“I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag with Latin written on it that says “It’s hard to give a shit these days…”
Indeed, Lou Reed always gave off the vibe of someone who didn’t give a shit – and moreover, someone who didn’t take any shit. But beneath that hip veneer was an artist who cared deeply, and had the talents to express himself and his keenly-felt beliefs in song. He was ready for a new start in 1988 when he began recording his first album for Sire Records after his second stint at RCA had concluded. New York would be an album-length reflection on the city that had been his muse, as gritty and grimy and thrilling as the city itself. Recording with just two guitars, bass, and drums, New York was both an answer to the slick, high-gloss 1980s and an embrace of the primal sound of The Velvet Underground. Upon its release in 1989, Reed’s high-concept, back-to-basics endeavor paid off. New York earned him a No. 1 single and is still recognized as one of the finest and most cohesive of all his solo albums. Rhino has just revisited the album as an expansive 3-CD/2-LP/1-DVD box set with a whopping 26 previously unreleased tracks among its treasures.
The decision was made to primarily record the twin guitars first – singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer Reed on the left channel, Mike Rathke on the right channel – then Reed’s vocals and next, co-producer Fred Maher’s drums. Rob Wasserman would later overdub his bass parts. This approach ensured that Reed’s dense words would be front and center. The rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness, near-spoken delivery of “Romeo Had Juliette” set the sonic tone for the album: the backings are tight and spare, and never detract from the lyrics (sometimes in free verse without the expected rhyme scheme) yet are still varied in mood and tempo. Co-producer Maher remembers in David Fricke’s exemplary liner notes that “people were always trying to talk Lou into singing. But knowing what was quintessential Lou, I wanted to put that voice in front of everything.”
New York offers snapshots of the Koch-era city at the brink, playing like a movie in miniature at 57 minutes. That length caused consternation for some Sire executives but hardly seems indulgent in the CD/digital era. Their trepidation over how the album would sound on two sides of vinyl has been rendered moot here, anyway, as it’s presented on two platters (four sides of vinyl) in addition to CD.
Reed’s language is harsh but his attitude is affectionate on “Halloween Parade,” subtitled “AIDS”: “You won’t hear those voices again…you’ll never see those faces again,” he laments. Underneath the cool aura and descriptions of boozers and hookers, Reed underscored the tremendous loss felt by New York’s artistic community due to the scourge of AIDS. His heartbreaking realization that “it makes me mad and mad makes me sad/And then I start to freeze…” epitomizes this haunting reflection.
Reed earned a No. 1 single on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart with “Dirty Blvd.” The three-chord rocker contrasts the rich and the poor in typically frank, blunt terms (“Give me your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ’em/That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says…”). But Reed’s comes to the fore with the song’s affection for young Pedro, a victim of child abuse living on welfare at the Wilshire Hotel: “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 three,’ he says, ‘I hope I can disappear, and fly, fly away.” Reed’s pal Dion DiMucci brings a bit of New York verisimilitude as he chimes in on the closing background vocals, touchingly affirming Pedro’s prayer. “Endless Cycle,” too, touches on child abuse and the ravages of drink and drugs over a gentle yet hypnotic, almost country-style gait.
With the aggressive “There Is No Time,” Reed calls for political action. It’s one of the most urgent tracks on New York and like “Dirty Blvd.,” one that speaks loudly in 2020. “This is no time for political speech/This is a time for action/Because the future’s within reach/This is the time,” implores Reed before the song concludes in a barrage of feedback. He’s similarly pointed in the ecologically-minded “Last Great American Whale,” widening his scope to castigate those who would destroy nature.
The bitingly cynical “Busload of Faith” is seemingly a contradiction in terms; Reed observes that “You need a busload of faith to get by” while excoriating those who would profess to espouse faith (“You can’t depend on any churches/Unless there’s a real estate you want to buy”). It’s one of his darkest lyrics set to one of the album’s most accessible melodies and catchiest choruses. To a twangy quasi-country beat, a Dylan-esque flow of words, and a poppy refrain, “Sick of You” is startlingly recognizable today as Reed name-checks the Trumps and then-prosecutor Rudy Giuliani among the characters in its increasingly surreal narrative.
