Writing about Lou Reed’s New York album in 2017 brings with it painful reminders that the album was released over 28 years ago (January 1989) and the last studio album to feature Lou Reed was his collaboration, last year, with Metallica for the extended practical-joke they called Lulu.
New York was, in many ways, my real introduction to Lou Reed. I grew up listening to the Mistrial record – as I told you, a few years ago,here and – in a commentary that I provided for my friend, artist Matthew Couper, I told you more about my love/hate relationship with Lou Reed. But New York is really the crucial album. And it’s one I’ve returned to most recently. It stands up. It is magnificent. But back then I was young. Impressionable…
You see, I was 10 years old. And I’m hooked in by songs like Outside from Mistrial. And I knew Walk on the Wild Side – my mum had bought Mistrial because she was a fan of the early Lou Reed material and she bought the LP when it was released; a new album at the time. And it became one the whole family loved – possibly weird, given that Mistrial was, if you excuse the 1980s sound-effects (production), a dress-rehearsal for what would become New York. That is to say that it’s an issues album more than a concept-album.
Lou Reed was regaining his Mojo across the 1980s – living up to, in some way, the poet claims that had been thrown at him ever since The Velvet Underground. I love the Lou Reed albums from the 1980s, pretty much all of them. Each one improves on the last, The Blue Mask (1982), Legendary Hearts (1983) and New Sensations (1984) form a wonderful trilogy. Listen to them as a bunch, take them in one by one in order. He was working hard at his writing. These albums are not perfect, they are very much imperfect – but there are gems. On every one. And there’s evidence that he was trying. And – in some small way – succeeding. Placing Lou Reed in the 1980s is weird, wrong in fact. But the work from that time, though almost bafflingly incongruous, was on so many levels sublime, correct.
Mistrial was special for me, but I know that that’s not the case for many. It stands out on its own. But I hear it now – as I have done across the last 20 years – as the starting point for New York.
And so to New York. The album that Lou instructs, in the liner notes, must be listened to in one 57-minute sitting, “as if a book or a movie”.
Well I was sold on it because of that. You have to know that I was 12 years old, 13 years old, 14 years old. And I was obsessed with the idea of an album – as much as I ever was with any particular albums. Prog-rock was coming into my worldview and concept albums; musicals and music movies, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy, sure, they’re horrific to even think about now – let’s be honest, who’s kidding who – but back then they were revelations. They were the worlds that I wanted to live in for the precise amount of time that it took to sit in front of them, to absorb them. And so hearing Arlo Guthrie singing about Alice’s Restaurant in and around his attempted stand-up routine (that he delivered sitting down with a guitar) and listening to Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds was about as good as it got. You might, in between listens, run outside to torpedo a beer on New Year’s Eve or lift a Bambina up and on to the front lawn of the person’s house where it had been parked outside; maybe shove a road-cone on its roof too. But then it was back inside to disappear inside the gatefold sleeve – coming up for air only to program the VCR to record Roger Waters performing The Wall live in Berlin or to watch the video clips of the day…Neneh Cherry, Faith No More, that sort of thing…
So when I read that Lou Reed suggested that New York be taken in – in one go – well that was it. Those were the rules. Not that there was any other way to listen to an album when you first purchased it anyway, it was always drop everything and absorb!
So, to New York once again…
Romeo Had Juliette opens the album – and that line, “Romeo Rodriguez squares his shoulders/And curses Jesus/Runs his hands through his black ponytail”, well it might not say all that much to you but, man! I heard poetry. And I wanted to write lines like that. And I wanted to hear more lines like that…
Halloween Parade was next and the opening line talks about a ferry/fairy singing Proud Mary – I couldn’t straight away tell if it was gay-slang or a boat – or if it was meant to be an ambiguity but I was 13 years old and I knew the CCR song. So that was what resonated, that reference. The fact that another song was referenced within a completely separate – stylistically/philosophically – tune. Wow.
Dirty Blvd has that line about how “it’s hard to run when a coat-hanger hits you on the thighs”. I didn’t have that fear, or anything resembling it, with my childhood. But this wasn’t just an eye-opener. It was masterful storytelling. I was hooked.
Endless Cycle sees Lou Reed rewrite his Berlin album – in a way – in just four minutes. It’s all there, that observation of horrific lives playing out in spite of themselves. And if it would actually let itself it could be a country song. Saddest damn country song you ever did hear. I tell you.
