New York Series: Lou Reed ‘Dirty Boulevard’

"Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor. I'll piss on 'em."

“Lou was to New York as Faulkner was to the South, or Brecht to Berlin. He was New York from top to bottom. He was born here and died here. He saw it change, but he never disappeared. Almost every record of his was made here. It was his city. Tourists would see him and Laurie [Anderson] on the street and know they’d been to New York.” – Hal Willner, Producer

Spanning through his entire career, from Andy Warhol’s Factory to Lincoln Center, New York City had a profound influence on nearly every one of Lou Reed’s artistic endeavors. His writing often resembled brief snapshots of where he was in life at the time, and how he viewed the world. Using simple, observational lyrics as a tool to highlight underlying issues of society, Reed had the ability to establish an emotional bond between the listener and almost any subject using only a few words. His 1989 album, New York, reflects Reed’s view of New York City at the time, and expresses the Syracuse University graduate’s frustration with the constant rejection of humanity and disregard for others he saw daily.

Dirty Boulevard,’ the number one hit off New York which topped the charts for four weeks, depicts life in Manhattan from the point of view of a down-and-out, yet naively hopeful, immigrant named Pedro living in a run-down hotel. Pedro represents how the other half of New York lives; away from the fancy limousines, nights out to the opera at Lincoln Center and five-star hotels. Despite having almost nothing and living in a city that steals from him the little he does have, Pedro never loses faith in the American dream and the idea that one day he will be a part of the social elite he lives to serve. Unfortunately, Pedro will never reach his goal, and like so many others, ends up flying away to the dirty boulevard to live with the drug dealers, whores, thieves and degenerates.

Reed’s frustration with New York in “Dirty Boulevard” stems from the idea that the United States lies to immigrants and the poor, and treats the lower-class like second-rate citizens. In a 1989 interview on the subject he describes the upper class as having “a complete disregard for the other guy or woman or child, and a complete rejection of any kind of humanity and unrelieved viciousness for laughs.” 

With New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic and parts of the city drifting towards a point of depression not seen since 1929, Reed is very vocal about his disapproval of the state of his hometown. He uses his music to make others aware of the problems he believes plagues the country. Reed hoped that having such issues publicly addressed would be the first step towards finding a solution. Having lived in poverty before his fame, he is incredibly empathetic towards the struggles of the working class and views the drastic disparity of wealth as inexcusable in a modern society.

The Wilshire Hotel, as depicted in “Dirty Boulevard,” was located at 134 West 58th Street in the 1980s, and the ideal setting for Reed to convey his message of just how close people from different classes in New York live, yet how different their lives are. Just a short walk from Lincoln Center and the epicenter of high class society at the time, it is mind boggling that a hotel with broken windows could exist in an area with so much money. Since the 1980s, New York has undergone even more transformations, and the disparity of wealth among classes has only increased. If the song was written today, Pedro would most likely be living in Queens or the Bronx on his salary, as Manhattan real estate his only skyrocketed since the debut of New York.

‘Dirty Boulevard’ Lyrics:

Pedro lives out of the Wilshire Hotel
he looks out a window without glass
The walls are made of cardboard, newspapers on his feet
his father beats him ’cause he’s too tired to beg

He’s got 9 brothers and sisters
they’re brought up on their knees
it’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs
Pedro dreams of being older and killing the old man
but that’s a slim chance he’s going to the boulevard

He’s going to end up, on the dirty boulevard
he’s going out, to the dirty boulevard
He’s going down, to the dirty boulevard

This room cost 2,000 dollars a month
you can believe it man it’s true
somewhere a landlord’s laughing till he wets his pants
No one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything
they dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard

Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em
that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death
and get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard

Get to end up, on the dirty boulevard
going out, to the dirty boulevard
He’s going down, on the dirty boulevard
going out

Outside it’s a bright night
there’s an opera at Lincoln Center
movie stars arrive by limousine
The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan
but the lights are out on the Mean Streets

A small kid stands by the Lincoln Tunnel
he’s selling plastic roses for a buck
The traffic’s backed up to 39th street
the TV whores are calling the cops out for a suck

And back at the Wilshire, Pedro sits there dreaming
he’s found a book on magic in a garbage can
He looks at the pictures and stares at the cracked ceiling
“At the count of 3” he says, “I hope I can disappear”

And fly fly away, from this dirty boulevard
I want to fly, from dirty boulevard
I want to fly, from dirty boulevard
I want to fly-fly-fly-fly, from dirty boulevard

I want to fly away
I want to fly
Fly, fly away
I want to fly
Fly-fly away (Fly a-)
fly-fly-fly (-way, ooohhh…)
Fly-fly away (I want to fly-fly away)
fly away (I want to fly, wow-woh, no, fly away)