Former mayor of New York City Ed Koch must have been feelin’ pretty groovy when the 59th St. Bridge was renamed in honor of Hizzoner. Koch is a big, likeable personality and a quintessential New Yorker without any doubt. Yet, it’s a little bit funny, this renaming of a bridge for him. Were the Koch years (1977 – 1989) such great ones for the city of New York, honestly? There were 2,246 murders in New York City in 1989 – the final year of Koch’s third and final term as mayor. By comparison, in 2009, there were 778 (the source I’m referencing doesn’t have figures for 2010 yet). Crime isn’t everything, but in New York City, it’s a helluva lot. The insecurity that rising crime gave to the city, from the mid-1960s on, fostered a sense of decay and futility, which fed itself and led to more crime. It ate at the city economically and spiritually; how could it not? It wasn’t all Koch’s fault, by any means, but he had three terms to make a dent in it. He didn’t. The annual murder rate remained well over 2,000 during the term of Koch’s successor, David Dinkins, but then started dropping dramatically under Rudolph Giuliani and his revamped policing strategies, beginning in 1994.
I begin with that snippet of history because Lou Reed’s 1989 album New York has a strong time-capsule-like quality; it’s filled with artifacts of the last year or two of that Koch era, heading into the even-worse Dinkins’ years. A line from the first track, “Romeo Had Juliette”, bluntly and blithely states: “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock into the filthy Hudson,” and your head never really gets above water again until this album ends. The “Dirty Boulevard” of desperation in the song of that name undoubtedly always exists for some poor victimized kid in a metropolis, but back then it probably seemed like every street in the city was a candidate. The “Halloween Parade” evokes a sad and gory toll from the then-relatively new and surging AIDS virus. The song “Hold On” brings everything together with a cheerful litany of trouble from the grimy newspapers: “blacks with knives and whites with guns fighting in Howard Beach … a cop […] shot in the head by a 10 year old kid named Buddah … a plague of bloody vials … a riot in Tompkins Square.” The song perhaps most rooted in the era is not however about conventional crime, but instead politics and anti-semitism. “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” begins with reference to that former U.N. Secretary General with a Nazi past (Kurt Waldheim), and knocks Pope JP II for good measure, but is really all about Jesse Jackson, who ran for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 1988. (Ed Koch’s vociferous opposition to Jackson is thought by some to have cost Koch a fourth term as mayor.)
There are fears that still reverberate
Jesse you say Common Ground
Does that include the PLO?
What about people here right now who fought for you not long ago?
Those words that flow so freely falling dancing from your lips
I hope that you don’t cheapen them with a racist slip
Oh is it true there’s no Ground Common enough for me and you?
Does all of this conspire to make Lou’s album sound merely dated now? Well, not to me, but arguably I’m not the best judge, since I remember those years quite well. Still, I prefer to think of the album New Yorkas both a time capsule and a blueprint; should anyone ever be crazy enough to want to recreate New York City circa 1988, this album has enough stories, characters and all the cynical DNA necessary to make it spring to horrible life once more.
It’s also fun. Reed seemed old to people then, but it turned out he was only mid-career, with a lot of significant work ahead of him. With hindsight, he may well be at the top of his game here, with his great delivery, pitch-dark humor and spunky rock & roll arrangements. The album ably demonstrates his charming ability to put over a simple and seductive pop melody, couched with some lyrical depravity and propped up with some mean, distorted guitar sounds. Lou Reed, in my view, is never entirely free of a tendency towards self-indulgence (being too enamored of his own shtick), so the album is not perfect, but it works darned well all the same.
Just remember as you ride over the Ed Koch Bridge:
You can depend on the worst always happening
You need a Busload of Faith to get by.