Last Great American Whale features his line “it’s just like what my painter friend Donald says to me, ‘stick a fork in their ass and turn ‘em over, they’re done'”. Lou’s “painter friend Donald” was in fact John Mellencamp. How about that, trivia buffs? I had never heard a song like this before, a spoken-word piece. And now, nearly a quarter of a century later, I’ve not only heard too many awful spoken-word pieces married (illogically, ill-fitting) to music, I’ve even tried to make some myself. I’ve still never heard a song quite like this. I’d seen Reed perform this at a concert, solo. Just him and his guitar. And I’d watched, mouth open, dumbstruck/awestruck, it was my tipoff to hear the New York album.
Beginning of a Great Adventure – “it might be great to have a kid that I could kick around/create in my own image like a god”. Weird, listening to this now. I have a son. And the poor bugger looks a lot like me…
Busload of Faith has this wonderful weave of guitars as it opens; they play across each other while intertwining. It’s the song Lou introduced in the concert where he played the New York album in its entirety (more on that later) as “this song was in a movie”. Eventually he’s prompted to supply the movie’s title. “What movie? Oh, it was called True Believer. It was in the theatres for about a week I think. But that’s not the fault of my song.” I haven’t watched the New York album concert in at least 10-12 years and I remember that bit. I remember every bit of that wonderful gig. It was as crucial to me as the actual album – standing alone as a separate performance; the same songs, in order, just like the album – but different versions. Also, I rented True Believer. And waited right to the end-credits to hear Busload of Faith. It was only worth the wait to confirm that Lou was right.
Sick of You is another country song. I’d like to hear an actual country artist sing this.
Hold On is one of many examples of the references and allusions in the lyrics that date New York. They don’t date it in a bad way, they just remind you that it’s an album about a time as much as it was (and is) ever about a place.
Good Evening Mr. Waldheim continues the politics/polemic, continues with the references that date this album – and it was the song that got me to start looking up mentions in the lyrics. Also, how sweet is that lick the song rides on? Let me answer that. So sweet.
Xmas in February is a great story-song, in as much as it’s practically another spoken-word/Last Great American Whale. “Please send this vet home/But he is home” and “He’s an example of the war that wasn’t won”. You get the feeling this song doesn’t even need to be rewritten and it would still hold relevance.
Strawman is my favourite rock-out moment on this album. The live version is killer too, and different (different drummer/different drum-style). Again, there’s such prescience in those lyrics: “Does anybody need another million dollar movie/Does anybody need another million dollar star/Does anybody need to be told over and over/Spitting in the wind comes back at you twice as hard” and “Does anyone need yet another politician/Caught with his pants down and money sticking in his hole”. So much of the music on this album is so simple, uncomplicated rock music. There’s such a joy in that.
Do you know what? I can play a lot of these songs – and I am the world’s most terrible guitarist. But it was such a joy learning these. And so easy. I know them well enough to play to my 9-month-old son. He’s never heard live guitar played better! But that will quickly change. And when I improve, if I ever get the time, these songs will still be there to play. I love that about this album too. They’re not party singalongs. By any stretch. But they are so great. So perfect in their own – idiosyncratic – way/s.
Dime Store Mystery is the eulogy-piece for Andy Warhol, not only the perfect closer to this album – but I like to think it was what created (at least the need for) Songs for Drella. And we’ll look at that album another day…
So there’s my story/movie relating to New York. And you can click on the links and make/inform your own book or film. I love this album. It’s musically so uncomplicated, raw, vital and visceral. And lyrically it is meticulously crafted, dense, challenging – and the easy-shorthand is to say that this was Lou’s return to The Velvet Underground. But I’m not even sure that’s true. It had been brewing since The Blue Mask. And here it all just cemented. He got it down. He took the time. He made it work. And it still works. He wrote the lyrics out on the computer first, crafting them, creating them, and then made them match up to simple chords. I love this album for all that it means to me – and listening to it now, in this day and age, it’s so much more fresh and vital and meaningful than any silly Gaslight Anthem album could ever be.
But what about you? What do you think about Lou Reed’s New York? Have you heard it? Are you a fan? Do you think you might be tempted to buy it/hear it/play it if you haven’t heard it before? Or did you buy it at the time and find it wasn’t your thing at all?
Postscript: I had Lou Reed’s New York Album VHS – the concert film – and I wish I still had it. It was my birthday present when I was 14 (along with a T-shirt that featured the Transformer album cover). And I loved that concert film more than any other concert film. There are some YouTube clips about but I’m not sure the film was ever released to DVD. I would love to see it again – but I carry it with me. I can remember every scant line of between-song banter, every frame of the show, every move within the music, its set designed by Lou’s then-wife, Sylvia. I must have spent many thousands of hours watching that, over and over. When I got around to getting the album on CD – and then on vinyl (after I wore out my tape) – I had to reintroduce myself to the sound of the studio recordings. If anything what was/is top of my “want” list is a copy of this concert on DVD. It might just make up for the release of Lulu, you know.