Certain Songs #981: Lou Reed – “Romeo Had Juliette”

Album: New York
Year: 1989

It seems like every great 1960s artist who survived into the 1980s had their “1980s” album. The record where the temptation to be contemporary ends up outweighing their normal instincts to hoe their own rows.

So Bob Dylan had Empire Burlesque and Neil Young had Landing on Water, and Lou Reed — who had a better overall 1980s than the other two combined — had 1986’s Mistrial, which after the three great records that preceded it, shoulda been called “Misfire.”

And while all three of those records had their adherents — hell, Empire Burlesque had “I’ll Remember You”, — the production was cringe-inducing then, and hasn’t exactly aged well, even if Lou Reed’s video for “No Money Down” produced the “Hey that looks like Lou Reed in the background” inside joke 30 years later.

So it was a relief when he unveiled the back-to-basics-again New York, which spotlighted his guitar interplay with Mike Rathke from the opening notes, and featured a set angry, politically engaged songs about the city with which he’d been entwined throughout his entire career.

It also had what might be my favorite of all of Lou Reed’s terrible terrible album covers: the superimposition of five Lou Reeds, all in various poses of cool, like this was the band that made the record. Or maybe they just had a bunch of life-size Lou Reed puppets left from the “No Money Down” video.

On the opening track, “Romeo Had Juliette,” Lou posits a pair of lovers trying to make it in a city that was completely falling apart.

Romeo Rodriguez
Squares his shoulders and curses Jesus
Runs a comb through his black pony-tail
He’s thinking of his lonely room
The sink that by his bed gives off a stink
Then smells her perfume in his eyes
And her voice was like a bell

Lou just rattles this off, more speaking than singing, much like the original rapper he had claimed to be on his previous record, like he was looking out his window and telling us what he was seeing. Only occasionally, he or Rathke would just then launch into a guitar solo which might or might not stop before he started back on the words.

It goes by so fast that you barely have a chance to dig into the detail he’s packing into every single line, much less notice the genius rhyme of “Rodriguez” and “Jesus,” but that’s what repeated listenings and lyric sheets are for, of course.

In any event, New York was so conceptually consistent both musically and lyrically, it actually played better being listened to in a single setting, and while The Blue Mask is my favorite of his solo records, New York is probably his best.

“Romeo Had Juliette”

“Romeo Had Juliette” performed live in 2000

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One Response to “Certain Songs #981: Lou Reed – “Romeo Had Juliette””

  1. Ira Brooker says:

    Hearing this song for the first time is one of the most important things that ever happened to me.

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