"Faulkner had the South; Joyce had Dublin; I've got New York — and the environs," said Lou Reed this past spring, and he was not being immodest. The Big Apple, rotten or otherwise, has been both the setting for and subject of Reed's ongoing novel-in-music since the mid-Sixties, when he penned his first chapters on drugs, sex and desperation in the urban shadows and set them to the primal beat of the Velvet Underground.
But on his 1989 installment, New York, Reed took Manhattan and turned it inside out with a vengeance fueled by moral outrage. In a carefully scripted fourteen-song suite, he addressed the plight of the homeless, the hopeless and victims of AIDS and racial prejudice with the same clenched, bristling imagery and acidic wit he'd once applied to the city's uptown glitterati and downtown bohemians.
Reed then scored his libretto for two guitars (Reed and Mike Rathke), bass (Rob Wasserman) and drums (Fred Maher, who coproduced with Reed). The sound of New York is rooted in the brute metallic attack of the original Velvets; drummer Maureen Tucker even played on two songs, including the Andy Warhol tribute "Dime Store Mystery."
Except for an occasional overdub, New York was recorded live in the studio. Indeed, the false start at the beginning of "Romeo Had Juliette," the album's opening track, is exactly as Reed and crew flubbed it on the first day of recording. "It was the first song I had written," Reed told Rolling Stone shortly after the album's release. "We went in and did it in a day. And that's the take, the one you hear."
Prior to recording, Reed put the songs through an intense three-month bout of editing and rewriting at his home in New Jersey. "Even before pen hits paper, I really self-edit a lot," he explained. "So when I go to write something, it's pretty close, even just the first draft But it's way better by the sixth."
When a song started to take shape. Reed would bring in Rathke to play along on guitar, "because I couldn't play my part and sing at the same time," said Reed. "It was too new. Mike played my guitar part, and I would sing, for real. And where it didn't work, I rewrote it there, rewrote it and rewrote it until every word was exact."
While Reed insisted in New York's liner notes that the album was designed to be listened to in a single sitting, "as though it were a book or a movie," he admitted in conversation that the songs were not sequenced in any particular dramatic order.
"We had tried to put the songs in order, to tell the story moodwise and emotionally," said Reed. "And when it didn't work, it was so bad it was unbelievable. Then Victor [Deyglio], one of the engineers, said, 'There's a trick I've learned over the years. Why not put it in the order that it was recorded in?' And there it was. Wow!"