Lou Reed's album New York succeeds both as social commentary and as musical endeavor
By ANDREW L. FISH
Lou Reed's New York is a depressing place, filled with poverty, bigotry, crime, drugs, and pollution. His most political album is like a musical Bonfire of the Vanities, examining people who live in the shadow of what Reed calls "the Statue of Bigotry."
Although New York is full of figures from the popular culture of 1989, Reed has not commercialized his music for mass consumption. This is not a disc full of Top 40 hits; it is, instead, more in line with his earlier solo works. His distinctive, almost wining, voice is still there, and there are no electronic gizmos to hype things up.
Many of Reed's songs discuss the plight of the city's vast underclass, living in a world wrecked by the drug trade, racism, and broken homes. In "Romeo Had Juliet," Reed sings about a young man who has a girlfriend (of sorts), and little else in a cynical world filled with gun-toting crack dealers, who also populate his "Dirty Boulevard." Reed sees a world which dumps the downtrodden into ghettos and and abandons them. The poor in New York are trapped by the lure of the drug trade, the lack of parental guidance ("it's hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs"), and a city which just doesn't care.
"There's no such thing as human rights when you walk the New York streets," Reed declares. He sings about the casualties of the drug trade, but seems to feel there is no way to turn things around. This fatalism is prevalent throughout the album, tempered only by his look to the future in "There is No Time." Even when Reed sings of needing a "Busload of Faith," it is only because "you can depend on the worst always happening."
The best track on New York does not concern itself with the poor, but rather with a clever combination of racism, gun control, and environmental concerns. "Last Great American Whale" is a ballad about a mythical creature who came to the rescue of an Indian chief, who was jailed for killing a racist youth. The whale saves the chief and stops the racism ("the whites were drowned, blacks and reds set free"). But the great animal was then killed by a NRA member, who had been aiming for the chief. This is taken as a symbol of Americans lack of concern for the environment (They'll watch dead rats wash up on the beach and complain if they can't swim"). "Last Great American Whale" definitely contains Reed's most creative lyrics, and it provides an excellent bridge between the problems of the city and the country as a whole.
New York is not without humor. In "Sick of You," pollution makes the ocean a red sea, but there is no one to part it. The song moves on to talk about hypodermic needles in cabbage, the marriage of Oliver North and William Secord, and a radioactive trucker appearing on the Morton Downey Jr. Show. This song offers a more lighthearted look at the problems of pollution and corruption; it complements the album's more serious lyrics.
Reed also takes time to attack the Pope for his meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim and Jesse Jackson for perceived anti-Semitism. He includes a song critical of the Vietnam War, and a tribute to those who have died of AIDS. But Reed also slams "self-righteous rock and roller singers" in "Straw Man." This is not hypocrisy. While New York does call attention to the multitude of problems facing society, is does not pretend to know the solutions.
New York succeeds both as a social commentary and as a musical endeavor. Reed's fatalism is disturbing, but understandable. And his work provides an hour of enjoyable and insightful music.