I have no doubt that the city of New York has changed considerably in the nearly 25 years since Lou Reed recorded his album of songs about it - but I would be willing to bet that these songs still describe it pretty well. It's hard to know how well without going, but I do live in Baltimore, and it isn't hard to imagine some of these dark snapshots being taken on the streets here.
Because even though they grow up, die off, move away, or find Jesus in the course of a quarter century, people don't really change.
At the top of the liner notes, it says "This album was recorded and mixed at Media Sound, Studio B, N.Y.C., in essentially the order you have here. It's meant to be listened to in on 58 minute (14 songs!) sitting as though it were a book or a movie." That's not a bad description at all.
The scenes alternate between angry rockers and bitter down-tempo scenes of life in the Big City. He kicks off with his starker, more realistic take on West Side Story, and then goes to a Halloween Parade - first retelling the Shakespeare story with hoods and thugs, then listing the colorful & wild characters he has watched drop dead of AIDS. As he alternates through each scene, Lou describes the familiar, banal, and frustrating humanity crammed together into any large urban environment - complete with the glimmers of hope.
But they're only glimmers.
People don't change. The names do, the faces do, and sometimes their stories play out in a place that has been cleaned up, rebuilt, or improved. We tell ourselves that things can get better - and we try to make it better - but people don't change. They act selfishly, and almost universally put their short term pleasure ahead of any long term benefits they might get out of life. They sacrifice their health in favor of distraction, and they complain about the surroundings they create.
That's not good news, in itself. But the idea is that as shocking and horrible, and full of irony as that song is, it still feels familiar and immediate. Things don't change much in 25 years because there really is only so far down you can go. I always hear people talking about how we going to hell in a handbasket as if these kinds of things are new. They aren't. They've always happened.
Bad things will always happen, because People don't change. But we keep trusting that someone will save us. We keep thinking it could get better if the right leader or the right team would come along and show all those bad guys a thing or two.
And while you may not get the references made in some of these songs to events and people from 1989 - Oliver North, Kurt Waldheim, Jesse Jackson and even Rudy Giuliani- Lou's name-checking still holds its weight as he describes the world they helped shape.
It's a world you live in.
This is an ugly album, and an angry one - it's a photograph of each of us, living in a rundown world we inherited from people who wanted to think they were giving us something better. It's disappointment and disgust, a stark look at ourselves, whether we live in cities or not. But in the middle of it all there is a persistent, defiant hope. He never quite comes out and says it, but you can tell Lou thinks that he is better than this rat-infested garbage pit he sees all around him.
Maybe it wouldn't be so disappointing if we all weren't capable of better. Romeo Rodriquez and Juliette Bell didn't have to make the choices they made, after all, and neither do you.
The truth is that's how we make it better. People don't change, so it's up to us to make them better from the Beginning.
Maybe following that glimmer will lead us out of the trash.