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A return to Lou Reed's "New York" deserves 5 stars

Lou Reed's "New York" reissue speaks to the present as well as his late-'80s Manhattan.

Lou Reed
New York
Rhino (3 CDs, 2 LPs, 1 DVD)

5 stars

By Bruce Sylvester

If a single song line captures my feelings about the past year, it's Lou Reed's “You need a bus load of faith to get by,” from 1989's New York, his first album on Sire. It richly deserved its Grammy nomination and gold record sales award. Marking its 30th anniversary, Rhino has reissued it in an expanded extravaganza: the original remastered album on CD and on two 180-gram vinyl LPs, plus a CD of its songs in evolutionary stages (some simply instrumentals), a CD compiled from performances on the tour supporting the disc, and a long-unavailable DVD of the Montreal stop on the tour.

Back in the '50s and early '60s, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet plot reappeared in Puerto Rican Manhattan in blockbuster West Side Story. Here, New York's opener, “Romeo Had Juliette,” ups the stakes, becoming, as the notes say, “a fire-escape love song crammed with urban apocalypse.” It sets the mood for the disc's punk-as-social-commentary.

With savage cynicism that cuts across social and political fissures, the late-'80s songs are timely now. “Halloween Parade” refers to the AIDS plague ravaging Reed's scene. In comic “Sick of You” – with his city and his love life simultaneously on the skids – a playful Trump rhyme hits the bullseye more now than back then.

The box's thoughtful notes remark, “Puns and barbed asides were carefully spaced and honed, as specific as a movie script.” Lou's 20-minute talk (audio only) closing the DVD is loaded with practical details on the album's genesis. We learn that “Dirty Blvd.” was initially titled “Statue of Bigotry.” We see its handwritten early draft with lines that he replaced.

Reed (1942-2013) kept the backup basic – guitars, drums, bass – so his lyrics would get more attention. Velvet Underground teammate Maureen Tucker was talked into drumming on a few tracks. Dion DiMucci, who was in the studio's building at the time, dropped in to sing gospel/doo-wop “fly, fly away” to close “Dirty Blvd.,” giving the disc a breath of hope.

As for “Beginning of a Great Adventure” (a caustic spoof co-written with guitarist Mark Rathke, who was married to Lou's wife and manager, Sylvia Reed), Lou inserts the spoken bridge from 1957 R&B crossover classic “Love Is Strange” by Mickey & Sylvia (Mickey Baker and Sylvia Robinson). An insiders' joke?

For all New York's focus on the “Dirty Blvd.” of Reed's late-'80s Manhattan, the album mirrors other places past and present. Part of its bitter brilliance is that its regionalism still reaches way beyond its region.

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