, was known as the Godfather of Punk. While his music, especially with the Velvet Underground, inspired or launched indie, glam rock, rap, garage rock and spoken word, he was always too anti-establishment to catch on with the mainstream. But he may have been prophetic. Barely out of his teens, he wrote the groundbreaking smack odes “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin” in the early- to mid-sixties, at a time when even the Bowery bums shunned narcotics users. “Candy Says,” released in 1969, is one of the earliest known pieces of music about a transgender person, and, of course, “Walk on the Wild Side” delves into the personalities from Andy Warhol’s factory, including “Jackie” (birth name: John Curtis Holder, Jr.) who “thought she was a queen for a day.” The neglected hustlers, dreamers, rogues, dealers, OD victims and “queens” shared a commonality: they were all part of Lou Reed’s microcosm of New York.
By the time of his 1986 album Mistrial, Reed’s solo career had faded to a level of obscurity he hadn’t endured in two decades. Seymour Stein, who had signed everyone from the Smiths to Ice-T, brought Reed under his wing at Sire Records, but with reservations. As described in Anthony DeCurtis’s all-encompassing and touching, eponymous Reed biography, Stein didn’t know what to expect from a man who, in his last three albums, had knocked out songs about getting mugged, video games, and Martin Scorsese movies, and even indulged in a hiphop number called “The Original Wrapper.” Reed, though, was amidst a political awakening, one that two other major sixties/seventies artists were also experiencing in 1989: Neil Young and Bob Dylan. But this wasn’t Freedom, with its indirect barnstomers, or cryptic, like Oh Mercy. It wasn’t even an album, really, but a vitriolic screed.
Entering the studio in early ’88, Fred Maher and newly recruited guitar wizard Mike Rathke dreamed up a series of demos based on Reed’s instructions. Reed had been writing in bursts over a three-month period, pulling material from TV news and magazines, even from Jesse Jackson’s stump speech. The tape Rathke and Maher made for Stein consisted of half-spoken lyrics and guitar fills and must have made the executive do a spittake. Could Sire even legally release a record that joyously celebrated Donald Trump getting the mumps or Rudy Giuliani being run over by a taxi?
But these were zeitgeist-y songs, tapping into the city’s explosive headlines. A riot broke out in Tompkins Square Park that August after police attempted to clear the area due to a newly installed curfew; two months later, cops in riot gear broke up a memorial procession for Matthew Shepard, a gay hate crime victim. The archconservative prosecutor Rudy Giuliani weighed a challenge to Democratic Mayor Ed Koch. (Giuliani would announce for Mayor four months after New York came out.) In Howard Beach, out near JFK Airport, protestors took to the streets after an innocent black man was beaten to death with baseball bats in what Ed Koch called a lynching party straight out of “the Deep South.” Nationally, in the fall of ’88, Michael Dukakis watched his lead slip away and woke up to a third consecutive Republican presidential election triumph, thanks to a racist ad run by Lee Atwater for the George Bush campaign. This was what filmmaker Spike Lee was seeing as he scripted Do The Right Thing. Watching and reading, too, was Lou Reed. (Lee’s movie went into production while Lou Reed was at Media Sound studios just across the East River.)
On Stein’s tape and the record released in January 1989, Reed uses New York as a metaphor for a turbulent, sharply divided American electorate. Even as he praises Jesse Jackson for preaching racial harmony, he attacks the candidate’s off-scripted remarks about Jews, asking: “Hey Jesse… does that common ground include me?” There is a thinly-veiled and highly effective ode to those stricken with AIDS, as represented in the ghostly, walking wounded in Greenwich Village’s annual Halloween parade. (The song, “Halloween Parade,” is subtitled “A.I.D.S.” on copies of New York.) A washed up whale is, on paper, the subject of “Last Great American Whale,” but DeCurtis suggests the beast actually represents ecology and environmental concerns, the subject of Time’s cover the week before New York hit stores. Each of New York City’s major, ongoing problems were either national issues or soon spread through the country and, for the most part, remain hot-button topics in 2019.
