Few songwriters have captured the spirit of New York City better than the late, truly great Lou Reed. Okay, it wasn’t always the most flattering portrait of the city—no carriage rides in Central Park—but it was always honest and true; the dark underbelly rendered in frank minimalist poetry. Of course he’s best-known for the music he created during the first 10 years of his career: leading the immortal and influential Velvet Underground during the late ’60s, and on such early ’70s solo triumphs such as Transformer (which contained his most famous song, “Walk on the Wild Side,” covered in Classic Tracks in December 2008), the brilliant and underrated concept album Berlin, and the crunching live disc Rock ’n’ Roll Animal. But he made vital, uncompromising music throughout his career—you’ll find genius on Street Hassle (1978), The Blue Mask (1982), Magic and Loss (1992), Ecstasy (2000), the ambient very un-Lou-like Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007), and nearly everything in between.
My favorite “middle period” Lou Reed album is unquestionably 1988’s New York, source of this month’s Classic Track, “Dirty Boulevard.” Though it doesn’t have a central story, as Berlin did, New York’s songs are all vivid and at times hard-hitting portraits of the city and its people, from street hustlers, to poor working stiffs, to rich folk and celebrities. “Dirty Boulevard” contrasts the life of Pedro, a downtrodden denizen of a cheap hotel “where no one dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything,” with movie stars arriving by limo at Lincoln Center. “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ‘em,” Reed spits. “That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says.” Stressing the notion that all 14 songs on the album were thematically connected, Reed urged in the liner notes that New York be listened to in a single hour-long sitting “as though a book or movie.”
The arrangements throughout the album are stripped-down—elemental—with very few overdubs or effects. Nothing is allowed to intrude on Reed’s powerful words. “It’s a very, very simple record,” Reed told MTV’s Kurt Loder in 1989. “Trying to do something with two guitars, bass [and] drums with all the technology that’s around today—all the synthesizers and all the instruments you could bring in—it’s hard to resist the temptation.”
“Way before we started recording the album, I got a call from Lou through a mutual friend,” comments New York engineer Jeffrey Lesser, whose stellar career as an engineer/mixer/producer up to that point had included albums with such diverse artists as Kool & the Gang, The Strawbs, Pat Travers and Barbra Streisand. He had met Reed earlier in the year on a session for a Ruben Blades album. “Lou was looking for someone to work with in New York, and at the time he wanted someone who was clean and sober—and I filled that role, too. We got to talking and discussing our philosophies of recording, and then he invited me out to his workspace, his writing studio out in Northern New Jersey.
“Of course I was thrilled to go, and he took me into the room where he wrote most of his songs; his getaway. He also had a place in the city. So with just a guitar and a little amp, he played and sang early versions of these songs. I was an audience of one. At one point he said, ‘Jeffrey, how come my records never sound like this? I love the way I sound right in this room, but never sounds like this in a studio. I’ve been trying for years and years to reproduce this sound.’ I took a note in my brain of what it sounded like, of what kind of amp he was using, how far away he was sitting from his amp and the size of the room. He had no amplification of his voice there. But it did sound really great. I said, ‘I think I have a room in mind that sort of duplicates your space, and I think we can get it to sound like you’re talking about.’”
The room Lesser had in mind was Studio B at Mediasound, one of the most famous and busiest studios in Manhattan since it opened in 1969 in a former Baptist church of West 57th Street. The enormous Studio A, with its stained-glass windows and marvelous live sound was the main calling card for the facility, but the more intimate Studio B downstairs—like “A,” equipped with a Neve console—was also a popular recording destination, and perfect for Reed’s small-group, no-frills approach. “Acoustically, it was really easy to hear everyone in the room,” Lesser says, “and it had a very warm quality to it. You could see every inch of the studio from the control room. It didn’t have isolation booths, it didn’t have parallel walls.”
