Lou Reed: A New York State of Mind
“There’s a bit of magic in everything,” Lou Reed once sang, “and then some loss to even things out.” Reed died exactly one year ago today at the age of 71, and although his loss will never even things out, it is an appropriate day to celebrate his enduring creative spirit and the undying magic of his inspiring musical and poetic legacy. In commemoration of the first anniversary of his death, we are presenting for the first time the complete version of a remarkable interview that Lou Reed did with contributing editor Jonathan Cott early in 1989 in New York City.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of rock & roll’s most audacious and electrifying recordings. Released in 1989 and simply titled New York, Lou Reed’s fifteenth solo album unflinchingly depicted with savage indignation and the fervency of a biblical prophet an AIDS-stricken city in which friends were continually “disappearing” – a desolation row of pestilential welfare hotels; of battered wives, crack dealers, TV bigots, racist preachers and venal politicians; of kids selling plastic roses for a buck by the Lincoln Tunnel; of a Hudson River deluged with garbage; and of bloody vials washing up on city beaches. In Reed’s eyes, these were not the days of miracle and wonder, and in New York‘s “There Is No Time” he declared, “This is no time for celebration/This is no time for shaking hands/This is no time for backslapping/This is no time for marching bands.”
“First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin” Leonard Cohen had announced in his album I’m Your Man. Reed scuttled and reversed that battle plan. In his 1973 album Berlin he first composed a song cycle that described and explored not a place but rather a state of mind – an inner world of private desperation as reflected in the self-destructive lives of a couple named Caroline and Jim. Sixteen years later on New York he took on Manhattan – and New York City’s other boroughs as well – in another song cycle that shifted its perspective in order to now describe and explore an outer world of public squalor and social despair.
The poet Kenneth Rexroth once wrote, “Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense – the creative act.” And the miracle and wonder of New York is that rather than conveying the sense of emotional numbness and dysphoria that characterized the world of Berlin it instead, from its very first jolting chord, instantly communicated a mood of unexpected musical euphoria. With Mike Rathke and Reed himself on Pensa-Suhr custom guitars, Rob Wasserman on a Clevenger electric upright six-string bass, co-producer Fred Maher on drums, and with Velvet Underground’s Maureen Tucker playing percussion on two tracks (and Dion DiMucci adding a vocal flourish on the song “Dirty Boulevard”), New York provided a stunning example of unmediated, stripped-down, and elemental rock & roll. “You can’t beat guitars, bass and drums,” Reed remarked in his album notes, and with this tightly meshed band he gave birth to an album that was both a shattering cri de coeur and an act of creative joy.
I interviewed Lou Reed in New York’s Warner Bros. offices in early 1989. He was wearing jeans, boots, a black T-shirt, a casual gray Italian leather jacket and a Rolex watch. “It’s one of life’s little pleasures,” he told me with a laugh, adding, “it’ll last forever.” As will his words and music.
Your new album New York depicts a city that seems to be profoundly and hopelessly sick.
In my song “Endless Cycle” I say: “The bias of the father runs on through the son/and leaves him bothered and bewildered. . .The sickness of the mother runs on through the girl/leaving her small and helpless.” There are such terrible images running through the album, like in “Xmas in February,” the song about the abandoned, unemployed Vietnam vet, “the guy on the street with the sign that reads/’Please help send this vet home’/But he is home.” But he is home! I listen to that and think, Oh my God, what have I done? The images just come at you, and some of them were very hard for me to deal with.
You know, a hundred years ago another New York poet, Walt Whitman, had something quite different to say about the city. He wrote, “Mannahatta! How fit a name for America’s great democratic island city! The word itself, how beautiful! How aboriginal! How it seems to rise with tall spires, glistening in sunshine, with such New World atmosphere, vista, and action!. . .A million people – manners free and superb – open voices – hospitality.”
He should really see it now! Every day when I go outside I see the result of the emptying of the mental hospitals, of not having enough halfway houses, of having all kinds of services cut, of backing off on funding for schools and for food for kids, of holding out on just about anything. . .and here we are. You read me Walt Whitman, so let me read you a few lines from my song “Romeo Had Juliette”: “I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag/with Latin written on it that says/’It’s hard to give a shit these days’/Manhattan’s sinking like a rock, into the filthy Hudson what a shock/they wrote a book about it, they said it was like ancient Rome.” And I’m trying to make you feel the situation we’re in – feel what it’s like – and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. But what did Alfred Hitchcock say? “It’s only a movie.”