This Thursday Lou Reed would have turned seventy-five. As Reed’s birthday approaches I’ve been listening to his catalogue. One album continues to stand out for me, as it has for 27 years, as being both his finest achievement and the most complete expression of Reed’s distinctive identity as an artist. Others might put forward Transformer or Magic and Loss, but as excellent as those albums are neither of them has the scope, the artistic composure or the consistent vision of New York. The rest of Reed’s albums are also more personal than New York, and in this too the album transcends its brethren- it’s an album which embodies the culture, politics and and attitude of Reed’s New York City and in doing so, in crafting a more trans-personal landscape, Reed attains to the sphere of great art.
Reed released New York in 1989. His career had been in the doldrums throughout most of the 80s since his last significant critical success, 1981’s The Blue Mask. New York was almost universally acclaimed by critics and voted the third best album of the year in The Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll. New York’s searing political urgency, embrace of diversity, and cynical despair hiding a tender heart and a prophetic critique ring more true today than ever. Witness Reed’s growling transformation of Emma Lazarus’ famous verse, putting in its cross hairs brutality towards an underclass of immigrants:
Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor
I’ll piss on ‘em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses
Let’s club ’em to death
Or just get it over with and dump ’em on the boulevard
The boulevard in question is the dirty one of the eponymous song, populated by drug pushers and criminals.
The album opens with Romeo Had Juliette, a celebration/lament of New York’s diverse mean streets, followed by Halloween Parade, which recounts, in a bittersweet tone, watching a colourful costume parade in the absence of a beloved (and departed?) friend. The parade has a strong LGBQT presence (“There’s a down town fairy/ singing out “Proud Mary”/as she cruises Christopher Street/and some Southern Queen/ is acting loud and mean/
where the docks and the Badlands…