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Lou Reed’s Primal Screech

Celebrating ‘New York,’ the great rock ’n’ roll malcontent’s overlooked masterpiece and prescient warning, 30 years later

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Two years ago, in an interview with The Guardian, the artist Laurie Anderson said of her late husband, Lou Reed, “I just wish I could hear what he would have to say about Trump. That would be something.” But Reed actually had his say, 30 years ago this week, on his biting and vivid 1989 album New York—one of the indisputable highlights of his long, strange career. “I was up in the morning with the TV blarin’, brush my teeth sittin’ watchin’ the news,” Reed drawls on a song called “Sick of You.” The headlines in the song grow increasingly bizarre: “They ordained the Trumps and then he got the mumps, and then died being treated at Mount Sinai.” This surreal tableau ends with an all-too-relevant image of a president—Reagan, presumably—whose head goes missing, “but no one noticed it, he has seemed so fit.” (Rudy Giuliani is also run over with a car.) Ever the malcontent, Reed spits out a bilious line that sums up his worldview: “And I’m sick of it!” Thirty years later, I’d regret to inform him how little the game and the players have changed.

New York was the greatest surprise of Lou Reed’s career. He spent the mid- and late ’80s moving further and further away from the feral intensity of his great 1982 record The Blue Mask (to say nothing of his work with the Velvet Underground), trying to tap into the glossy aesthetic of early MTV new wave. The nadir of this approach might have been the cover art for his 1984 album New Sensations—a tiny Lou Reed sits, happy-baby style, holding a red joystick that seems to be controlling … a larger Lou Reed on a TV set? A single from this record was titled, yep, “My Red Joystick.” Few rock legends survived the ’80s without what looks today like hot-neon embarrassment, but even then it was clear that we were miles from “Sister Ray.”

New York, though, was a conscious rejection of trend-hopping, stemming from Lou Reed’s acceptance that perhaps he was never going to be for everybody. “Look, I’m 46 years old now and I can’t be bothered with that kind of stuff,” he told Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Cott in a long, uncharacteristically candid 1989 interview about the record. “I’m not aiming New York for 14-year-olds. See, I don’t sell many records, so I know that the people who do buy them really want to hear them. … You know, I do the records for myself but it’s so nice to find out that sometimes there are people who get something from them.” And yet, ironically, this rejection of commercial ambition led to his most commercially successful record since 1972’s Transformer. It reinvigorated his cool. For all its gimlet-eyed, unrepentant nastiness, New York would become his first and only album to be certified gold. It was a hit.

Though his music routinely glorified people on the margins of society—addicts, gender benders, sexual deviants—Lou Reed was not exactly what you’d call political. He was more of a nihilist than anything: a sneering, fuck-’em-all provocateur for whom even a perfect day was merely a brief delusion that he was “someone else, someone good.” But when Reed finally got clean and sober in the mid-’80s after decades of drug use, a political awakening followed. He played Farm Aid, lent his voice to a Steven Van Zandt–helmed anti-Apartheid single, and in 1986 even joined more traditionally political acts like U2, Peter Gabriel, and Sting on Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope Tour. Sure, this was a relatively fashionable stance during the Reagan era, but in interviews, Reed seemed personally revved up about social injustice. “The people who run things have knowledgeably and intentionally fucked the people who can’t possibly defend themselves—the aged, the poor, the young, the old, women,” he told Rolling Stone’s Cott. In the face of such injustices, New York was a primal screech.

“Dirty Blvd.,” the record’s caustic but jangly single, hardly sounds like radio fodder (it tells the story of a poor city kid named Pedro who dreams of killing his abusive father) and yet it became Reed’s biggest hit in years, spending four weeks atop Billboard’s newly created Modern Rock Tracks chart. “Give me your hungry, your tired your poor, I’ll piss on ’em—that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says,” Reed deadpans. Elsewhere, movie stars ride obliviously in tinted-windowed limousines, and a landlord charging $2,000 a month for a single room is “laughing till he wets his pants.” This song is 30 years old. It hasn’t aged a day.

