If I’ve learned one thing from Lou Reed as a writer, it’s that simpler is better. There’s no need to lace a piece with metaphors, as long as the energy is right, just as there’s no need to throw in a four syllable word when two syllables will do just fine. More importantly, topic and theme have to be at the centre of everything you write otherwise it’s not writing, just ambling.
Which brings us onto New York, Reed’s fifteenth album, and one of his more popular. Recognising that much of his past work was an acquired taste, the guitarist opted to present the songs in a more commercial vein, largely to make the album and its dense lyrical themes that bit more palatable for audiences. On the album, we are presented with a world plunging further into decline, as the money-men profit from this collective despair.
“The artists can fend for themselves,” Reed told Rolling Stone. “I’m talking about a six-year-old kid who can’t defend himself. And let’s see: Let’s take abortion back to the Supreme Court and take that away so that women can go play with coat hangers and get really fucked up. And of course what happens here will spread,” he added. “How many people have to drop dead from AIDS? Why do they think that’s not going to spread? Do they have to wait until AIDS works its way to the suburbs before the great middle class rises up and says, Ohhh! Well, everybody should be saying Ohhh! right now. These are very scary and treacherous times even though people seem to think that everything’s OK. But we’re right in the middle of it.”
‘Dirty Blvd’ dives straight in, driven by a fiery riff and a whimsical drum shuffle. ‘Romeo had Juliette’ goes one further, de-mythologising the heroes that helped cement Reed’s hometown. And then there’s ‘There Is No Time’, all gumption and belly, delivering a rallying cry based on grit. Everywhere we turn, guitars amp up, bellowing listeners with a series of savage guitar licks (although Noel Gallagher has never suggested it, I suspect New York formed the blueprint for Definitely Maybe).
New York is not a jolly album. By the time the album has come to a close, audiences are left feeling better about the paltry victories in their lives, having barely escaped the clutches of an album brandishing truths down their necks. And that’s entirely the beauty of the album, offering a viewpoint into a working class lifestyle Reed was determined to champion. Behind the vocals on ‘Last Great American Whale’ comes the sound of a barrelling drum, as if embodying the bombs that may await New York in a future war.
Sadly, the album proved eerily prescient following the attacks on the Twin Towers, and the city emerged from the wreckage an emblem of sympathy, as opposed to the symbol of hope it had been so lavishly portrayed as in thirties cinema. What the album offered Reed wasn’t closure, but context, as he pieced himself in a city that was changing before his very eyes.
“New York City was to Lou Reed what Dublin was to James Joyce, the complete universe of his writing,” U2 frontman Bono once said. “It’s impossible to imagine any other city holding such an imprint on the artist, and fittingly, New York holds ‘Beginning of a Great Adventure’, returning his attentions to the jazz genre the city had heralded. Scatting over a series of bass patterns, Reed narrates a tale of disharmony in a city laced in opportunity and avenues. But sometimes the best avenue is the most painful one, and New York demonstrates the beauty that can be found in guttural pain.