Bono once claimed that Lou Reed was the James Joyce of New York City. While that might be a bit of hyperbole the former Velvet Underground leader is synonymous with New York City.
Breaking musical and social barriers, Reed showed the dark under belly of the city. Much like Joyce did with Dublin in Ulysses. Theirs was the version of a city that not everyone got to see, or even cared to acknowledge. But like it or not, they captured the spirit of their surroundings in descriptive detail.
Reed’s songs were with drugs and sexual deviants. Sometimes the characters did both activities at the same time. If the lyrics weren’t shocking enough for the late 60s, crowd there was the music. The Velvets provided a mountain of noise and attack that has rarely been equaled. By the time Reed went solo in the early 70s, the music was toned down slightly, perhaps in an attempt to invite a wider audience into the party. “Take a walk on the wide side,” He encouraged the listeners. There will be things that will blow your mind, but craziness never sounded so fun.
So it must have come as a shock to hear Reed take off his mask, and reflect with a rare sense of sincerity with 1976’s Coney Island Baby.
The song itself tells the story of Reed’s teenage years in Long Island. The song sums up teenage confusion. Which is the right path? Is it Acceptance by peers or following one’s own path? It’s clear which road Reed ultimately took, but “Coney Island Baby” makes it’s clear that, at least initially the choice wasn’t easy.
His admission of “wanting to play football for the coach” makes this clear. For many, football is the ultimate form of acceptance in high school. Not many things are more American than Football. It’s a sport filled with acceptance, popularity, and brotherhood. It’s a far cry from commands to “taste the whip”.
The song begins slowly with tasteful guitars and Reed’s soft voice. Even if you don’t believe the story about Reed wanting to play football, it’s very affective. As the song moves along, the dream of being on a team is shattered – “All your two-bit friends have gone and ripped you off,” He laments. “They’re talking behind your back.”
The song reaches its emotional climax mid-way through. A group of singers appear in the background, offering a heartfelt harmony as Reed announces, “the glory of love, might see you through.”
Coney Island Baby is the type of song Lou Reed could write. There’s a sense of youthful innocence lost, and the trials of growing up. It’s full of heartbreak and hope. Ultimately this life isn’t meant for Reed. When he describes the city “as something like a circus or a sewer”, you know he’s found his true calling.
“Coney Island Baby” isn’t strictly about America. But is an American tale. The line between acceptance and self-worth can sometimes be blurred. And for many in the 1960s, New York was one of the few places were those who were not considered to be “normal” could find like-minded individuals. Like those who came to New York from oppression overseas, New York offered a sense of security and possibility to those who chose to follow a different path than the mainstream. After struggling through his teenage years, it would be Lou Reed would bring this world into the mainstream.