“Vinyl Testaments” is a series of articles looking at forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise obscure record albums.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” That statement, or something like it, has been attributed to dozens of people, from David Byrne to Franz Liszt. Its origin is not so important as its veracity. For Lou Reed’s “New York”, it couldn’t be more true. The record speaks for itself as Reed delivers a biased journalist’s look at New York both literally, referencing Bernard Goetz, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump and others, and metaphysically, as a microcosm of the nation and humanity as a whole. Lou takes as his subject nothing less than life itself, from new parenthood (Beginning of a Great Adventure) to death (Dimestore Mystery), looking at what it means and what it takes to live and love as a fully-realized person at the end of the 20th century.
With this album Reed reached a new peak of songwriting, displacing Dylan as the spokesman for his generation (at least for a while; Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” was released in the fall after “New York” in January.) He wants this album listened to straight through in a sitting, “like a novel or watching a movie.” He’s right; the album presents a unified message when treated that way. There is even a live recording of him performing the entire album.
From an improbable perspective of maturity (who would have thought Lou Reed would live this long?) the artists delivers well-contemplated essays that feel as natural, if not so comfortable, as a talk with a trusted friend. Like what? Well…
Romeo Had Juliette: This first dynamic track is amazing. It isn’t necessarily convincing as an update of Shakespeare, but we learn soon enough that isn’t really the point; it’s more an update of the modern city as a whole, or as a hole, a pit with no hope for escape as long as things stay the way they are. The characters, like all the population of this album, are fully drawn and fully human, no one totally evil or pure, and that’s what makes life so hard. If you haven’t heard this album, I don’t want to spoil the surprises it holds, but every single song holds mastery and beauty.
Halloween Parade: Hey look, a season-appropriate track. This is a character sketch, a local-color piece right from the land of Sherwood Anderson, and it’s Lou’s neighborhood. This is a snapshot of the annual event in Greenwich Village and the people are real. As real as Holly in Walk on the Wild Side, as real as Eleanor Rigby. Real people? Doesn’t matter. Real feelings, the purpose of art.
Dirty Blvd.: Is this record still obscure if there was a track that hit #1 on a newly-created chart? Can’t be helped, and they’re my rules; I’ll break them when I want. This was a stunning single, from the same territory as Romeo and others on the album. It’s an almost-painful examination of the state of urban life and contains a breakthrough instant not just for the album but for Lou’s career and, for me, my relationship to music. Listen to the record and if you can’t tell when it happens, I’ll share. It’s a revelation, one of my favorite musical moments.
Endless Cycle: This one is truly off-beat, with a stop-time meter that gives the composition a jarring feel, especially against the rustic tune. It should feel homey and jaunty, but instead is claustrophobic even without the disturbing images in the lyrics. It achieves its goal perfectly, creating the picture of American domesticity: abuse, frustration, misery, impotence.
There is No Time: Here Lou deconstructs the useless rhetoric of the day and points out that ceremony never solved anything. Action is essential, and the more critical the situation the more urgent the need. The music drives the message and both are inescapable.
Last Great American Whale: It’s great, it’s green, it’s Lou’s ecological anthem. Incorporating history, sociology, politics, poetry, family dynamics, and small-town realities, it’s a brilliant short story, like most of the tracks here.
Beginning of a Great Adventure: In the midst of much depressing material, this closes the side with Lou’s realistic grown-up’s response to the happy news that he’s going to be a daddy. Possible names, how to raise the kid, what if, what if, what if. Makes me think of people I know who didn’t want to know the gender before the birth “because they want to be surprised.” Trust me, you’ll be surprised.
Busload of Faith: Side two opens with a gentle stomper about having faith, but not in what you might expect. What might an old hippie-revolutionary like Lou have faith in? Listen and decide.
Sick of You: The first two lines set the stage. Watching the implacably-bad news and feeling the emotions that result, Lou paints a picture that we keep hoping couldn’t possibly happen, but the real point is the palpable frustration so many of us feel at the exposure to the world’s problems over which we are powerless. We’re sick of something, that’s certain.
Hold On: With a laugh from the Pit, Lou presents an update from the streets of the world’s greatest city. It’s pretty much all bad news, but we ignore it at our own peril. Why mention it? Because this album is twenty years old now; how much longer can we ignore the shower of shit that has already concealed the fan from view and is threatening to pull the whole house down?
Good Evening Mr. Waldheim: A specific calling-out of the then-Secy.-Gen. of the UN, and some left over for the Pope and Jesse Jackson. Yeah, it makes the politics dated, but the sentiment isn’t. Reed attacks hypocrisy again here, vilifying those who would present themselves as leaders of people but whose own lives don’t hold up to scrutiny. Time after time, it’s not that he expects more from people, just that he expects them to live up to their promises. Naiveté or idealism? You be the judge.
Xmas in February: Remember twenty years ago when we were feeling bad about how we had treated veterans of a war that accomplished nothing? History’s a funny damn thing. This isn’t the first or last song about Vietnam and its fallout, but Lou absolutely has the credentials to talk about it and the skill to express the emotions, especially the ones no one wanted to let out. It’s not a pleasant song, but it is a successful one.
Strawman: Wherein Lou takes everyone, including himself, to task for their hypocrisy, venality, narcissism, and general embrace of the ugliness of human nature when there is so much at stake; to wit, the survival of the human race. He’s tired of the things so many of us remain tired of, a media obsessed with plastic surgery and infidelity while the economy circles the drain and society crumbles. It doesn’t matter who is to blame, or who gets the blame; what matters is fixing the situation. This would have been a fine place to end the album, if a bit of a downer. The fact that the final cut is indeed an elegy makes that a little ironic.
Dimestore Mystery: A preview of Reed’s next album, “Songs for Drella,” a work he co-authors with John Cale in memory of Andy Warhol. I have no particular love for Warhol but his impact on Reed’s life is undeniable and this piece is bigger than a eulogy; it works as a final meditation on death, which is a pretty good way to wrap up an album that has addressed many big ideas.
I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about the music here, but that’s not because of any lack of quality. It’s consistently strong, simple, and serves each song perfectly. After saying it’s pointless to talk about music and spending all this time doing that, I’ll finish the way Lou finished this album’s liner notes:
“You can’t beat two guitars, bass, and drum.”