“Romeo Had Juliette” (emphasis on the sexual innuendo of “had”) opens the album, and from there, New York sticks mostly to chronological recording order, rendering the themes somewhat erratic but permitting a more melodically balanced flow. “Romeo’s” first lines are among New York’s most memorable: “Caught between the twisted stars / the plotted lines / the faulty map that brought Columbus to New York.” Reed’s rethink of the star-crossed lovers (and the discovery of America) sets the scene for the next dozen or so tracks: a city where love won’t defeat gun-toting drug dealers, “it’s hard to give a shit these days,” and the land itself is being swallowed up by a filthy river. It’s the perfect stage for a party – or is it a funeral procession? “Halloween Parade,” with its devastating final jab – “See you next year” – leaves listeners wondering if many of the celebrants, including someone in “a tacky Cary Grant” costume, made it to the nineties at all. There’s no let-up: track three is “Dirty Blvd.,” the Alternative Songs chart-topper about Pedro, a young Puerto Rican boy trapped in a fleabag motel as the city gentrifies around him and the building’s owner “laughs until he wets his pants.” It’s arguably the most soaring, transcendent cut of Reed’s solo career, alongside his masterwork “Street Hassle.” Here, Pedro’s destiny is similar to that of the title character in 2014’s Birdman. On the dirty boulevard, the protagonist’s room has “a window without glass” and dreams, in helpless moments, of killing his father and flying out and above the dreaded Wilshire Hotel, a stand-in for every welfare dump from Hell’s Kitchen to the Bronx.
Opioids and fathers are villains in the subsequent track, “Endless Cycle,” and then we’re into one of thickest blocks of political material in the fourteen-song record. On the blazing-fast “There Is No Time, Reed catalogs everything he’s sick of: “my country, right or wrong,” saluting the flag, “shaking hands” and “political speech.” But it’s merely a tease of what’s to come. “Last Great American Whale,” a cryptic but nonetheless powerhouse lament for America’s failed promises. “Well Americans don't care for much of anything,” he says, almost audibly sighing. “Land and water the least,” and quotes a friend (rumored to be John Mellencamp) who says of either the whale or America, it’s unclear, “Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they're done.” Take that, R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
But it’s the direct link between 1989 and 2019 political figures that we’re here for, aren’t we? After “Busload of Faith” is “Sick of You,” in a way, the most visionary and topical New York cut. Stanza by stanza, this absurd ditty, consistently angry without ever losing its hilarious, satirical edge, hits on all of these dystopian but plausible topics:
-a closed beach, possibly in Jersey, where the ocean has become “a Red Sea” and no government workers are around to part it, a la Moses
-salad is unavailable in stores because much of it is tainted
-Staten Island disappears for unexplained reasons
-NASA destroys the moon
-the ozone layer is finally dead, probably thanks to carbon emissions
-Oliver North, then at the center of the Iran-Contra affair, gay marries co-conspirator William Secord and the couple gives birth to a baby “Tehran”
-a trucker drives into a nuclear reactor and eliminates a cozy American town, then makes the rounds of the TV talk show circuit, where the hosts ask after his physical rather than mental health
-everyone in Trump’s family is apparently ordained but ol’ Donald gets the mumps anyway
-misprescribed or overprescribed medication kills one of Reed’s friends
-Rudy Giuliani gets run over by… well, you’ll just have to read the lyrics yourself
-The song’s final lines: “They say the President's dead / but no one can find his head / It's been missing now for weeks / But no one noticed it / he had seemed so fit / and I'm sick of it.”
Unpacking all this, you may recall New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his family having a public beach to themselves during the 2017 state government shutdown, headlines about Florida’s fishing economy at the mercy of a “red tide” last year (which is still wreaking havoc), the Romaine lettuce crisis, Hurricane Sandy and global warming jeopardizing Staten Island and other boroughs, Trump’s simmering rage about China landing on the far side of the moon, the ozone layer actually not dying but experiencing a recent resurgence, Oliver North as President of the NRA, “nice, white, blue collar guys” shooting up schools, churches and public events, Trump and the Pope, the opioid crisis, and, of course, Giuliani’s recent emergence from beneath the rubber tire that appears to have flattened his brain.
