Lou Reed's Dirty Boulevard of Dreams

New York City is a dream you can't have—glitz, glamor, grime, too much to take in from within, too much to understand from afar. It's a metropolitan manifestation of the Heisenberg principle, its nature changing with how you look at it. No matter how you try, you can't see the forest for the skyscrapers.

Seen from the distance of my Illinois adolescence, New York was Woody Allen movies and Barney Miller reruns, intellectuals and petty criminals, the intoxicating and the incomprehensible. It was a rock'n'roll city, the rock'n'roll city, home of Kiss (my first love), then the Ramones, then later (for me) the Velvet Underground. Once I'd been funneled through the vortex of college and Chicago and spat out the other end, it became my home.

Somehow the junkie poets always appealed to me, although I myself never became a junkie and am at best a halfhearted poet. In my pre-NYC days of writing songs and forming bands, Lou Reed was an inspiration: powerful, simple guitar, direct and incisive lyrics, and a vocal delivery that was about commitment over tunefulness. Once I moved to New York, I set aside my guitar. There was too much to take in, too much to absorb. I switched from output to input, and the Velvet Underground came alive. Lyrical references—"Up to Lexington, 1-2-5," "Gonna take a walk down to Union Square/You never know who you're gonna find there"—were little epiphanies. New York City, it turned out, was a real place.

My first job in the city was working on an epidemiological study of syringe exchanges. I visited street-corner programs in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, got to know the participants, saw the allure and devastation of hard drugs. I saw people, as Reed sang in "Heroin," trying to nullify their lives. Rock'n'roll makes that kind of thing cool. Moving to New York made it real.

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But by then I'd left Lou Reed behind. The Velvets forever ranked as one of my favorite bands. Reed's solo albums through the '70s were charming and inspiring—even up to 1982's The Blue Mask, the first one I bought as a new release and so the first one that felt like mine. His live albums proved him forever the flame-keeper, from the longwinded extrapolations of Rock n Roll Animal to the incendiary stand-up comedy of Take No Prisoners. But by the mid-'80s or so, music was being made by people my age, for people my age.

Reed was 25 when he sang "I'm Not a Young Man Anymore"—older than I was when I decided I no longer needed him. The Velvets never released that song officially, but it can be heard on the wonderfully muddy and driving Live at the Gymnasium, widely bootlegged and eventually included on the 2013 3-CD reissue of White Light/White Heat. It's the perfect Velvet Underground song (but then, they all are). A looping, unstable guitar line floats atop fuzzy, pounding rhythm. No chorus, one verse, repeated: "Hey, I'm not a young man anymore/Hey, I'm not a young man anymore/I've got five nickels in my pocket/You know that I can get me some more." It's juvenilia, a playground rhyme, and it reeks of trouble. Reed would live to see another 46 years, well past his young man days but not long enough to see the city's air become poison.

On a warm afternoon at the end of this past April, shortly after the pandemic's first birthday, I was sitting on a bench in Lou Reed's New York, though on the other end of the island. I had recently heard on the radio a song from Reed and John Cale's 1990 album Songs for Drella (another record I'd wrongly ignored, considering the artists to be over that hill they'd made). Impressed, I streamed it, then bought a copy. In one of those oddities of online commerce, it was cheaper to buy it in a five-disc set than on its own, and that began my acquaintanceship with latter-day Lou.

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I took my seat on a wooden bench warmed by the sun, made what felt like the risky decision to remove my mask, strapped on my Sennheisers, pulled New York from the cardboard box, and listened to it for the first time in my life. I hadn't cared about his celebrated return to form three decades ago; I was young then. Reed was old. Call it rock-of-ageism: I wanted new music, reactionary music. But now, well, I'm not a young man anymore. I might not have liked the record back then, had I listened. The crispness of the tight, four-piece band might have seemed plain, and I didn't have time then for plainspoken truths.

"This is no time for optimism," Reed sings, or announces, against an insistent rhythm in "There Is No Time." "This is no time for endless thought/This is no time for my country right or wrong/ Remember what that brought." The rhymes might not have been clever enough, the cold slap of their veracity lost on me. Maybe back then I didn't believe in New York, either. Maybe I didn't quite believe in Reed's New York, where every block is a universe and the next is the same, but everything's different. He namechecks Rudy and Donald, but his city is filled with addicts and hustlers, outcasts and politicians, televisions and guns. Maybe I wouldn't have realized how real it all was.

It's a great album, though: poetic, ugly, simple, deep. It manages to speak to a time its maker didn't live to see, in a city afraid to breathe.

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