by Jon Carroll
Local songwriter and musician, Jon Carroll is famed for his work with Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Starland Vocal Band. He is a frequent Wammie winner and contributed this fascinating essay to SAW.
Anyone nominally familiar with the mystique and work of Lou Reed would be aware of his status as a primary progenitor of the “new honesty” in rock: an unflinching stylistic trend that preceded "punk" in the mid to late 70's. Ian Hunter & Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, NY Dolls, Iggy & The Stooges, Alice Cooper, etc. were fresh new voices that returned to and embraced a stark expressionism. Vivid and lyrical, it was not altogether nascent, but a return to the blunter styles of early blues and rock. Eric Burdon & The Animals, early Rolling Stonesundefinedperhaps even Buddy Holly-- were ‘punk’ in that the delivery was direct, the message deliberate.
Many a statement was brusquely made by sheer virtue of--indeed with and withinundefined the delivery itself: forthright and unadorned, stripped down to big notes and sounds with a won’t-run-can’t-hide mainline express approach that torched all chances for misinterpretation.
Since then, the tradition continues from mid to late 70’s to now with New Wave/Punk icons The Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Patti Smith, Black Flag (continually Henry Rollins…) into the Post-Punk 80’s & 90’s with B-52s, Talking Heads, Gang of Four, Severed Heads, R.E.M., Mission of Burma, U2 and on to post-punk revivalists like The Strokes, Social Distortion, naming but a comparatively prominent few: those who embrace a more direct style to convey many and varied themes, tales, rants and laments, the last of which may hazard to be romance and love if those particular yarns were abjectly truthful, proud and with no nod to vulnerability. Sweetness for its own sake was elementa non grata.
Lou Reed was the principle writer of the Velvet Underground before a long career of collaborative adventure and solo works, and among the first of these artists to expound unabashedly on and of society’s underbelly, its underdogs, the underserved and underrepresented in and out of the drug culture, moreover, sub-culture and alternative lifestyle writ large with multitudes theretofore underexplored. His social commentaries were, for the most part, delivered through the lenses of vividly drawn characters, although he’s also known for not-so parenthetic rants directed at society’s soulless and villainous entities, albeit usually uttered in tones of street-corner commiseration.
"Lou Reed doesn't just write about squalid characters, he allows them to leer and breathe in their own voices, and he colors familiar landscapes through their own eyes. In the process, Reed has created a body of music that comes as close to disclosing the parameters of human loss and recovery as we're likely to find. That qualifies him, in my opinion, as one of the few real heroes rock & roll has raised." Mikal Gilmore, Rolling Stone, (1979)
Mainstream Pop music, as with film or any other medium, might include the merely sincere among its myriad characteristics, but it was Punk that flipped the switch refreshingly back to Rock and Roll’s original proclamatory (and in the purest sense, mandatory) adherence to the ethos of “saying what you mean” with as little incidental packaging as possible. The superfluous is an obstruction, no lightweight consideration especially when constructing a narrative arc no longer than a 3 minute record.
During his final few years alive Reed returned to radio, hosting--along with old pal producer Hal Wilner--the gleefully received eclectic weekly 5 hour New York Shuffle on Sirius-XM which still continues, with the implicit “you’re welcome if you’re doing something interesting” playlist policy. His broad-scope spin choices reveal other interesting aspects to his top-shelf artistic taste.
Throughout his artistic life Lou Reed maintained a loyalty to all that is straightforward.
He mostly recorded and/or performed sure-handed cleanundefinedor broadly dirtyundefinedpresentations and portraits that relied on his deft ability to wrangle as much potency from a cunningly considered lyric, a true gift to be appreciated again and again in multitudes of well-turned phrases.
During his early growth as a student of journalism, film-making and creative writing he was profoundly impressed by the high-octane possibilities of well deliberated minimalism, propelling his lyric writing ever more toward that ideal.
The basic, aurally strong-boned construction of Punk provided the perfect accommodation for Reed’s glib style which stands starkly and undeniably expressive, with imagery abiding in scandalous cahoots with primal rhythms and multi-entendre word craft.
It’s this hybrid brew of narrative styles that that I find the most effecting throughout the Lou Reed catalog. It’s sneaky, as though there may all the while be one continuous chaotic sub-text, a slip-stream cum river raging beneath a mundanely dead-pan commentary. I find Reed’s dryly elegant effusiveness a deceptively rich archeological terrain begging to be upturned for closer scrutiny.
One of my very favorite songs can be found on his 1989 album release New York, a contiguous three-act collection that was performedundefinedsometimes stubbornlyundefined in its entirety during its initial promotional tour.
For those allowing the indulgence, I’ve chosen the song Dirty Blvd. for a somewhat granular and reverent, if you will, unpacking: an “under the hood” look at why I consider it an exemplary piece of great songwriting, its layout so vivid and masterful that I had somehow managed to overlook it’s mostly spoken delivery for years. That was until last Spring when I listened with a college class of young aspiring songwriters. One student exclaimed that it was “the weirdest rap song” he’d ever heard.
Its urban universe revolves around the ambiguously young, cursedly poor, dreamily wistful Pedro. Within this relentless and cruel environment his pragmatic coping devices will inevitably, one might deduce, mature along with his hopelessness into an illicit and morally deficient existence.
Bleak? Undoubtedly. But truthful and credibly fashioned as only a native empath of “the mean streets” would manage. Over the years the haunting tale would come to wrap ever closer around my head much as this harsh reality would tighten intractably around the pitiful boy’s choked future. See if you might experience the same reaction.
First, the lyric only:
(The mix of the recording is wonderfully narrator-centric, as if the storyteller waits just out of the frame during the compellingly simple guitar intro before stepping in, immediately nose to nose with us listeners)
Pedro lives out of the Wilshire Hotel
He looks out a window without glass
The walls are made of cardboard, newspapers on his feet
His father beats him 'cause he's too tired to beg
He's got 9 brothers and sisters--they're brought up on their knees
It's hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs
Pedro dreams of being older and killing the old man
but that's a slim chance, he's going to the boulevard
He's going to end up, on the dirty boulevard
He's going out, to the dirty boulevard
He's going down, to the dirty boulevard
This room cost 2,000 dollars a month, you can believe it man, it's true
Somewhere a landlord's laughing till he wets his pants
No one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything
they dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard
Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I'll piss on 'em
That's what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death
and get it over with and just dump 'em on the boulevard
Get ‘em out, on the dirty boulevard
Going out, to the dirty boulevard
They're going down, on the dirty boulevard
Outside it's a bright night, there's an opera at Lincoln Center
Movie stars arrive by limousine
The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan
But the lights are out on the mean streets
A small kid stands by the Lincoln Tunnel
He's selling plastic roses for a buck
The traffic's backed up to 39th street
The TV whores are calling the cops out for a suck
And back at the Wilshire, Pedro sits there dreaming
He's found a book on Magic in a garbage can
He looks at the pictures and stares up at the cracked ceiling
"At the count of 3" he says, "I hope I can disappear"
And fly fly away, from this dirty boulevard
I want to fly, from the dirty boulevard
I want to fly, from the dirty boulevard
I want to fly, fly, fly, fly, from the dirty boulevard
I want to fly away
I want to fly
To read Jon's analysis, continue to Part II...