Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An electronic wake for Lou Reed (Part One)

I've been talking to my buddy Phil Overeem in Columbia, Missouri, about Lou Reed for about 15 years now. In 2001, he pubbed a "jam review" of the Velvet Underground's The Quine Tapes (which we penned via internet chat while listening to the box set for the first time) on his estimable and now-dormant First Church of Holy Rock and Roll website. The one time we've ever actually met in the flesh, I was busking on the street in Columbia with Nathan Brown. Phil and his wife Nicole came down and yelled inappropriate requests for VU songs, and later bought us a pizza. Since then, we reconnected via Facebook and since Lou's passing, have resumed our conversation. Ain't the intarweb grand?

Ken: White Light/White Heat was instrumental in one of my very worst drug experiences: listening to it on acid in my parents' house; a minor act of rebellion against my best bud from junior high, who liked to stack up all the Doors albums except Absolutely Live -- even a Doors fan has to have some standards -- whenever we got "experienced." What a mistake that was. I ripped the LP off the turntable and smashed it, then didn't try listening again for 20 years….I also passed on seeing Lou at a small Dallas venue in '96. Duh.

Phil: I never got the chance to see Lou. I haven't been able to feel Lou's passing. I am listening to Legendary Hearts in the truck.

Ken: I listened to '90s Lou all day today. How many people have a run like that 30 years into a career?

Phil:  Very few. Lou had three different careers, really. Maybe four. I have been aggressively turning high school kids on to Lou/VU over the last 24 hours. One of them wrote me this evening to tell me he wrote the best essay of his life to tonight while listening to the first VU album for the first time!

Ken: Cool. The work you did goes on paying dividends. At least you know about that one. I'm starting to have to envision a world where all of the people I idolized are dead.

Phil: The Live In Italy record really pissed me off because I literally dreamed how it would sound and it so undershot my dream...plus Lou's barely there vocally.

Ken: He didn't have the voice to yell over a band that loud. He figured it out by New York -- "the loud soft sound." Saturated guitar tones at conversational levels. New Sensations is one I missed. Worthwhile?

Phil: Oh, man -- the first side is one of the best sides he's ever waxed: opens with a major up that should have been a hit ("I Love You Suzanne"), follows with an unflinching plumbing of marital strife ("Jealousy"), makes a pit stop at his hankering for gaming (metaphor for control) ("Red Joystick"), peaks with his version of "Lean on Me" ("Turn to Me" -- fucking hi-larious and moving) and the closer, which are about the peaks that have replaced drugs and weirdness in his life -- riding his motorcycle, hanging out in diners and playing hillbilly songs, eating burgers and cokes ("New Sensations"). No Quine, very, very crisp and solid-but-loud '80s drums by Maher, Saunders on point as usual, and Lou? Locked in, singing passionately, having fun with his guitar, and doing his version of power pop. Charming, sounds great, and it rocks...plus it does include some darkness, of course. Side Aft -- facile songwriting and so-so music.

Ken: While "Street Hassle" has been playing in my head for days now, I remember being very underimpressed with the LP when it was new. ("I Wanna Be Black?" No.) And after watching the Bottom Line DVD, I sprung for Live In Italy on CD (for four bucks -- I'm consistent, anyway).

Phil: I never could like The Bells. Neither did I think it was bad. Just...snoozers. Street Hassle: When I bought it at the time, I played the title song over and over and over and over. The rest of the songs sounded like I was hearing them from underwater. I tend to hold with you on "I Wanna Be Black" -- and the Take No Prisoners version is even stoopider. Bottom Line is greater than Live In Itay: I remember racing straight to it after I saw the Bottom Line video to check if maybe I turned it up louder I would find I was missing something. Didn't work.

Ken: HA! I think the NYC venue was more conducive to what Lou was trying to do than the Italian arena, where he couldn't effectively sing over the band.

Phil: Yeah, you're totally right. Lou was not designed for the arena.

Ken: A down thought, but except for Townshend and Scott Morgan, all of my personal saints are gone: Hendrix, Lester, FZ, Ron Asheton, Beefheart, Farren, Shannon, and now Lou.

Phil: Maybe you should look outside that circle...surely there's someone. Or maybe the concept "saint" is the hurdle?

