Is New York Lou Reed’s Greatest Album?

This Thursday Lou Reed would have turned seventy-five. As Reed’s birthday approaches I’ve been listening to his catalogue. One album continues to stand out for me, as it has for 27 years, as being both his finest achievement and the most complete expression of Reed’s distinctive identity as an artist. Others might put forward Transformer or Magic and Loss, but as excellent as those albums are neither of them has the scope, the artistic composure or the consistent vision of New York. The rest of Reed’s albums are also more personal than New York, and in this too the album transcends its brethren- it’s an album which embodies the culture, politics and and attitude of Reed’s New York City and in doing so, in crafting a more trans-personal landscape, Reed attains to the sphere of great art.

Reed released New York in 1989. His career had been in the doldrums throughout most of the 80s since his last significant critical success, 1981’s The Blue Mask. New York was almost universally acclaimed by critics and voted the third best album of the year in The Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll. New York’s searing political urgency, embrace of diversity, and cynical despair hiding a tender heart and a prophetic critique ring more true today than ever. Witness Reed’s growling transformation of Emma Lazarus’ famous verse, putting in its cross hairs brutality towards an underclass of immigrants:

Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor

I’ll piss on ‘em

That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says

Your poor huddled masses

Let’s club ’em to death

Or just get it over with and dump ’em on the boulevard

The boulevard in question is the dirty one of the eponymous song, populated by drug pushers and criminals.

The album opens with Romeo Had Juliette, a celebration/lament of New York’s diverse mean streets, followed by Halloween Parade, which recounts, in a bittersweet tone, watching a colourful costume parade in the absence of a beloved (and departed?) friend. The parade has a strong LGBQT presence (“There’s a down town fairy/ singing out “Proud Mary”/as she cruises Christopher Street/and some Southern Queen/ is acting loud and mean/
where the docks and the Badlands meet”).

After raging at the plight of immigrants, the poor, Native Americans, and Vietnam vets, among others, the album closes with Dime Store Mystery, a meditation on Jesus’ doubts as he hangs on the cross. The album is both vitally creative and shot through with grim black humour. The aesthetic of the album- rough, simple, driven by choppy, distorted guitar and a stripped down band- also established the style that Reed would largely hold to for the rest of his career, notably on albums like Magic and Loss and Ecstacy. What really makes the album stand out, however, is its relentlessly confrontational politics.

On Good Evening Mr. Waldheim Reed takes on Jesse Jackson, Kurt Waldheim, and the Pope. John Paul II awarded Waldheim a knighthood in the Order of Pius IX despite Waldheim’s Nazi past, and Jesse Jackson had friendly meetings with the PLO. Reed trenchantly riffs on the idea of “common ground” throughout the song, asking if the common ground he may (or may not) share with Jackson and the Pope can also be shared the PLO, Farrakhan and Waldheim (spoiler: it can’t).

“Last Great American Whale” tells a fable of a huge whale which evokes a tidal wave to free a Native American chief from a jail cell where he has been put for killing a racist who taunted his people. The song ends when a local member of the NRA “blows the whale’s brains out” with a bazooka he keeps in his basement. Reed editorializes:

Well Americans don’t care for much of anything

land and water the least

And animal life is low on the totem pole

with human life not worth much 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

They say things are done for the majority

Don’t believe half of what you see

and none of what you hear

It’s a lot like what my painter friend Donald said to me

“Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done”

Lou Reed’s flat, gruff delivery works nowhere better than in the grim, unforgiving Jeremiads of New York, where the sometimes Buddhist Reed comes off like a wrathful Bodhisattva. The album’s most moving track, which topped Billboards Rock chart for four weeks, is Dirty Blvd, which unflinchingly tells the story of Pedro, a young boy growing up in a tenement, beaten by his father and peddling flowers to the passing traffic on the Blvd.

And back at the Wilshire, Pedro sits there dreaming

He’s found a book on magic in a garbage can

He looks at the pictures

And stares up at the cracked ceiling

“At the count of 3,” he says

“I hope I can disappear”

A gospel singer joins Reed to sing “fly away”, taking us into Pedro’s heartbreaking longing.

One of the high points of the album, the snarling “There is No Time”, just gets more relevant with each passing year:

This is no time to swallow anger, this is no time to ignore hate

This is no time to be acting frivolous, because the time is getting late

This is no time to ignore warnings, this is no time to clear the plate

Let’s not be sorry after the fact and let the past become our fate.

This is no time to turn away and drink, or smoke some vials of crack

This is a time to gather force and take dead aim and attack

This is no time for phony rhetoric, this is no time for political speech

This is a time for action because the future’s within reach

The album is Reed at his best- bittersweet, loving, confrontational, witty, raging and irascible, and thoroughly grounded in the vibrant, edgy, and sometimes brutal countercultures of New York. Put it on repeat this week for Lou’s birthday and let it set your jaw for the #Resistance.

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