I have a special fondness for the music that flooded college radio in the first six months or so of 1989. That’s partially a byproduct of my position at the station at the time, still fresh in my overall tenure and gifted with an atypically early ascension to the director staff level, specifically with responsibilities that related to reviewing new music. (Lorne Michaels has mused that everyone’s favorite Saturday Night Live cast is whichever one was in place when they were in high school. Surely, there’s a corresponding truth to college radio: everyone thinks the music scene was peaking the year they started monkeying around on the left end of the dial.) Despite that bias, I’ll argue passionately for the convergence of quality records across the first half of that year. There may not be that many unmitigated artistic peaks in there, but there are several artists–XTC, Elvis Costello, the Replacements, the Cure, Violent Femmes among them–who can be fairly said to have released their last great album in this span. And that parade of greatness begins with one of the very first packages I remember opening when the business of restocking the station’s new music shelves got underway in early 1989: Lou Reed’s New York.
Reed was one of the artists who bridged my mildly misguided high school years with my collegiate awakening to the breadth of great, innovative music being made. That noted, it’s not as if I was cool enough to be immersed in the transcendent albums of the Velvet Underground or even the spikier solo efforts of Reed during those years. But I knew I was supposed to be, that Reed was the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll cool, even if I was more likely to see his Honda scooters commercial (“Hey, don’t settle for walkin’.”) than I was to hear any of his challenging songs cross the radio speaker. Plus, this was the eighties, when much of Reed’s then-current work wasn’t especially well-regarded, even though there was some damn fine stuff to be found there. Back then, it was still enough of an expectation that old rock ‘n’ rollers would eventually have to give up on making this youthful rebel music. Just this morning, CBS aired a snippet of an old interview with Reed (from 1989, in fact) in which he conceded that he, in his mid-forties at the time, could really only respectably continue making music and touring if he didn’t refer to it as rock ‘n’ roll any longer. If he simply called himself “a musician,” he could go on forever. Ideally, he noted, he’d like to keel over on stage someday.
New York revived critical and, to a lesser degree, commercial interest in Reed. It landed him back on the cover of Rolling Stone and generally reestablished him as a vital creative force, not just because bygone work had launched a thousand other bands, but because he was making inspired music right then. To a degree, Reed had shrewdly cultivated this, including a message on the band of the album instructing, “It’s meant to listened to in one 58 minute (14 songs!) sitting as though it were a book or a movie.” That elevation of the album as a carefully constructed art form played brilliantly to the predilections of rock critics, who were always trying to graft the prestige of other pop culture onto the media ephemera they’d hitched their professional U-Haul trailer to. As with much of Reed’s aspirations towards grandeur, it was something of a put on. The sequencing of the album wasn’t determined by some agonizing consideration of exactly which progression of songs would provide the strongest totality. Instead, the tracks appeared in the order they were recorded. If it was like a novel, then it was a novel with the chapters assembled almost randomly.
Most of the remembrances of Reed have centered on his time with the Velvet Underground, which is understandable enough. (An easy way to judge how mainstream a news report is by examining how much attention is paid to “Walk on the Wild Side,” his sole excursion into the Top 40.) As should be expected, there’s no better summary of the band’s music than the one offered by John Cale in his statement of farewell: “we have the best of our fury laid out on vinyl, for the world to catch a glimpse.” Ignoring the decades of music that followed, solo efforts and collaborations, shortchanges Reed’s legacy, though. He was notorious difficult, even cantankerous, and he never stopped questing for something different, never stopped leveling his significant, if slightly fractured intellect at the music he created. He dealt with his emotions right out in the open, even regarding mortality. His two album-length ruminations of death–Songs for Drella and Magic and Loss–seem especially pertinent today, not because Reed was weighing his own temporary residency on this mortal coil, but because he was grappling with the sad, sudden absence of those he loved and respected. For anyone trying to find an avenue to express what it’s like to look out (or listen to) a world without a seismic force like Reed, the man himself provided the melodic language to do so. And he did it, as he spoke-sang on “Hello, It’s Me” in “the only way I know.” Among the many darker emotions Reed explored across years of raw, unguarded songwriting, today it’s most moving to me that at one point he used his art to show us all how he mourned.