He wrote about hustlers, drag queens and speed freaks, and about the ordinary dreamers, misfits and down-and-outers who populated the hotels and nighttime streets of New York City — native-born New Yorkers like himself, and all the lost or marginal seekers who came to the city to become somebody else or take a walk on the wild side. Pearly Mae, who “can’t tell the night from the day”; Jackie, who thought “she was James Dean for a day”; the small kid standing by the Lincoln Tunnel, “selling plastic roses for a buck”; the “druggy downtown kids who spray-paint walls and trains.”
Lou Reed’s New York was a tough place. It was a place of “dark party bars” and neon lights, a “funny place/Something like a circus or a sewer,” despite the “new buildings/Square, tall and the same” — a place as distinctive as Chandler’s Los Angeles or Baudelaire’s Paris. He wrote about New York with a mix of journalistic observation and deeply felt emotion, a poet’s tenderness and a bad boy’s street cred, creating a soundtrack to the city that resonates decades after Times Square has been hosed down and scrubbed clean, and the Village and SoHo and TriBeCa have been transformed from grungy bohemian haunts into destination stops on luxury real estate search engines.
...For some of Mr. Reed’s older fans, his portraits of New York are like old black-and-white snapshots (or the monochrome covers of old New Directions paperbacks), summoning memories of a time when they were young and defiant and searching for some elusive something. For generations of younger fans, too, his gritty view of life on the edge and his primal, uncompromising music remain an inspiration. He was “an early calling card to New York and how to be an artist,” Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth told Rolling Stone magazine. “He was like the Empire State Building to me.”
... the lyrics possess a remarkable organic coherence, charting a harrowing journey through the bohemian underworlds of New York City, through the ravages of heroin and speed, and emotional terror, fury and aloneness — and toward something like grace.