Other songs on New York seem, today, to glow with a haunting prescience. The driving, punk-inflected “There Is No Time” captures the urgency of living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, environmental collapse, and all manners of social ills: “This is no time to swallow anger, this is no time to ignore hate,” Reed sings in an uncharacteristic call-to-arms, “This is no time to be acting frivolous, because the time is getting late.” It’s to Reed’s credit as a songwriter that one of the saddest songs on New York is also one of the silliest: “Last Great American Whale” is quite a tonal feat. On its surface, it is a rather hopeless dirge about the inevitability of marine-life extinction, but as the song goes on the whale balloons into a metaphor for purity, grace, and all manner of good things that struggle to survive in the conditions of modern life. “Americans don’t care too much for beauty,” he mutters towards the end. “They’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream. They’ll watch dead rats wash up on the beach, and complain if they can’t swim.”

Reed’s burgeoning political consciousness was not without its stumbles. Occasionally the all-consuming corrosion of New York blurred Reed’s gaze and made him pick out the wrong targets. “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim,” a screed against two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, hasn’t aged well, partially because the song’s inciting incident—a 1984 interview in which Jackson was quoted using a term that many people perceived as anti-Semitic—has all but faded from the public consciousness. Still, even at the time, the song relied on clumsy false equivalencies (likening Louis Farrakhan’s support of Jackson’s campaign to an imaginary candidate’s support of the KKK). And, as critics pointed out at the time, Jackson was one of the only presidential hopefuls discussing solutions to the sorts of problems Reed was singing about on New York.

Still, though, there are moments of genuine empathy, like the gorgeous “Halloween Parade,” a sweetly elegiac tribute to the city’s then-hurting queer community—a kind of post-AIDS sequel to “Walk on the Wild Side.” It’s a bit of reportage that straddles the worlds of the living and the dead. For every figure Reed notes in the parade, he also sees the ghost of one who’s missing: There’s a Greta Garbo and an Alfred Hitchcock, sure, but as for Johnny Rio and Rotten Rita, “you’ll never see those faces again.” As Reed once said—with his characteristic swirl of self-deprecation and sweetly earnest literary aspiration—“Faulkner had the South, Joyce had Dublin. I’ve got New York.” But after nearly a decade of Reagan, AIDS, and the crack epidemic, New York had changed from the blithely countercultural playground Reed had depicted in a song like “Sweet Jane.” And so its self-sanctioned poet laureate had to offer this update.

Over the past two years, I have found myself returning almost instinctively to the music of the Reagan era—the furious refusal of early hardcore bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat; the humanitarian pop of Peter Gabriel; the righteous sermons of Public Enemy. That the concerns of this music still feel so contemporary serve as a source of both despair and comfort. Yes, it is upsetting how little has changed. The rich are only richer, the disenfranchised continue to bear the brunt of systemic problems, the doomsday clock continues to tick. (In the middle of writing this, a New York Times notification popped up in my browser to tell me that the oceans are heating up even faster than scientists had previously thought. Save the Last Great American Whale!) But also, if people felt 30 years ago that the world was about to end, it is perhaps a healthy perspective shift, when you are feeling this way today, to look back and recognize that it didn’t. There was still time.

At the very least, the more political-minded art of the ’80s reminds us of the cyclical nature of things—a topic that, in a more domestic sense, Reed takes up on New York. “The bias of the father runs on through the son and leaves him bothered and bewildered,” he sings on the quiet, plaintive “Endless Cycle.” That might seem like good old-fashioned Lou Reed nihilism, but elsewhere on the album he proposes a solution: a clear-eyed look at the things around you, including your mirror. “This is no time to not know who you are: Self-knowledge is a dangerous thing,” he sings. Of course, this is a man who always saw “danger” as a strength. New York might have signaled a change, but in the end it proved that he was still, stubbornly, Lou Reed.