Monday, April 30, 2012

Lb4Lb#10: Black & White City Blues

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.

The man if he marries will batter his child
and have endless excuses
The woman sadly will do much the same
thinking that it's right and it's proper
Better than their mommy or their daddy did
Better than the childhood they suffered
The truth is they're happier when they're in pain
In fact, that's why they got married.
Endless Cycle
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.
Manhattan's sinking like a rock, into the filthy Hudson what a shock
They wrote a book about it, they said it was like ancient Rome
The perfume burned his eyes, holding tightly to her thighs
And something flickered for a minute and then it vanished and was gone.
-Romeo Had Juliette
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.
There's no such thing as human rights
When you walk the N.Y. streets
A cop was shot in the head by a 10 year old kid named Buddah in
Central Park last week
The fathers and daughters are lined up by
The coffins by the Statue of Bigotry
You better hold on something's happening here.
-Hold On
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.
You can't depend on no miracle
You can't depend on the air
You can't depend on a wise man
You can't find them because they're not there
You can depend on cruelty
Crudity of thought and sound
You can depend on the worst always happening
You need a Busload of Faith to get by
-Busload of Faith
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 NorthKurt WaldheimJesse 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.

Well Americans don't care for much of anything
Land and water the least
And animal life is low on the totem pole
With human life not worth more than infected yeast
Americans don't care too much for beauty
They'll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They'll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
And complain if they can't swim
-Last Great American Whale
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.

It might be fun to have a kid I could pass something on to
Something better than rage, pain, anger and hurt
I hope it's true what my wife said to me
She says Lou, it's the Beginning of a Great Adventure
-Beginning of a Great Adventure
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.

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