The first time I ever went to New York –I was happily side-tracked by the Halloween Parade. Woe be unto to he who tries to get from the West Village to the East Village that night. It is almost the first memory I have of New York, and the one that made me fall in love with this city. It was not different from Mardi Gras and had the ribald flavor of the Ensor painting of Jesus heading into Brussels. The costumes, the color, the freedom and the sound of it were intoxicating. I knew that in some way I had to be part of this city; these out-loud, square-pegs with an insatiable appetite for life.
The Halloween was a kind of wake up call to me, telling me to free my ass and my heart and mind would follow. It was a huge event in the gay community, and these gay folks were not afraid or quiet of the retiring sort. It was good for me to see. At the time, I didn’t know a lot of gay people. Back then, Chicago was still very conservative and buttoned down when it came to matters of sexuality.
The Halloween Parade was where people could be whoever and whatever the fuck they pleased, and this idea had more than a little appeal to me. There were drag queens, giant puppets operated with rods, harlequins, bikers with assless chaps, Village People imitators, walking penises, dogs with no leashes, people with leashes, fairies, wicked witches, angels, devils, Alice in Wonderland characters, red queens, princes, leather cowboys, guys in drag as nuns, Samurai warriors. . .you name it. It sent the message to me loud and clear that New York City was about what was possible. One’s hopes were as viable a currency as anything else.
“There’s a girl from Soho with a t-shirt saying, “I blow,”
She’s with the “Jive five, 2 plus 3”
And the girls for pay dates
are giving cut rates
Or else doing it for free
The past keeps knock, knock, knocking on my door
and I don’t want to hear it anymore”
I’ve always loved the New York record by Lou Reed. For me, it is one of those albums that reads like a great novel; a novel buoyed between the polarities of tragedy and hope. On this record we hear Lou at his most bitterly angry, yet also at his most plaintively hopeful. There is a feeling that at this point in history, New York, the city, could go either way and Lou read the tea leaves a little quicker than everyone else. He is smack in the middle of the Go-Go eighties, “Greed is good,” stupid hair and Duran Duran. But his attention is focused on the making and unmaking of his city, the reckless homicides of Elanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart, two powerless people of color the police executed with impunity in the shadow of the Statue of Bigotry. Here, Lou goes hard on his beloved city and its thoughtless cruelty. Or in Dirty Boulevard, when the song’s subject, Pedro, is beaten because his father is Too Proud to Beg, Reed knows the impoverished spirit is intergenerational and will soon infect the son.
There is also the plague-like specter of AIDS which haunts the Halloween Parade and it’s ghostly revelers. The New York record was one of those vital watershed moments in my life when I felt like another artist was talking directly to me, lending me a voice until I could cultivate one of my own. It is amazing how often I return to this masterpiece for a little bit of the busload of faith.
There are many songs and books and musical tropes that hint at the subjects Lou writes about in deft, sure strokes, but they’ve always seemed watery to me.
Lou Reed’s New York is the raw ether of that city, as real as Algren’s Chicago, and Ellroy’s Los Angeles, and it is as indelible and dirty as tar.