“It’s hard to give a shit these days…” – Lou Reed, “Romeo & Juliette”
By the time I got to college, I thought I was a rock and roll expert. I suppose all of us in our late teens/early 20s think we know everything. What’s that old saying, “When I was young I thought I knew all the answers…as I got older I realized I didn’t even understand the questions.” Of course I still have a few friends who think they know it all, but maybe that’s unique to me. As a college kid I’d never even heard the music of the Velvet Underground let alone Lou Reed. I’m not sure I’d even heard of the Velvets. I thought Lou Reed was a “one-hit wonder” with only “Walk On The Wild Side” to his credit. It was the only song of his they ever played on Kansas City radio. I went to college in Manhattan… unfortunately it was the one in Kansas, not the island in New York. In fact, at that point in my life I’d never even been to New York City. To me it was like a dirty Emerald City in a magical world of Oz (B&V Playlist: Songs For New York City). Somewhere over the rainbow, indeed. It was big, violent, scary and ruled by guys like Kojak, those guys in ‘The Warriors’ and the mob. It was druggy and decadent. At least that’s what I’d gleaned from television cop shows and the movies.
If there is an artist who embodied that New York underbelly it was Lou Reed. And yet in college my slate was blank on Lou. It wasn’t until 1984 that I got into Lou Reed. I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but I got into Lou Reed through MTV. After an evening of drinking and being ignored by women, I returned back to my place and planted myself in front of the television, watching videos and eating a convenience store sandwich (the famous Chuckwagon). As the sun burst over the Kansas’ plains, the video for “I Love You Suzanne” came on. Something about that track just clicked for me. I loved the lyric, “you do what you gotta do, you do everything you can.” The next time my roommate Drew and I went to the record store I decided to take a chance on this Lou Reed guy and I bought his then current LP New Sensations. It was one of the most upbeat, warm LPs in Reed’s catalog. The title track, about the joys of riding a motorcycle is one of my all time favorites and I have never been on a motorcycle…well I’ve been on a mo-ped but I don’t think that counts…you don’t want your friends to see you on a mo-ped. “Down At the Arcade” was another big favorite. The whole disc is just amazing…well, I’m not crazy about “My Red Joystick,” but that’s just me.
I was on the bandwagon. I soon discovered Lou had been the principle songwriter and lead singer/guitarist for the ground breaking Velvet Underground. It’s been said the VU didn’t sell many albums or have many fans but each of them seemingly went out and formed a band. Such was their influence. It took years before I screwed up enough courage to buy all of the Velvet’s albums. I was afraid it would all be abrasive noise. I don’t know where I got that idea. I had the same fear about punk and now the Clash are one of my all time favorites. In 1967, during the “Summer of Love” when everyone was dressed in Day-Glo orange and singing about love, Lou was writing songs about heroin (B&V Playlist: Chasing the Dragon – Songs About Heroin) and bondage. Instead of buying the VU’s debut, I actually wimped out and merely purchased Lou Reed’s then greatest hits disc, Walk On The Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. And truth be told I never connected with it the way I had with New Sensations. I guess I wasn’t ready for Lou yet.
I wish I’d started exploring Reed’s back catalog more thoroughly in college. He’d put out some great albums in the 70s. Transformer produced by Bowie was the most famous of the lot. The bleak Berlin is an album that took me a while to warm to, but is one I truly love now (B&V’s 10 Favorite Grim And Sad Albums). But there were other gems I wish I’d discovered earlier. Coney Island Baby is a great record. I had an ex email me about it just a few years ago. She was geeking out about how great it is… I envied her that first time listen. Street Hassle was all beautiful parking lot poetry and has a cameo by Springsteen. I also dig The Bells. After getting sober Reed released the masterpiece The Blue Mask (that I recommended to that same ex) and followed it up with the strong Legendary Hearts. I wish I’d discovered all of this earlier because it would have given me stronger roots into the genius of Lou Reed. All I had was New Sensations and a greatest hits record which somebody absconded with.
I tell you all this because, I eventually turned my back on Lou. I bought the follow up to New Sensations the day it came out. I don’t know if you can describe Mistrial as Lou Reed’s worst album – for me that will always be Metal Machine Music, which is all feedback – but it’s probably a close second. I actually sold Mistrial down at the used record store in short order. It was around that time that Lou did a tv commercial for, of all things, Honda scooters. He even allowed them to use “Walk On the Wild Side” for the commercial. That may not seem like a big deal now – but back in the late 80s, rock stars who sold their songs for commercials were considered heretics. John Mellencamp was particularly outspoken about the evils of songs being used in commercials. He later sold “Our Country” to Chevy for a truck commercial. Be careful what you criticize… you may just become it.
Because I hadn’t done the work to go back through Reed’s prior albums I didn’t have that great of a connection to the man I now think of as the King of New York. My dalliance with Lou was over almost before it started. I thought of New Sensations a one-off…a great record by an artist I just wasn’t that into. I graduated from college and spent a summer in Boston. One weekend I went to New York – my first trip there ever – and I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t think Lou even entered my mind. Any more he’s kind of synonymous with that city in my head. By 1989, I had been sent into exile in Arkansas by the corporation I was serving at the time. Arkansas is even farther away from New York spiritually than Kansas is.
