Monday, March 2, 2020

Let's check in on "Sick of You," Lou Reed's most prophetic protest song

Lou Reed's New York

One of the bigger challenges with writing a protest song is that there aren’t many genres that age more poorly. Write in broad enough strokes to make your song evergreen and you risk making it feel trite and generic. Include too many time-stamped specifics and you risk tying it so tightly to its era and issues that future generations will view it only as nostalgia or history. Sure, there are plenty of examples of timeless protest tunes, but they’re the exceptions to the rule. For every blistering snapshot of angst and injustice like Neil Young’s “Ohio” there are a dozen clunky reminders of bygone zeitgeist like Neil Young’s “Let’s Impeach the President.”

That brings us to New York, simultaneously one of the most beloved and the most dated albums in the Lou Reed canon. Released in 1989, it’s intentionally a work very much of its time and place. While it isn’t quite a concept album, it is an inextricably interwoven tapestry of songs about Lou Reed’s home city as it was in the final throes of its grimy, pre-Giuliani existence. 

As such, a lot of the album is so deeply nested in the specifics of 1989 as to be borderline indecipherable to modern audiences who have no idea who, say, Jimmy Swaggart or Kurt Waldheim were. That’s part of the charm for music fans with a sense of history — you don’t need to be a Nixon scholar to appreciate Gil-Scott Heron slipping a song into John Mitchell’s suggestion box, or be well-versed in fringe political cults to dig Bob Dylan lashing out at the John Birch Society — but it can also be a little daunting for the casual observer.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at “Sick of You,” one of the most reference-heavy tracks from New York. As a grotesque protest song that sprays scattershot digs at an array of New York politicians and public figures of the late 1980s, “Sick of You” should hold up fairly terribly. And yet, via some twisted act of fate or bad karma, it stands as a largely relevant, and even prescient, work of cultural observation that’s almost as pertinent today as it was three decades ago. Not all of it holds up to a modern audience, and in fact some of it was fairly inscrutable even at the time, but hell, what oracle doesn’t forecast a few hazy futures every now and then?

Verse one
I was up in the morning with the TV blaring
brush my teeth, sitting watching the news
All the beaches were closed, the ocean was a Red Sea
but there was no one there to part it in two
There was no fresh salad because there's hypos in the cabbage
Staten Island disappeared at noon
And they say the Midwest is in great distress
and NASA blew up the moon
The ozone layer has no ozone anymore
and you're gonna leave me for the guy next door
I'm sick of you

Right off the bat, we’re hit with some grim environmental observations. Water-based environmentalism is a running thread throughout New York, popping up in “Romeo Had Juliette,” “Last Great American Whale,” and “Hold On” as well. Red tides and mass fish die-offs certainly haven’t tapered off in the past 30 years, so we can count this as pretty timeless. 

Somewhat less so: the reference to Moses, which in 1989 would almost certainly have doubled as a dig at late NRA figurehead Charlton Heston. Not that Heston’s legacy has aged the least bit well, but he’s not at the forefront of many people’s thoughts nowadays.

Tainted food is as big a concern as it has been for decades, with the current administration gutting the FDA’s oversight of the industry. And of course genetically modified food products remain a hot-button issue on both ends of the spectrum, especially as Midwestern farmers face multiple levels of distress. The ozone layer, on the other hand, wound up going down as one of the bigger success stories of ‘90s environmentalism. As for NASA blowing up the moon, it’s hard to say what that’s all about, but perhaps we can withhold a verdict until Space Force is up and running.

Verse two
They arrested the Mayor for an illegal favor
sold the Empire State to Japan
And Oliver North married William Secord
and gave birth to a little Teheran
And the Ayatollah bought a nuclear warhead
if he dies he wants to go out in style
And there's nothing to eat that don't carry the stink
of some human waste dumped in the Nile
Well one thing is certainly true
no one here knows what to do
I'm sick of you

Here we start off dated with a slap at longtime mayor Ed Koch (who was never, it should be noted, arrested for anything of the sort), and a reference to America’s brief but intense fear of/fascination with a supposed Japanese takeover via technological innovation and savvy business practices. 

