For understandable reasons, there wasn’t a lot of anticipation in the air for Lou Reed’s 1976 album Coney Island Baby. His latest release at the time, 1975’s Metal Machine Music, was seen as a deliberate act of career suicide. Consisting of 64 minutes of abrasive feedback, the album contained no vocals or anything that could be recognized as music. “If this album is Reed’s Self Portrait, then we may have to tolerate a lot of stroboscopic sludge before he gets back on the tracks,” wrote Rolling Stone‘s James Wolcott.
But Coney Island Baby shocked critics and fans alike in that it was nothing like its predecessor. Not only was it listenable, but it had vocals, melodies and guitar work that Reed himself likened to the Velvet Underground. The album’s title track, the last song on the record, tapped into a nostalgia that was new for Reed. He reflects on a time long before he walked on the wild side, when he was just in high school and always wanted to “play football for the coach.” “Remember that the city is a funny place,” he sings of his hometown. “Something like a circus or a sewer.”
Reed performed the song on his 1984 tour, and here you can watch an intense version filmed at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. It differs significantly from the delicate studio take, but Reed’s emotion is more present than ever. Accompanied by guitarist Robert Quine, he takes the “glory of love” refrain to new heights, screaming “give it to me, baby!” while thrashing the guitar.
Reed, who died five years ago today, called “Coney Island Baby” a proclamation. “Saying ‘I’m a Coney Island baby’ at the end of that song is like saying I haven’t backed off an inch,” he told Rolling Stone‘s Mikal Gilmore in 1979. “And don’t you forget it.”