Before the formal sessions began, Lesser says, “Lou would send me cassettes of various grooves and in the same package would be several pages of lyrics; not so much married to each other yet. He had a pretty good idea of which grooves might go with which lyric, but the lyrics, too, were works in progress. I felt honored that he was interested in my opinion.” Reed and guitarist Mike Rathke, who at that time was near the beginning of what turned out to be a long tenure working with Reed, further developed the songs into workable form before the other two players on the album, drummer Fred Maher (who is also listed as a co-producer on the album) and bassist Rob Wasserman joined the fray. “Mike was a very big part of it, almost like the music director,” says Wasserman, who first met Reed a year earlier when Lou agreed to be part of the bassist’s Duos album (on the track “One More for My Baby, One More for the Road.” “I really locked into his rhythm guitar playing, and it was basically like a trio in the beginning.” Wasserman, too, would go to play on many of Reed’s projects over the next two decades.
Lou Reed, Dion Dimucci and Jeffrey Lesser
From the outset at Mediasound, Lesser tried to recapture some of the vibe that Reed had liked so much in his own workspace. Amp volume was kept low, and “one experiment I tried, which ended up working out really well, was to put a mic near the pick of his electric guitar. That did two things—it picked up the sound of the pick breaking across the strings, which added a nice humanness to it, and it also gave a little ambience to the amp, which was four or five feet away, and also close-miked. [For the pick mic] I used a Beyer M150 ribbon, because one of the characteristics of a ribbon mic is it only picks up what’s directly in front of it and anything coming in from the side is mostly eliminated. We also had room mics set up, so with those options we were able to get what he was looking for.”
Lesser says that most of album was recorded live to Studer 24-track, with Reed even singing keeper lead vocals on some songs through an AKG 414 the studio had. “We tried a couple of different mics,” he says, “but the 414 had that nice edge and cut through everything, without being harsh.”
Partly at Reed’s insistence, Wasserman exclusively played his Clevinger electric standup bass on the sessions. “He was always trying to get people to use new instruments, new effects, new gear,” he says, “and he was always trying to get people to go beyond their comfort zone. Like, if I wanted to do some slides on the bass, he would say, ‘Try not sliding.’ And if I didn’t slide, he might say, ‘Can you try that sliding thing?’ He always challenged me to be a better musician and play at a higher level.” Wasserman played his Clevinger through an Ampeg B-15 amp that Mediasound had, and Lesser used a combination of the miked amp and a DI on the bass.
Wasserman notes that his bass part of “Dirty Boulevard” “is very simple. Normally a rock bass part for that song would have been all over, constant and repetitive, but Lou wanted to keep it so the words could sparkle and come out. It’s sparse, but playing it that way makes it more supportive to the words, which is what we were always trying to do on that album.” The sound of the album in general is minimalist; the parts all well defined and contained, with the vocals always out front.
Lesser recalls, “In the middle of listening to one of the first playbacks of ‘Dirty Boulevard,’ I’m sitting next to Lou and we’re all in awe of this record—we knew there was something special about that song. The playback stops and he looks over to me and he says, ‘Jeffrey, what do you call what I’m doing? Am I singing? Am I talking? What is this?’ I don’t know if was trying to be totally serious or if he was being cute.”
“Dirty Boulevard” also benefits from backing vocals at the close of the song, courtesy of Lesser, Reed and Dion Dimucci—one of Reed’s idols, who happened to be working on an album upstairs at Mediasound Studio A. Reed reciprocated by contributing background vocals to a song on Dion’s Yo Frankie record.
Lesser mixed the album, with plenty of input from Reed, on the Neve in Studio B. He used almost no reverb, “and all the rides were done in real time; we didn’t use automation,” he says. “We’d tweak it together, often with several hands on the board.”
When New York came out at the end of 1988, “Dirty Boulevard” became an instant radio favorite, even hitting Number One on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart. The album peaked at Number 40 in 1989 (high for a Lou Reed album) and it hit Number 14 in the UK. It was so popular in NYC that in the spring of 1989, Reed and the band played a week of shows on Broadway at the St. James Theatre, re-creating the album in its entirety. The album was Reed’s last major commercial success.