Ken: Nah, it is what it is. The formative shit. Until I can find a way to be 14 again, that's the set.

Phil: I still have Swamp Dogg, Dylan, Haggard, Uncle Jam, Ornette, Cecil. I hate to think of my formative shit. Alice? Ted? KISS?

Ken: Listening to Set the Twilight Reeling at very low volume. These may be the best guitar tones Lou ever got. Interesting in the Bottom Line DVD, watching him squat down to turn up his crappy little Peavey amp when he solos. I love small amps turned up loud.

Phil: Yeah, those were some of my favorite moments, too. "Kill Your Sons" and "Waves of Fear" smoke.

Ken: "First came fire, then came light / Then came feeling, then came sight." What a perfect fucking line.

Phil:  Yes.

Ken: Another song stuck in my head: "The Modern Dance." Even though it recycles a title from Pere Ubu and a groove from "NYC Man." Watching Lou solo, he looks like exactly like I must have when I was 15...running his finger up the neck, looking for The Note. He just does it with confidence. Inspahrd by early Ornette and Cecil, he's said. Well, I guess. Thankfully, listening to White Light/White Heat no longer summons memories of my bad acid trip. In fact, the thing I notice the most about "The Gift" is that "Booker T." is really "Gloria." Wow.

Phil: Speaking of White Light/White Heat, I listened to that at ear-splitting volume in the truck this week and found myself thinking it is the most end-to-end satisfying one, from a gestaltist perspective.

Ken: I could see that. The secret, as the discount wholesalers used to say, is volume. The first album is all over the map. The third has "The Murder Mystery" screwing things up in the middle of the second side. Loaded veers between mellow and rockin'.

Phil: Exactly. Minus the gestalt and plus CD-programming, I might take the first and third. But since I don't have to, I'll take 'em all! Though I have never warmed to Max's. Even the updated, remastered edition.

Ken: Updated remastered Max's is a highly polished turd. Only so much you can do with a cassette sound source.

Phil: Have been listening to Set the Twilight Reeling cranked in the truck. It's not just that he's gone, but it sounds better than it usedta. Check that: it always sounded good -- I just don't think at however old I was then I was ready for it. Your quoting it the other day (Yesterday? They are blurring for us), sent me back to it, and I remember thinking originally that the songs were too loose and sometimes just overly corny (not including "Egg Cream" -- part of his "new/old sensations" series that reaches all the way back to VU...there's an essay there). Now, they sound wise, fun, open -- secret o' life-ish. Thanks for inspiring that choice. I also had an unpleasant experience with Take No Prisoners...patter not funny enough, too much dicking around on the songs (his Love You Live), and those girl singers were the bane of the late '70s.

Ken: What a coincidence -- except I now listen to music at a volume comparable to when I lived with my parents. To me, Set the Twilight Reeling sounds like Lou in love and having fun, but I was surprised to hear the connections with John Lee Hooker and Hendrix in his guitar playing, and the tones are revelatory. I find myself more taken with the New York-and-later stuff. The '70s discography is still a mess (from which I'll except the debut and Berlin). I found a copy of Growing Up In Public (which I had when it was new and sold) and was pleasantly surprised. I find Legendary Hearts one of the more balanced albums -- like Loaded. The second side especially feels complete. But I also loved seeing that band (secret weapon: Fred Maher) rip through "Martial Law" and "Don't Talk To Me About Work" in the Bottom Line DVD. The first LP hits me the same way, particularly the second ("I Love You") side. Growing Up also made me realize that he'd relied on a big bass sound since, at least, "Wild Side" -- definitely on the Berlin album. It took Fernando to give it a human voice, with his vibrato, harmonics and double-stops.

Phil: I remember the guitar and the overall sound being great...but I was in a "tired of Lou Reed" jag. I am prepared to say boldly that from The Blue Mask on to the end is best adult rock and roll period anyone has ever experienced, including Dylan (and coming from me, that is serious). Mistrial and maybe that unplugged live one aren't great, but they are OK. I only listened to one track on Lulu and almost threw up in my mouth. So that's almost 30+ years of engaging writing and playing almost uninterrupted.

