Friday, October 21, 2011

Lou Reed 19: New York

Lou had spent much of the ‘80s mostly underwhelming listeners with so-so albums, to the point where by the end of the decade, the average person would have best associated him with a TV ad for Honda scooters. Therefore, it was easy to be skeptical of New York—until you heard it. It was an especially big deal on a radio station like the late great WNEW-FM, who played it cut by cut with the man in the studio one night, even taking calls from listeners. (The lucky few who tuned in for the whole broadcast may recall hearing the last caller they took on the air, nervously gushing about Lou’s work, stumbling through a question about Lester Bangs and thanking him for writing “Sad Song”. “Oh, thanks, that’s one I like too,” said Lou.)
Following the lead of previous returns to form, the music consisted of his guitar in one speaker, another in the other, plus bass and drums. The lyrics read like the Op-Ed page of The New York Times and are still as clever as they were timely. It’s allegedly sequenced in the order the songs were recorded, and designed to be listened to in one sitting. It helps, of course, that the songs are so good that they don’t merely combine for an onslaught of negativity. Much of it sports the grime and grit of the city’s streets, but there’s some tenderness in there too.
With a couple of chords captured mid-strum, “Romeo Had Juliette” mixes a street romance with criminal commentary, then it’s off to the “Halloween Parade”, which explicitly points out the effects of AIDS on the city. “Dirty Blvd.” was the single, and includes the album’s first reference to “the Statue of Bigotry”; the poetry is continued on the metronomic “Endless Cycle”. He finally turns it up for “There Is No Time”, a call for revolution. (Another highlight of his radio visit was his suggestion that reviving public hangings in Central Park would be an excellent crime deterrent.) Environmental concerns dominate the quieter “Last Great American Whale”, complete with Moe Tucker on percussion. And the frightening concept of Lou as a dad is broached for “Beginning Of A Great Adventure”.
Generally a list is a lazy lyric, but “Busload Of Faith” works as both a song and a message. “Sick Of You” is a twisted look at the news that’s not as outlandish as it could be, particularly in comparison to the tensions chronicled in “Hold On”. “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” covers the hypocrisy of racism, not only from the gentleman in the title but from the Pope and Jesse Jackson. The plight of the homeless Vietnam vet is raised for “Xmas In February”, and he summons all his anger for “Strawman”. “Dime Store Mystery” provides a striking finale, comparing the last thoughts of Andy Warhol to those of Jesus Christ as depicted in a recent Scorsese film.
Any summary of the album will fall short of the sensory experience, of course. A lot of rock legends put out albums in 1989 that re-established them commercially and critically, but not only was New York one of the first albums released that year, it was also one of the best. He kept it simple and he kept it real. Amazingly—and sadly—the lyrical content doesn’t seem dated at all. His new label was pretty pleased with it too; maybe he just needed to get away from RCA.
Over two decades later, the first commercial project to arise from the Lou Reed Archive team (housed at the New York Public Library, and containing documents covering his entire musical career and beyond) was a deluxe expansion of New York, and rightfully so. Alongside a fresh remastering of the original CD, two further discs offered “works in progress”, rough mixes, single mixes, the instrumental B-side “The Room”, and live performances of every track on the album. The latter were all transferred from good old Maxell XL-II 90-minute cassettes mixed live by the sound crew on the tour supporting the album. These are strong versions, stretched out and enhanced by backing vocals. Maureen Tucker, who was the opener for part of the tour, joins on drums for “Dime Store Mystery”. Because the tapes would occasionally run out mid-song, this one fades at the end. Despite the subject matter—which again, includes namedrops of people still making headlines in this century—Lou sounds confident, even cordial. (The live VHS and laserdisc of one of the concerts was included on a DVD, with bad graphics and worse mullets intact, as well as the audio from a promo interview and the album in hi-res. Also, because it had become the trend, the album appeared split over two vinyl LPs—the original was crammed onto a single disc—for maximum sound quality.)

Lou Reed New York (1989)—5
2020 Deluxe Edition: same as 1989, plus 28 extra tracks (plus DVD)

1 comment:

  1. Always a soft spot in my heart for Dirty Blvd: "let's club 'em to death."