The chronicle (and sound) of a city

By Sergio Ariza

Sooner or later Lou Reed had to release an album called New York, because Reed is to the Big Apple what Brian Wilson is to Los Angeles, the man who gave the city its sound, but also the best possible chronicler of its bad streets. From the New York Dolls to the Strokes, passing through the Ramones or Patti Smith, all the bands and artists that have emerged from the Big Apple have been influenced by Reed and his band, the Velvet Underground. So, as could not be any other way, New York is the quintessence of its author, a naked record, hard rock, full of cursed poetry that could well seem prophetic and in which that mythical motto of the author of Sweet Jane is fulfilled to perfection: "You can't beat the sound of two guitars, drums and bass".  


By the time this album was recorded, Reed was going through one of the biggest hiccups of his career. Mistrial hadn't had a good critical reception and his sales were still plummeting; so RCA let him go and Reed ended up signing with Sire, Seymour Stein's label. But the Velvet’s leader was regaining his inspiration in the face of a hard time, with many friends losing their lives to AIDS, the Republicans winning a third consecutive term, making good the wild capitalism of the Reagan era, and the shadow of conservative Giuliani looming over his beloved city.

If he wanted to reflect the sound of the New York streets in the late 1980s, he had to go back to his favorite sound: raw, dirty rock & roll, two guitars, drums and bass. For that reason he got to work and called Fred Maher, a drummer with whom he had already recorded The Blue Mask and New Sensations, to form a new band. The man who shared the guitar with Reed was Mike Rathke, and Reed and Rathke's Pensa Suhr Strat type would form a great partnership that would prove to be as intuitive as the one formed by Reed with Sterling Morrison and that would last for several more albums.


The album began in style with three of the best songs of Reed's career. First appeared Romeo Had Juliette, and here there was the real deal. This was a band playing together and looking into each other's eyes while Reed recited the story of Romeo Rodriguez and Juliette Bell, a translation of Shakespeare's story to the Manhattan of the late 80's where "it was hard to give a shit these days".

After that comes the lovely Halloween Parade, which is one of the most beautiful songs of Reed’s career, on little more than a few chords, colored by Rathke, Reed makes a tour of Greenwich Village Halloween parade. However the characters that appear do not matter so much (a Greta Garbo, a Joan Crawford, five Cinderellas and even a not very successful Cary Grant) but rather those who are no longer here because of AIDS. When at the end of the song he says "See you next year, at the Halloween parade", between doo wop choruses, it seems more like a farewell than a goodbye...


Then comes the rocker heart of the album with Dirty Boulevard. It is here that Reed begins with a simple three chord progression and Rathke joins him with a simple line that complements it perfectly, something that he does during the rest of the song where Reed returns to portray the Big Apple’s underworld. As a cherry on top, the mythical Dion DiMucci, the singer of Runaround Sue and I Wonder Why, ends up adding some wonderful backing vocals that complete another excellent song.

After this excellent start, the album is able to maintain its level, with songs like the wild There Is No Time, the delicate Last Great American Whale, the great Strawman, the angular reminder of the Velvet days in Dime Store Mystery (with Moe Tucker on drums) and the prophetic, and funny, Sick Of You, halfway between rockabilly and country rock, in which Reed envisions a dystopian future that looks a lot like this one, with Trump ordered, NASA exploding the moon by mistake, the ozone layer running out of ozone, and the president dead with no one able to find his head, which had been missing for weeks without anyone noticing...


There are also politicians who are caught with their pants down and pay their way out of the mess, presidents with Nazi sympathies, blacks who are killed by the police, anti-Semitism, and people with different sexual orientations being mistreated. Clearly nothing has changed, we may even be worse off than we were. It's not a defeat because Reed well knows that his words will fall on deaf ears, he's just a rock singer pointing out the problems, and the solutions have to come from elsewhere. But it is incredible the lucidity of this ‘poet of the damned’ who gathered in this record the best collection of songs of his solo career, beyond Transformer and Berlin, although this record carries his DNA impregnated much more than those records with which shares qualification, masterpiece.

That's why it's wonderful to hear the reissue that's now being presented, with the entire album performed live. When an artist with a legacy like Lou Reed begins a concert by saying that he is going to perform his latest album in its entirety and what he receives is a standing ovation, then that album is very, very good.