October 27, 2013

Lou Reed, "New York"

My first encounter with Lou Reed wasn't the Velvets, or any of his '70s stuff. It was New York, which came out in 1989 when I was 14. I was at the mall, in the Sam Goody, and had just started the part of my education that involved wandering away from the Pink Floyd and Rush and Led Zeppelin cards in the bins. Going on adventures, I suppose. I saw New York on an end cap, and seeing the cover photo on the tiny little cassette insert is what sold me. The eyeless stare. The power stance. The black shirt with the sleeves cut off, arms crossed. And he's over here, too, in a black trenchcoat smoking a cigarette! What a total badass! Something about the grittiness of that cover told me that I shouldn't pop it into the player while my mom was driving me home. There was something very adult going on. It was as dark and alluring as a poster for an R-rated movie. Would you want to watch an R-rated movie with your mom, especially one where you didn't know what the content was? I opened the tape case to look over the lyrics in the car, but I waited until I got home to the safety of my headphones. And boy, is it a headphones record. The notes on the card have this line: "I'm on the left and the other guitarist, Mike Rathke is on the right." I was just getting into guitar at the time and learning the basics by playing along to my favorite tapes, so this was valuable intel. I could study one guitarist, then the other. Study I did, and I had worn that tape out by the time I got to college. Oddly, as hot as the guitars were, it was the poetry that was the true hook. New York is Lou in full bile mode, at the very end of the Reagan era. I wasn't really aware of politics at 14 — my upbringing in Orange County, California was pretty much the epitome of sheltered — but I knew enough people were pissed off at the status quo that maybe I should learn why. So how confusing was this bit, right in the middle of "Dirty Boulevard": "Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I'll piss on 'em / That's what the Statue of Bigotry says / Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death / And get it over with and just dump 'em on the boulevard." Where did all the negativity come from? Was he speaking as himself, or was he speaking in defense of the poor huddled masses? More importantly, where is this Dirty Boulevard? How I do see it for myself? I learned the rules pretty quick: Read the newspapers. Watch the nightly news. Travel. Stop trusting the government. Value art. See firsthand how others live. And keep listening to Lou Reed records.