On the back cover of the original LP, Reed urged listeners to play New York in one sitting from start to finish, “as though it were a book or movie” – or a play. On the tour supporting the album, Reed staged five performances on Broadway at the St. James Theatre, which most recently housed the musical Frozen until the outbreak of COVID-19. The surroundings of the St. James would almost certainly have heightened the inherent theatricality of the song cycle. The imagery of the “Statue of Bigotry” recurs in “Hold On,” an encapsulation of the darkness that had enveloped the city and that he had catalogued throughout New York. “You better hold on – something’s happening here,” he intones over a churning but energetic rock rhythm. That darkness, alas, hasn’t abated; the lyric mentions Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs, two African-Americans shot by police in 1983 and 1984, respectively.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Reed’s turbulent portrayal of New York circa the late eighties with current events today. On “Xmas in February,” the artist demands attention to be paid to disenfranchised veterans. Classic rock riffage abounds on “Strawman,” an anthem decrying racism, hypocrisy, and the “greed is good” mentality (“Does anyone really need another President, or the sins of Swaggart Parts 6, 7, 8 and 9/Does anyone need another politician caught with his pants down, money sticking in his hole?”). He takes further aim at hypocrisy on the punk-ish inner monologue “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim,” pointing his finger not just at the diplomat Kurt Waldheim (whose career ended in a swirl of revelations about his complicity in Nazi war crimes) but also the Pontiff, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan.
Yet it’s not all sturm und drang. Reed co-wrote “Beginning of a Great Adventure” with Mike Rathke. Over a jazz-inflected, finger-snapping backing, the singer turns to the personal, ruminating on parenthood with wry humor. (Reed had no children.) New York ends on a nostalgic note with “Dime Store Mystery,” subtitled “To Andy-honey.” The Velvet Underground’s Maureen Tucker dropped in on drums for this elegiac but jagged, pensive salute to their old friend Warhol who had died in 1987 at just 58 years old. This track was recorded live by Reed, Rathke, and Wasserman with Tucker.
The wealth of supplemental material explores New York from every angle. The second disc reprises the album’s fourteen tracks in sequence from various live performances again featuring Rathke and Wasserman. On these dates (Washington, DC; Baltimore; London; Richmond, Virginia; Copenhagen; and Upper Darby (outside Philadelphia), PA) which are assembled in the manner of a single concert, Reed and his band played New York for Act One, and a “greatest hits” encore set for Act Two, but that encore is not represented on this disc. The live take on “Dime Store Mystery” from the Virginia show has Maureen Tucker guesting. (She and her band Half Japanese opened one leg of the tour.)
A live show from the same 1989 tour, recorded in Montreal, Canada, is included on DVD but again only has Act One of Reed’s touring show. (It was previously available only on VHS and Laserdisc as The New York Album.) Reed clearly believed in these songs, uncompromisingly sharing them from city to city and in doing so, revealing the universal truths that propelled them. Though his vocals were often detached, there’s no doubt in these visceral and utterly confident audio and video performances that he believed every word and knew how to communicate them to an appreciative audience. In addition to the concert, the DVD also contains two audio bonuses: the entire album in high-resolution stereo, and a chat with the late artist.
The third CD compiles 14 rarities and previously unreleased tracks including rough mixes, work tapes, alternates, the single remix of “Romeo Had Juliette” and its acoustic B-side version of “Busload of Faith,” the non-LP side “The Room,” and live versions of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” and Reed’s solo hit “Walk on the Wild Side” from the Richmond second act encore. Both “Dirty Blvd.” and “Sick of You” are heard in two versions: first, mainly instrumental demos from August 1, 1988 and then in rough mixes from late in the month made at NYC’s Mediasound studio. These tracks – many of which were sourced from cassettes now residing in the Lou Reed Archive at the New York Library for the Performing Arts – collectively illustrate how seriously Reed took the recording and compositional aspects of his music; on the work tape of “Endless Cycle,” he sings the bass and drum parts as he envisions them. There’s terrific energy even on the simple instrumental take of “Last Great American Whale” from a work tape of Reed and Rathke rehearsing. The frequently raw rough mixes are equally compelling. Some lack central elements of the finished mixes such as the drums on “Sick of You,” while others like “Strawman” are strong and seemingly finished in their own right. (Tantalizingly, the notes and images show that more demos and rehearsals relating to New York exist within the Archive, though it’s difficult to argue with the curated selection here.)
It’s no surprise that New York sounds so good on this deluxe set, as it was recorded and mixed by Jeffrey Lesser whose diverse credits include Rupert Holmes’ Widescreen, Barbra Streisand’s Lazy Afternoon, and Strawbs’ Deep Cuts. (Lesser even provided some background vocals with Reed.) The stellar remaster comes courtesy of the set’s co-producer, Bill Inglot, and Dan Hersch. The 3 CDs, 2 LPs, and 1 DVD are housed in what’s by now a familiar Rhino format, the LP-sized hardcover. The full-sized 16-page booklet has David Fricke’s essay, archivist Don Fleming’s notes, lyrics, original credits, and copious images.
New York just might be Lou Reed’s most powerful solo statement. More than 30 years on, it’s more relevant than ever as it captures the energy, drama, violence, tension, excitement, sadness, and passion that still animate the city. Rhino’s deluxe reissue makes for a worthwhile trip back to that dirty boulevard.