Ken: I agree with you re: adult R&R, but who else is there? Leonard Cohen? (Nah...not rock 'n' roll.) Warren Zevon? (Dunno, haven't listened to enough.) Another underrated collaborator: Jane Scarpantoni. And yeah, I definitely underrated him for years. Fuck me.

Phil: I think you have Dylan, Cohen, Zevon, Neil, Springsteen...Townshend?

Ken: Neil is kind of a special case. It doesn't feel to me like his perspective has changed much, from "The Loner" to now (although I follow him less closely). I suspect Springsteen has matured, and I still remember two of the best shows I have ever seen (on The River tour, 1980), but I don't have the interest to see what he's been up to since, uh, Tunnel of Love. Townshend: A frustrating case, because I care more about him than the others mentioned. But not in Lou's arena. The thing is, after reading his book, I realize that he fancies himself a theatrical composer like Andrew Lloyd Webber. His current project has the same name as a high-end dentist's office here in FTW. But back to Springsteen, I'd say that the populist impulse that was implicit in his early work has certainly come to the fore. Lou's work is more personal than that (albeit opaquely so, sometimes). I compared him to Salinger and Roth, and think the cap fits. Different medium, same impulse.

Phil: Woah, dude, I listened to Live In Italy cranked, in the truck, and I am going to have to revise my opinion (always liked it, but it didn't seem explosive enough). Aside from about four songs, it really kicked my ass. I always thought the versions of "Satellite of Love," "Kill Your Sons," and "Sally Can't Dance" were the best official ones on record, but the even outside of those the guitars are pretty freaking amazing -- Quine's more unchained than I remembered -- and Lou's into several of the songs vocally. It struck me that this band is the post-punk analog to The Band...too bad it couldn't have made a few more records. Those fills on "Martial Law"! Quine answering Lou's "This is what I said..." on "Satellite." The rave-ups on "White Light/White Heat" and "Sister Ray." The treacherous but ultimately successful arrangement of "Some Kind of Love." Played it twice in a row, man.

Ken: It really is a good representation of a great band. And Quine was tuned down a whole step, so when Lou played a D shape, Bob was playing an E. How crazy is that? There was something about that band -- they didn't have the Big Rock dynamic that all of Lou's '70s bands after Rock and Roll Animal did. Less showbizzy, more like the VU. But I think the real breakthrough came on Growing Up In Public. He stepped back from the self-hating persona and allowed his writing to become more intimate. With Blue Mask, he found a band that was better suited to this new music. If you look at the two album covers, the lettering is even the same on his name! At the same time, contrast the VU songs on Live In Italy with any live VU renditions. Lou's more of a performer in the '80s. I think there are parallels between Lou and...um...Elvis, beyond signing with RCA. I think the VU were as earthshaking, in a more subtle way, as Sun Elvis. And I think Lou spent most of the '70s being manipulated by various entities, from Bowie and Ezrin to Lester Bangs, Steve Katz, and Clive Davis. At the end of the decade, he starts to value his gifts more, and takes control of his music. Imagine if El had lived long enough to have such an epiphany, which is hinted at in the TV special and '69 Memphis sessions.

Phil: I am not muso enough to understand that stuff about being tuned down and playing shapes, but it sounds cool as hell! Elvis and epiphany: According to the research Guralnick did, everytime Elvis had one and tried to talk about it, he got ridiculed by the Memphis Mafia creeps, or -- if he found someone with an ear -- they shouldered him out. He was like a damsel in distress never rescued, a Samson who never got his head of hair all the way back in.

Ken: Back to Lou, I think the move toward a more intimate (and, dare I say, literary) form of communication continued from New York onwards, until by his last decade, he was touring without drums. I'm not sure where Lulu fits into all this -- maybe his way (like the "Metal Machine Trio") of letting us know "I still do what I want."

Phil: You needn't dare say it; it's true!

Ken: Think it's significant he put down his guitar (onstage, at least) for most of the '70s. I also believe that the commercial/critical failure of Berlin drove him to abandon such expression until Quine convinced him otherwise. From the Animal tour until The Bells, he was really just a puppet or a caricature of himself, giving the people what he perceived they wanted ("Here comes the Rock and Roll Animal...fucking junkie faggot"). Every "Street Hassle" undercut by an "I Want To Be Black." Which is not to say he didn't write some great songs...just that he stopped trusting his muse.

To be continued here...


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