Dead Rock Artist:
"Something flickered for a minute and then it vanished and was gone."
Lou Reed's New York, his 1989 album, hit the Rude Pundit like fist in the solar plexus. It's hard to remember that era, over 24 years ago, in a nation that had been dragged back to a crueler time by the unregulated capitalism and ruthless pseudo-imperialism of the Reagan administration, heading into the dim era of Bush the First. The poor had been turned into a pestilence by the rhetoric coming from the right, by the policies from Reagan, and by the lies from Christian charlatans. More homeless were created in order to pay for a military build-up that brought huge deficits for the nation and enormous wealth for a few cronies. And so, so many Americans bought the bullshit illusion of national greatness, the post-Vietnam War self-fellatio that this country was a destiny, a Valhalla, and not a messy conglomeration of people who, for fuck's sake, needed to learn how to live together or were gonna sink. It was, frankly, an ugly time.
"This is no time for Optimism
This is no time for Endless Thought
This is no time for my country Right or Wrong
Remember what that brought."
For the Rude Pundit, still young, still a bit naive, still believing he could change the world but with grown-up doubt starting to creep in, New York offered a cynical view of an America that had indeed fucked itself. But the cynicism was tempered with a hard-won, embittered hope. The city and the nation that Reed saw had dragged itself into the gutter, all through self-inflicted wounds, and we had to look at ourselves, all of it, understand it, get enraged by it, before we could even begin the long crawl out of this shit-filled pit. Oh, and it helps if you've got insanely great guitar riffs to accompany you on the journey.
"Americans don't care too much for beauty
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."
What always stuck for the Rude Pundit was how immense Reed's vision is on New York. It's got Reed's usual sympathy for freaks and outsiders, for the damaged and the alienated, but the majority of the album is given over to images of our monstrous complicity in our own damnation. Take the lyric up there, from "Last Great American Whale." In the song, Reed mourns the disappearing Native American, but he uses that to take on environmental degradation and "Some local yokel member of the NRA." And on "Xmas in February," he describes a veteran who returns from war with no hope for the future. It's depressing how relevant the album still is today.
"There's no such thing as human rights
When you walk the N.Y.streets."
The most piercing rage on New York is saved for the title city. On the opening song, "Romeo Had Juliette," Reed sings, "Manhattan's sinking like a rock, into the filthy Hudson what a shock/They wrote a book about it, they said it was like ancient Rome." He calls out the police brutality, youth violence, Rudy Giuliani, racial upheaval and more, in specific, even shocking terms. Lou Reed loved this city, yes, but he saw it as being dragged down by the stupidity and ignorance of those leading and "protecting" it.
"'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.'"
Others will no doubt choose albums like Berlin or Street Hassle or something by the Velvet Underground as their way to memorialize Lou Reed, who died yesterday at age 71. Idiots will play "Walk on the Wild Side," a song Reed could barely stomach performing anymore (although it is still about as subversive as rock music gets). But the Rude Pundit will always remember New York leading him to an understanding that the issues he had embraced were born out of real world circumstances for people who had been shoved to the margins, people who are still at the margins. It was How the Other Half Lives for the death of the 20th century. This is not to mention that "Busload of Faith" got him through more than one fucked-up time.
Lou Reed was the poet of a city, in all its decadent glamor and breathtaking squalor, and New York was a chronicle of our plunge into an abyss of consumerism, victimization, and apathy, the skid marks of the last millenium polluting this new one.