For all the well-deserved praise that Lou Reed is receiving this week for his lifetime of iconoclastic music, not enough attention has been paid to his 1989 masterpiece New York, an album that beautifully captures the ethos of a pre-Giuliani, pre-Bloomberg New York City. With the mayoral election just days away, it’s an apt reminder of how far New York has come over the past twenty years.
New York was released at a moment when New York was simultaneously grappling with sky-rocketing levels of crime, welfare, crack use, AIDS, homelessness, and racial tension. Rolling Stone called the album, “Lou Reed’s rock & roll version of The Bonfire of the Vanities,” which Tom Wolfe had released a year earlier.
The album’s first song “Romeo Had Juliette,” about a modern-day lovers Romeo Rodriguez and Juliette Bell, portrays the city’s gloomy prospects at a time when everyone agreed its best days were behind it:
Manhattan’s sinking like a rock into the filthy Hudson what a shock they wrote a book about it they said it was like Ancient Rome
“Dirty Blvd.,” the story of a Hispanic child growing up in a welfare hotel, describes the city’s inequality in ways that a young Bill de Blasio, then a speechwriter for Mayor David Dinkins, probably took to heart:
Outside it’s a bright night there’s an opera at Lincoln Center movie stars arrive by limousine The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan but the lights are out on the mean streets…
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 at the cracked ceiling “At the count of 3,” he says, “I hope I can disappear” And fly-fly away, from this dirty boulevard
“Halloween Parade” celebrates the annual Greenwich Village spectacle, while also mourning those no longer able to participate due to the scourge of AIDS:
This celebration somehow gets me down Especially when I see you’re not around…
In the back of my mind I was afraid it might be true In the back of my mind I was afraid that they meant you
Perhaps the most “New York” of all New York’s songs is “Hold On,” which is almost shockingly dark and depressing from the standpoint of 2013:
There’s blacks with knives and whites with clubs fighting in Howard Beach There’s no such thing as human rights when you walk the New York streets A cop was shot in the head by a 10 years old kid named Buddah in Central Park last week…
You better hold on something’s happening here You better hold on well I’ll meet you in Tompkins Square
Over Reed’s sing-talk vocals and his raw guitar style, “Hold On” references the war raging between the NYPD and the citizens of its most downtrodden communities:
The dopers sent a message to the cops last weekend they shot him in the car where he sat And Eleanor Bumpers and Michael Stewart must have appreciated that(Bumpers and Stewart died from confrontations with the police the 1980s.)
The song notes the rising racial tensions and tides of garbage and medical waste that frequently closed the city’s beaches:
There’s a rampaging rage rising up like a plague of bloody vials washing up on the beach It’ll take more than the Angels or Iron Mike Tyson to heal this bloody breach, hey, hey
And it closes with the suggestion that even Reed was considering leaving his beloved New York:
You got a black .38 and a gravity knife you still have to ride the train There’s the smelly essence of New York down there but you ain’t no Bernard Goetz, ah There’s no mafia lawyer to fight in your corner for that 15 minutes of fame The have and the havenots are bleeding in the tub that’s New York’s future not mine…
New York is not all doom and gloom. There are a few upbeat songs like “Beginning Of A Great Adventure,” in which Reed sings about choosing the name for a newborn child. And “Busload Of Faith” in which the perpetually cranky Reed notes that “you need a busload of faith to get by.” But even the darker songs, in a way, celebrate New York.
Reed was born in Brooklyn and never forgave his parents for moving him to Long Island when he was ten years old. He saw living on Long Island as a horrible, banal existence, returning to the city as soon as he could. Manhattan was a refuge for misfits like himself, even if it was at times “a circus or a sewer,” as he notes on his 1975 song “Coney Island Baby.”
Reed loved New York, especially its rough edges, but he didn’t romanticize the city and, as the songs on New York demonstrate, he feared for its future. An avowed progressive, Reed would have undoubtedly pulled the lever for Bill de Blasio in Tuesday’s mayoral election (if rock stars bother to vote), but I wonder if he might have paused for a moment to think about the New York of New York. The city is inarguably better than it was in 1989—safer, cleaner, more prosperous, more diverse—its physical landscape, economy, and schools are all improved. Rather than fleeing the city, people from all over the globe are striving to come here. New York is, in many ways, a different place—and there are some significant negative aspects to that.
Like Reed, I grew up on Long Island. For me and my friends, New York captured the mayhem and sense of danger that made coming into the city such an adventure for middle-class teenagers like us. A friend of mine, a Lou Reed fan who grew up in the New Jersey suburbs in the 1980s, remarked recently that folks our age have been fortunate to ride the wave of gentrification that swept over the city over the past two decades.. We snuck into the city as teenagers in the ‘80s when New York was still gritty and dangerous. We moved in with the Giuliani administration when the city had begun to turn a corner but was still authentic and exciting. As we grew older, more refined, and somewhat boring, so did the city.
Now that we have children we’re glad the city is clean and safe. But I wonder sometimes if my young daughters are missing out on something important. What is New York going to look like in 20 years when they’re out on their own? Will rent be $10,000 a month? Will it be totally sanitized and full of glass-box condos or is the wave cresting and the tide about to run out? Which scenario do I really prefer? Is there a middle ground that can be achieved somehow?
Time will tell and the mysteries of life will play themselves out in ways that pundits can’t predict. In the immortal words of “Dime Story Mystery,” an elegy for Reed’s friend and mentor Andy Warhol, and the last song on New York:
I was sitting, drumming, thinking, thumping, pondering the mysteries of life Outside the city, shrieking, screaming, whispering the mysteries of life
There’s a funeral tomorrow at St. Patrick’s the bells will ring for you Ah, what must you have been thinking when you realized the time had come for you