New York is an outlier in Lou Reed’s discography. The 1989 album—his fifteenth—is arguably his most straight-forward, track after track of stunningly simple music, just featuring a few guitars and Reed’s deadpan and utterly dry cutting lyrics.
Not everyone appreciated that rawness. Upon hearing the album, John Cougar Mellancamp commented that New York sounded as if an eighth-grader produced it. “But I like it,” he added. The record quickly transformed into a critical darling, hailed as a return to form for Reed, whose standing seemed to shift several times a decade since debuting with the Velvet Underground in the late 1960s. Anthony DeCurtis, who would later write a biography of Reed, gave the album four stars in a review for Rolling Stone, proclaiming New York to be “the rock & roll version of The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
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 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.
It also may be the most personal of Reed’s work. New York looks at the artist’s birthplace and home, and the result is a portrait of a city ravaged by economic and structural inequality, cultural malaise, racism, and AIDS. As he sings in “Romeo Had Juliette,” the record’s first track, “I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag, with Latin written on it that says, It’s hard to give a shit these days.” Reed is holding a magnifying glass to the city’s ills, chronicling them song-by-song as a way of illuminating the lack of empathy and humanity that pervaded the country throughout the 1980s, a decade that included an epidemic, the birth of needlessly punitive prison sentencing, and the growth of a wage gap.
Whenever I listen to the album, I am always struck by “Halloween Parade,” which is arguably my favorite of all of Reed’s songs. While the album thematically balances a backward-glancing nod while ultimately progressive—”and something flickered for a minute, and then it vanished and was gone”—this track is overly nostalgic, which is rare for Reed, while also sentimental and sweet. The song is nominally about the annual Halloween Parade, an event born in the mid-1970s and one that used to snake through Greenwich Village, but Reed intersperses evocative lyrics with remembrances of friends lost.
“This celebration somehow gets me down, especially when I see you’re not around,” sings Reed, as he recounts Rotten Rita and Johnny Rio and the other friends no longer living.
The song’s dirge-like quality also relates to the aura of death hanging over NYC in the 1980s: through 1989, when the album was released, nearly 19,000 New Yorkers had died due to the complications from AIDS—5,000-plus that year alone. As Reed narrates the costumes and characters of that year’s parade, he remembers better times. He never specifies whom he lost—”This Halloween is something to be sure, especially to be here without you”—and that only aids the listener slip into one’s own past. But this song doesn’t encourage solipsism—rather, it is a call to action. In a truly fantastic and insightful interview with Rolling Stone‘s Jonathan Cott in 1989, Reed said,
How many people have to drop dead from AIDS? Why do they think that’s not going to spread? Do they have to wait until AIDS works its way to the suburbs before the great middle class rises up and says, Ohhh! Well, everybody should be saying Ohhh! right now. These are very scary and treacherous times even though people seem to think that everything’s OK.
Reed and political activism don’t often go hand-in-hand, but on New York, and especially with tracks like “Halloween Parade,” Reed is railing against an American society that has failed to live up its worldwide standing. Reed notices this lack of humanity existing in an America that seemingly fails to care about its fellow citizens, and that is at the forefront of New York. He told Cott, “There’s this vicious non-caring or, in some cases, a cavalier non-caring under the guise of something else. It’s a complete disregard for the other guy or woman or child, and a complete rejection of any kind of humanity and an unrelieved viciousness for laughs.”
The album is ferociously direct, which was an intentional decision: he spent three months working solely on lyrics, and then months afterward revising, with the goal of crafting songs in which listeners “could really hear the words…that was the raison d’être for this album.” As such, this album is arguably the most confrontational of Reed’s entire catalogue. As he told Cott, “This is me speaking as directly as I possibly can to whoever hopefully wants to listen to it. If someone accuses me of attacking my former image and says: “Oh, but you once said….” then all I can now say is: “And what did you once say? And what did we all once say? And what might I say tomorrow?””
The kicker of “Halloween Parade” speaks to that sentiment—”see you next year at the Halloween parade.” Life goes on, and we with it, but what we must do to ensure that the present doesn’t continue to become the future? Speaking with Cott, Reed referred to Ronald Reagan’s administration as “eight years of rape,” a feeling that has translated through the first two years of the Trump administration. DeCurtis’s review of New York wonders whether the album will age or become an artifact of a specific place and time—”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”—and the leap in similarities between Reed’s late 1980s frustration and the same anger and fear and worry our society is currently expressing at this moment isn’t significant. Decades have passed, and while the nominal issues might have changed, the underlying tensions still linger, and are perhaps even more raw. New York is an album with transcending themes, and its spirit of non-complacency and activism is generational thanks to songs like “Dirty Blvd,” “Romeo Had Juliette,” and “Halloween Parade,” a track that I hear differently each listen.