“My Way” isn’t exactly Lou Reed’s kind of music, but its lyrics (by Paul Anka) do a pretty good job of limning the attitude that characterized his half-century career. In the early 1960s, Reed came up with a radically different idea for what rock music should sound like, and he continued to blaze new trails without a hint of compromise until his death in 2013. In 1964, he cofounded the Velvet Underground, one of rock’s most influential bands, which sounded nothing like anything contemporaneous artists were producing; and he went on to enjoy a wild-ride solo career that included everything from a double album of dissonant guitar feedback (Metal Machine Music) to a concert LP in which he attacked music critics by name (Live/Take No Prisoners) and a Top 20 single that slipped in a reference to oral sex (“Walk on the Wild Side”).
One of the greatest highlights of Reed’s solo years is 1989’s nearly hour-long New York, which has just been reissued in a dramatically expanded edition. The album, which at the time of its original release was his first new offering in three years, introduced a band that included Reed’s then brother-in-law, guitarist Mike Rathke; bassist Rob Wasserman; and drummer Fred Maher. The musicianship is excellent, but the music and lyrics are even better.
People say write about what you know, and man, did Reed know New York’s undercurrents, which serve as the subject of some of this album’s best tracks. The record opens with “Romeo Had Juliette,” a song about a couple the singer calls Romeo Rodriguez and Juliette Bell that would fit well alongside Bruce Springsteen’s “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade.” Other vignettes include “Halloween Parade,” about the gay community’s annual Greenwich Village event and the lives lost to AIDS; and “Dirty Blvd.,” a number about welfare hotels in which Reed sings, “No one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything / They dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard / Give me your tired, your poor / I’ll piss on ’em / That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says.”
Many of the other songs don’t relate specifically to New York, but the lion’s share of them sound more political than anything Reed previously released. He directly addresses subjects ranging from abortion, child abuse, and homelessness to guns, pollution, and slum lords; and he references such names as Jesse Jackson, Bernhard Goetz, Louis Farrakhan, Rudy Giuliani, and Kurt Waldheim.
Moreover, his acidic lyrics often seem remarkably relevant to today’s world. Consider songs like “Sick of You” (“The ozone layer has no ozone anymore”), “Strawman” (“Does anyone need a $60,000 car? / Does anyone need another President or the sins of Swaggart parts 6, 7, 8, and 9?”), and “Busload of Faith” (“You can depend on cruelty, crudity of thought and sound/ You can depend on the worst always happening / You need a busload of faith to get by”).
It’s not all politics, though. There’s a witty and sardonic rant about having children (“Beginning of a Great Adventure”), for example, and a number dedicated to Reed’s old pal Andy Warhol (“Dime Store Mystery,” which also appears on 1990’s Songs for Drella, the Warhol tribute album Reed made with John Cale).
New York isn’t nearly as bleak as many of its lyrics might suggest, thanks to the music. It’s consistently rhythmic, energized, and infused with biting guitar work. And there’s frequent evidence throughout of Reed’s love of early rock and roll. He even enlists Dion DiMucci to sing backup on “Dirty Blvd.” and throws in a quote from Mickey and Sylvia’s 1957 pop hit, “Love Is Strange,” in “Beginning of a Great Adventure.”
The new edition of New York is as good as any fan could have hoped for. It includes an excellent remaster of the 1989 release on a CD and a pair of vinyl albums; a CD that offers often-fascinating rough mixes, early and single versions, and excellent concert readings of “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Sweet Jane”; and a CD with a live rendition of New York culled from concerts in the U.S., U.K., and Denmark. You also get an oversized booklet containing extensive notes, photos, and lyrics for all the songs.
Last but not least, there’s a DVD that presents high-resolution audio of the original album, a revealing Reed interview, and a video of another New York performance, this one from a Montreal show that had previously been available only on VHS and Laserdisc. Needless to say, this 1989 recording is not hi-def, but the audio and video quality are both excellent, all things considered, and the performance is first rate.
Gay Marshall, Back on Boogie Street: Songs of Leonard Cohen. Gay Marshall, who has a background in theatre, pays tribute to Leonard Cohen on this album, which includes cabaret-style performances of some of the late singer/songwriter’s best-loved tunes, four of which she intertwines with his poetry. “A lot of people describe [Cohen] as a harbinger of gloom and doom,” Marshall says in her brief liner notes, “and one of the reasons I wanted to do this record was to change their minds.” Whether she’ll achieve that goal is questionable, and on a few tracks, such as “Boogie Street” and “Everybody Knows,” one misses Cohen’s inimitable vocals. She does well with the ballads, however. Particularly affecting are her covers of “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” all of which convey the spirit of the original while adding something new.
Rick Shea, Love & Desperation. Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Rick Shea, whose varied resume embraces work with Dave Alvin, Katy Moffatt, and Wanda Jackson, has a winner on his hands with his 12th album. Love & Desperation kicks off on a high note with Al Ferrier’s “Blues Stop Knockin’ at My Door,” an irresistible toe-tapper and the only number here that Shea didn’t write (or in a few cases, cowrite). Other standouts include the accordion-spiced “Big Rain Is Comin’ Mama,” the autobiographical title cut, and “The World’s Gone Crazy,” a bluesy number that the Southern California–based singer says came to him “after watching a particularly harrowing episode of The Rachel Maddow Show.”
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.