There I was, miserable and lonely in Arkansas. I’d been sent to Ft. Smith but even the faceless corporate drones I worked for realized that was a mistake. They’d moved me up to Fayetteville which was better but not much. Then, one late night, after too much beer and too much time spent staggering up and down Dixon Street being ignored by women (I see a trend) I went home and yes, turned on MTV. This black and white grainy video came on…I’m not sure I was paying attention to who it was. It started with a strumming electric guitar riff… my ears perked up. And then I heard that unmistakable voice… “Pedro lives out of the Wilshire Hotel, he looks out a window without glass.” I felt that old magnetic pull. I knew I was headed back to “The Dirty Boulevard.”
I decided to take another chance on this Lou Reed guy. I hedged my bets and bought New York on cassette something I rarely did. The liner notes said – and I apologize my current copy is in a box in storage – advised us to listen to the album in its entirety, in one sitting, “like you would a novel or a movie.” He said the songs had been recorded as they were written, like chapters of a book… at least that’s how I remember it. The first track, “Romeo and Juliette” grabbed me immediately. I knew that Lou was back. New York is simply put, a masterpiece. He covers a range of topical subjects that mostly still resonate today: poverty, predatory landlords, child abuse, AIDs (which was relatively new ground back then), the ecology and politics.
My friends and I still quote this album the way most men do movies. Instead of quoting ‘Caddy Shack’ I find myself saying, “It’s hard to give a shit these days” instead. There’s a road in Kansas City, Southwest Boulevard, where there used to be a few strip joints and massage parlors. I still call it, the “Dirty Boulevard.” I also occasionally say, when in a bad situation (usually the holidays), “It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs.” Such a visceral image. The entire album is cinematic in its scope. “Busload of Faith” is a big rocker – and a favorite of my friend Stormin – that Seger eventually covered believe it or not. “Strawman” is another huge rocker. Reed keeps it to his favorite configuration here – two guitars, bass and drums. The backing band lacks guitarist Robert Quine but still makes this music come alive – bassist Fernando Saunders, drummer Fred Maher and guitarist Mike Rathke. The mellow tracks are great and hard hitting as well – “Halloween Parade” (about AIDs), “Endless Cycle” (about child abuse), and “Last Great American Whale” (about the ecology). That final track has a line I’ve quoted directly to my sainted mother… “You can’t always trust your mother.” There is a light hearted moment, “The Beginning of a Great Adventure” where Reed muses about being a father. “It might be fun to have a kid that I could kick around, a little me that I could fill up with my thoughts.”
A few of the tracks are so topical as to be somewhat frozen in time. “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” is very late-80s “current event-y.” Lou was very deeply affected by Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ and responded with “Dime Store Mystery” an almost religious mediation on “the duality of nature, godly nature, human nature.” Great art inspired a great artist. All of that topicality aside – most of these songs are so universal as to be poignant and relevant even now, thirty plus years later. He even name drops Trump in “Sick of You.”
Last weekend they released a ‘Deluxe Edition’ of this landmark album. If you’ve never heard or owned New York I urge all rockers out there to buy this album. In terms of bonus material, I can’t lie, there’s nothing here. There’s a few “single version” of a few tracks. There’s some “Work Tape” versions of tracks here but nothing that will change you’re perception of this brilliant album. The “secret sauce” for me on this ‘Deluxe Editon’ is – like it was for recent releases from U2 (Review: U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind (20th Anniversary Edition)’) or the Rolling Stones (Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup Deluxe’ Box Set) is the disc of live versions of the songs from New York. While the live tracks are all taken from different performances and concerts, because of the continuity of the material, they hang together well. I love how Lou speaks to the meaning of a lot of the songs prior to playing them live. I love all his on-stage patter. “There Is No Time” is particularly rocking live. Many of the tracks expand quite a it when played in front of an audience. Lou was nothing if not a rock and roller at heart. He and his band playing brilliant music, enthusiastically is always a treat. Lou even says, everything played on stage is live, “not sampled by someone whose been dead for years.” Ah, Lou, thank god you never changed. Lou continued the brilliance after New York when he reunited with the Velvet’s John Cale to record the tribute to Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella. Another album from this period worth a listen.
While this isn’t the treasure trove of unreleased tracks I might have hoped for – although I doubt anything was left over here – it’s a great ‘Deluxe Edition.’ There is one unreleased track but it’s an instrumental… mostly noise. The original album and the live stuff more than make up for the superfluous bonus material. This is an album that should be celebrated like ‘The Great Gatsby’ or ‘The Last Tycoon.’ Politically charged, poignant, and rocking. What more could we ask for?
If you love Lou, check out the movie ‘Blue In The Face’ where Lou has a few cameos and discusses being raised on Long Island. He says, “I remember being born in Brooklyn and thinking it was terrible. But then my family moved to Long Island which was infinitely worse.”
Things are getting crazy out there again with this COVID stuff… be safe and stay strong out there! Cheers!