New York is Lou Reed’s rock & roll version of The Bonfire of the Vanities. But whereas Tom Wolfe maintains an ultimately cynical distance from the urban disintegration he depicts in his novel, Reed is raging. In Reed’s apocalyptic vision of the world’s capital as a Boschean inferno, the city’s inhabitants have been shocked into incomprehension by homelessness, poverty, AIDS, child abuse, official corruption, racial violence and drugs. At a time when the city’s own newspapers routinely evoke Calcutta and Bedlam to describe the Big Apple’s rotting condition, Reed’s message — powered by a ferocious four-piece band — slams home with the urgency of tomorrow morning’s headlines.
In fact, the fourteen songs on New York — which runs nearly an hour — are fierce, poetic journalism, a reportage of surreal horror in which the unyielding force of actual circumstances continually threatens to overwhelm the ordering power of art. Reed, of course, is no stranger to unhinging scenes of squalor. On his inestimably influential early albums with the Velvet Underground and through much of his solo work in the Seventies, Reed cast a cold eye on virtually every manner of human excess.
But times have changed, and Reed’s attitudes have changed with them. A walk on the sexually undifferentiated wild side is no longer simply an outrageous means of spitting in the face of the bourgeoisie but a potentially fatal journey. And it’s hard to muster the deranged, existential glee of drug-soaked scenarios like “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “White Light/White Heat” and “Sister Ray” as crack condemns a generation of inner-city youth to a dreadful night of the living dead. “The past keeps knock knock knocking on my door,” Reed sings on “Halloween Parade,” a moving, almost wistful update of “Walk on the Wild Side,” “and I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
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Most tellingly, Reed, a veteran of the 1986 Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope Tour, has developed a political outlook that grounds his work and lessens his characteristic detachment. From that new vantage, Reed sees New York as a microcosm of the rest of the country, the hardest hit and therefore most devastated victim of eight years of Ronald Reagan.
Moreover, besides taking on such typical rock-star concerns as the environment, Native Americans and Vietnam vets, Reed tackles the last taboo of American political life: class. He realizes that even in the worst of times, people do not all suffer equally. On “Dirty Blvd.,” the story of a Hispanic child growing up in a welfare hotel, he sings, “Outside it’s a bright night, there’s an opera at Lincoln Center/Movie stars arrive by limousine/The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan/But the lights are out on the mean streets.”
To carry the weight of his words on New York, Reed assembled a killer band consisting of drummer and coproducer Fred Maher (a veteran Reed sideman), bassist Rob Wasserman and guitarist Mike Rathke. (Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker plays on two tracks, and Dion takes a splendid vocal turn on “Dirty Blvd.”) Throughout, Reed’s guitar tone is a miracle of inspired distortion, a sonic distillation of the streets. The sound Reed employs on this album perfectly complements his sense.
That sense is not without its complications; Reed is hardly an orthodox left-winger. His idiosyncratic stance is neatly summed up in the jazzy “Beginning of a Great Adventure,” an ironic fantasy about fathering “a little liberal army in the woods” in which Reed croons, “I’d try to be as progressive as I could possibly be/As long as I didn’t have to try too much.”
So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the promisingly titled “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” turns out primarily to be a lecture to Jesse Jackson about his “common ground” speech, which he delivered at the Democratic National Convention last summer. Placing himself to the right of even the Reagan administration’s current Middle East position, Reed chides Jackson with the question “Jesse you say Common Ground/Does that include the PLO?” He goes on to ask, hammering a rhyme worthy of a rapper, “If I ran for President and once was a member of the Klan/Wouldn’t you call me on it/The way I call you on Farrakhan?” The song doesn’t end hopefully; in the last lines, Reed snaps, “Oh is it true/There’s no Ground Common enough for me and you?”
The attack on Jackson — the one politician who embodies most of the values Reed espouses on New York — points up the album’s one significant flaw. Although his anger about social conditions is pure and righteous, Reed allows it to blind him to any solution.
“This is a time for Action/Because the future’s Within Reach,” he sings on the supercharged “There Is No Time,” but nowhere does he suggest either what that action might be or how that future might be seized. On “Busload of Faith” he veers perilously close to an easy knee-jerk nihilism (“You can depend on the worst always happening”). And on “Last Great American Whale” he confuses hatred of people’s actions with hatred of people, permitting his outrage to decay into a pointless misanthropy.
New York is indisputably the most ambitious album of Lou Reed’s solo career. If it’s not indisputably the best, that’s only because it’s so much of a piece that no songs leap out as classics, as so many of his songs have in the past. Also, the album is so compelling an expression of the historical moment that it’s hard to tell what it will sound like down the line. What’s clear is that in whatever future there is, whenever anyone wants to hear the sound of the Eighties collapsing into the Nineties in the city of dreams, New York is where they’ll have to go.