“Sick of You” is part of a three-song mini-set of caustic Lou Reed verdicts. “Hold On” has Howard Beach racial violence, human rights abuses, cops getting shot, funerals for shot-dead kids and “the Statue of Bigotry” looking on – and that’s just the first verse. And if you worried that black lives were getting short shrift at this point, note that the most libelous one-two punch on New York comes soon after: “The dopers sent a message to the cops last weekend / they shot him in the car where he sat / And Eleanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart must have appreciated that." (Bumpurs was killed in custody, allegedly due to police brutality. Stewart died of a shotgun blast to the chest during an eviction. No officers were convicted of wrongdoing in either incident.)
That leaves “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” before the trio of more elusive tracks that end New York. Kurt Waldheim, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, was the President of Austria when witnesses came forward in the mid-eighties to point out that he had left out crucial details from his memoir. Crucial, Holocaust-y details, like how he was an officer in the German Army during World War II and, for one, provable thing, approved leaflets to drop over Bosnian soldiers that read: “Enough of the Jewish war, kill the Jews, come over.” Unsurprisingly, Reed, whose paternal aunt survived the Holocaust, had some concerns.
“Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” and its opening salvos on the Pope and Waldheim lay the groundwork for the multi-verse critique of Jesse Jackson: “Remember those civil rights workers buried in the ground,” he points out, and you can almost picture Reed wagging a finger as he sings it. It’s also easy to imagine someone writing this song today about any number of hypocritical figures weighing in on Charlottesville, transgender bathroom concerns, the border wall or other political debacle.
Lost in those political debates, including ones about Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, is the troops themselves. Battered by the war on terror, PTSD, catastrophic suicide numbers and a rising nationalist edge to many veterans’ political views (at least on Twitter), the United States military is at a crisis point. This echoes the purgatory between Iran Contra, Reagan’s Grenada invasion, the failed hostage rescue in Tehran in the years prior to the album’s release and what was on the horizon in the George H. W. Bush era: the Persian Gulf War. In the first chunk of “Xmas in February” (the title a possible reference to American POWs returning from Vietnam in 1973), a solider watches Agent Orange streak across the sky. The character, Sam, reflects on how he (we) got there, from friends in body bags due to drugs to friends in body bags due to North Vietnamese gunfire. Like the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of today, he’s “a reminder of the war that wasn’t won” and, living on the streets, is perhaps “gone” for good.
“Strawman,” New York’s penultimate track, all but begs for “a flaming sword” as a sign of the end times and something to come wash all of the above problems away. Reed attacks everyone from Hollywood movie budgets to owners of $60,000 cars. (The song was, therefore, almost instantly outdated.) Corrupt politicians, sinning TV preachers, wasteful space programs — stop me if I sound too much like today’s Washington Post — they’re all lambasted in “Strawman,” including Reed, who chastises himself for spitting in the wind with this very song. He goes on to wish a flaming sword would materialize over the Hudson and wake people up. (The object could be seen as a fantasy way of protecting the world or it could be a prophecy that the devil is coming and we better get our shit together, depending on your take on an ancient myth.)
After the summation of “Strawman,” Reed switches gears to close out New York. The coda, “Dime Store Mystery,” tries to tie the recent death of mentor/frenemy Andy Warhol to the crucifixion of Jesus. Or maybe it’s just Martin Scorsese being crucified by the media and the religious right over his adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ. Regardless, it could have been an awkward, anticlimactic ending, but Reed keeps things even-handed, only referencing Warhol’s funeral late in the song and castigating himself for not spending more time with the artist after the Velvet Underground severed ties with him. And there’s a beautifully evocative melody, one of the oft-praised on New York, partly thanks to Moe Tucker’s tastefully gentle guest appearance on the drums and a feedback-laden fade-out highlighted by Reed’s and Rathke’s guitars. How does it relate to 2019? Perhaps it doesn’t — although I can’t help but think of Representative Ilhan Omar, “crucified” for out-of-context remarks and what Reed might have said in disgusted defense.
If only the liver transplant he received in 2013 had saved him. His updated live show might include a few New York songs, since he often gloated about how his music was ahead of the mainstream. (New York didn’t peaked on the Billboard 200 at #41 in the spring of 1989.) On the other hand, much like with Hunter S. Thompson, Afeni Shakur, Joan Rivers and other cultural commentators, one guesses he might be content wherever he is, rather than have to experience any of what’s going on today.