Lou Reed might have declared himself “The Original Wrapper” on 1986’s Mistrial, but his fondness for hip-hop didn’t fully manifest until he signed with Seymour Stein’s Sire Records and released New York, which was released 30 years ago today (Jan. 10, 1989).
“Lou Reed always loved hip-hop and rap,” explains Reed’s longtime bassist Fernando Saunders, who co-produced Mistrial with Lou. “As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I got the job with him was he’d heard I played bass for [renowned disco bandleader] Hamilton Bohannon, who was sampled on a ton of rap songs [and famously name-checked in Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”]. And he was like, ‘You played with Bohannon? We used to listen to him all the time when we were out in the disco clubs.’ And New York was raw; it was more like hip-hop.”
Released in the dead of winter in January ’89, New York was a jagged snowball of street corner slush thrown in the face of expectations of what a Lou Reed album should sound like. Whereas Bon Jovi called their then-latest album New Jersey as an endearing homage to their tri-state roots, Reed named his 10th LP after his region not in salute but out of scorn for a city struggling with its own inner rot that had more in common with Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back than Transformer or Berlin.
“Lou had been more or less clean for close to a decade by the time he made this record,” explains Anthony DeCurtis, veteran rock journalist and author of the acclaimed 2017 biography Lou Reed: A Life. “And I think he was really feeling his power — the kind of strength that you feel when you have greater concentration. He wanted to make a big statement and bring his best to it. This isn’t the New York of the docks and the afterhours bars, that subterranean world he moved in and made his career chronicling. This is an external world, and that journalistic impulse to cover the world around us was an important transition for him. It was a different type of songwriting for Lou.”
Accompanied by a lean, tight band comprised of guitarist Mike Rathke, the late jam/jazz bass great Rob Wasserman and drummer Fred Maher, who also co-produced the album, Reed penned songs ripped from the headlines. He addressed the devastation of HIV/AIDS on the gay community (“Halloween Parade”), the racism surrounding the Howard Beach murders (“Hold On”) and the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s concept of Common Ground (“Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim”) that very much feel like a time capsule of New York City in the late ’80s in a way not unlike Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, albeit on a more visceral street level.
“Do you mean did I make a disposable record?” Reed asked on-air personality Karyn Bryant when the former MTV VJ/current Fox Sports 1 host interviewed him on her college radio show shortly after the release of New York. “Things that happen in the city, those things happen every week. It almost doesn’t matter what names they had, it’s just the same old thing happens every week. It doesn’t matter which cop was shot or who did this or who did that. It’s every week and in every city, you just change the name and it’s the same story. So it didn’t seem to me that it was relying on topicality for its strength.”
The strength of New York, in fact, comes from the music, which is more doo-wop than hip-hop and hardwired with that utterly distinctive Lou Reed guitar tone he had been perfecting since his days at Pickwick Records. A pair of noteworthy guests further enhance the sound: Bronx pop idol and lifelong Lou influence Dion DiMucci sings backup on the single “Dirty Blvd.” and Velvet Underground bandmate Maureen “Moe” Tucker plays percussion on two of New York‘s finest tunes, “The Last Great American Whale” and closing number “Dime Store Mystery” — a song she believes sounded better in studio than on record.
“I was delighted when Lou asked me to play on a couple of songs,” Tucker tells Billboard. “The basic rhythm track to ‘Dime Store Mystery’ is literally spine tingling when you can clearly hear the rhythm guitar, stand up bass, and drums. Listening in the studio, after we three did that track, the drums were fuller, more ‘boomy,’ and the three instruments together set an ominous feeling that was really stunning but that is lost in the final mix. Had I not heard it in the studio I would not have been so disappointed when I received, in the mail, the final mix since to me, (dare I say it?) the feeling is just not there. I know, I know, it’s not my record, it’s Lou’s, and of course mixes were to his satisfaction, certainly not mine!”
“He gave us a picture of New York — not the Frank Sinatra version in ‘New York, New York,'” Dion recalls. “It was a grittier side of New York, the underbelly of New York including the transvestites, the gay community, the drug addicts… I don’t think any travel agency was ever going to hire Lou Reed to do their travel brochure or tourist copy.
“He reminded me of Bo Diddley insofar as he thought so much about his guitar sound,” Dion continues. “It was everything to Lou: the dynamics of his music, the beauty of space that one or two guitars offered. The beauty of rock ‘n’ roll is repetition and simplicity, something which is almost impossible to achieve. His back street poetry was predicated on ‘less is more’ and Lou was looking to write the perfect one chord song. He was a powerful presence with that guitar — he had his own custom-built guitar with special electronics and amps and what he developed was amazingly beautiful. I had a blast with Lou recording ‘Dirty Blvd.’ What an amazing album! I loved the guy and truly miss him.”
While much of New York, listening to it 30 years later, feels like lightning in a bottle, there is also some wild foreshadowing of our present turmoil within Reed’s lyrics. Especially when “some yokel member of the NRA” turns up on “Whale” and — perhaps most telling — the references to the Trumps and Rudy Giuliani peppering “Sick of You.” Not to say Lou was a prophet, but the street-born wisdom of the songwriter reminds us that history will not only repeat itself but in an exacerbated form if left untreated under the “Statue of Bigotry.”
“I think there was a real desire to take a snapshot of this moment in this city,” explains DeCurtis. “Lou said in the liner notes he wanted this album to be experienced like a book or a movie. He was approaching 50, and at that stage of the game he was one of the elders. And the idea of still making rock n’ roll at that age — for the time — I think he began to feel there were other elements to help him expand artistically. There was a boldness for Lou Reed to call this album New York. In a certain sense every one of his records could be called New York. But getting at the essence of that big statement, there was an ambition he was feeling at the time that drove his creativity and expanded his roots in rock n’ roll.”