Then it’s on to Reagan-era hatchetman Oliver North, loathed by the left as a traitor and lionized by the right as a patriot. Of all the players mentioned in “Sick of You,” North would seem one of the least likely to have maintained relevance for all these years, but there he is, still riling up the base as a right-wing radio host with an abundance of abhorrent opinions. Why exactly Lou married him off to William Secord, founder of a NYC gallery of 19th-century dog paintings (!) and probably the album’s most hyper-specific name-check, is anybody’s guess. Even that reference, though, is infused with some unexpected modern-day resonance thanks to Laurie Anderson’s gorgeous film Heart of a Dog, which uses the deaths of her beloved pet dog and her husband Lou Reed as a framework for examining the meanings of art, spirituality, and life itself.

Speaking of folks with unexpected staying power, the Ayatollah may have changed but the issue of Iranian nuclear capability sure hasn’t gone away. In fact, those particular sabers are currently rattling almost as loudly as they were back in New York times. And going back to water pollution, the Nile remains plenty troubled.

Verse three
The radio said there were 400 dead
in some small town in Arkansas
Some whacked-out trucker
drove into a nuclear reactor
and killed everybody he saw
Now he's on Morton Downey
and he's glowing and shining
doctors say this is a medical advance
They say the bad makes the good
and there's something to be learned 
in every human experience
Well I know one thing that really is true
This here's a zoo and the keeper ain't you
And I'm sick of it 
I'm sick of you

It’s been a while since we had a good old-fashioned nuclear accident, but the success of Chernobyl last year shows that it’s not that far removed from our collective consciousness. Whacked-out people using trucks for homicidal purposes, on the other hand, are considerably more prevalent now than they were in 1989. 

Morton Downey has been dead for years and is about as 1989 as a reference gets, but he’s arguably one of the founding fathers of the current age of online journalism. Downey would have thrived in the age of clickbait. It’s not hard to imagine any number of YouTubers fighting it out to give a forum to a radioactive mass murderer, nor is it tough to picture the establishment scrambling to explain to us why this is in fact a good thing for us on the whole. Yet again, Lou traffics in universals.

Verse four
They ordained the Trumps
and then he got the mumps
and died being treated at Mt. Sinai
And my best friend Bill
died from a poison pill
some wired doctor prescribed for stress
My arms and legs are shrunk
the food all has lumps
They discovered some animal no one's ever seen
It was a inside trader eating a rubber tire
after running over Rudy Giuliani
They say the president's dead
but no one can find his head
It's been missing now for weeks
But no one noticed it
he has seemed so fit
and I'm sick of it

OK, now we’re in the thick of it. Donald Trump was a big deal back in 1989 and has gone on to some notable personal successes in the subsequent decades. Neither he nor his then-wife Ivanna has, to my knowledge, thus far been ordained by any sanctioned religious body. There has, however, been the occasional suggestion that his partisans have come to regard him with a certain deity-ish dedication — some manner of “chosen one,” if you will. As for the mumps business, Lou seems to have missed the boat on this point, although it should be noted that this piece is being written on the cusp of a pandemic.

Speaking of epidemics, that doctor-prescribed poison pill Lou mentions? I'll refer you to your local opioid task force.

Moving right along, remember inside traders? They were all the rage in 1989 but Martha Stewart effectively killed the brand back in ‘04. But about that guy said trader ran over — at the time of “Sick of You,” Rudy was a flashy U.S. Attorney who’d presided over some high profile cases, including a celebrated Mafia takedown. He was also in the process of running for mayor of New York City, a job he’d ultimately lose to David Dinkins. But folks, Rudy casts a mighty long shadow. He eventually recast himself as the destroyer of much of the seedy New York weirdness that Lou Reed chronicled so love/hatingly. He is currently tasked with helping the president find his head, and is plainly doing a bang-up job of it.  

So what do we make of all of this Lou Reed prognostication 30 years on? And what would Lou himself think about the ongoing relevance of New York in the post-Dinkins/Giuliani/Bloomberg/Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama/Jeter/9-11/Sandy/Lou Reed era? 

Only Lou’s wandering ghost can say for sure, but I’m going to guess he’d be sick of it.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this take on Sick of It. Just listened to it on the drive home.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this take on Sick of It. Just listened to it on the drive home.