An electronic wake for Lou Reed (Part Two)
Phil: At any wake, those who show up to honor and remember the departed inevitably recall where they met the ghost of honor. Since I bought RCA's cheap profit-taking comp Walk On the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed in '77, when I was a mere 15, I've often asked myself what Reed or his fabled demimonde could really have had to do with a Midwestern beer-drinking teen a half-generation removed from the farms of Kansas, beyond serve as, uh, entertainment (a weird word when applied to Lou's work). Surely someone in the southwest Missouri town of Carthage (pop. 13,000 -- salute!) was secretly applying jelly to her or someone else's shoulder, but the point is, I didn't run into her. I ran with athletes, student government officers, speech-and-debate nerds, and tough-ass country boys and girls who lived with me out on Route 4.
So maybe it was just the novelty of Lou's strangeness? I think not; I'd been weaned on Alice Cooper, and though, unlike my mom, I knew he was a gas, because the golden age of rock journalism was already over and there was no Internet, I didn't know he (or KISS) (or The Nuge) were hucksters. I wish I could say I was that smart. But listening to that comp, and primed also by a very recent first exposure to Dylan, I did hear something new and incomprehensible that had nothing to do with sick things in cars, gods of thunder, wang-dang-sweet-poontang (well, it had a toe in that pond, but let's not think about that anatomical appendage too much), or even the denizens of Desolation Row, who, compared to Reed's characters, now seem like teasing name-drops. I am thinking of "Satellite of Love," "Coney Island Baby," "Wild Child," "New York Conversation," even "Walk on the Wild Side," which causes me to wince slightly today; each was narrated by a distinct persona -- no objective narrative here -- who seemed very different, a guy who could be alienated from love by his girl's infidelity on an interstellar level, who knew of Genghis Khan suits, wizard's hats, transvestites, wild children--but still admitted that he wanted to play football for the coach and liked to watch things on TV.
I think it was that combination of very foreign detail and very familiar tenderness that put the hook in. Though I was a multi-sport athlete in high school, made good grades, and fairly painlessly hopped from social group to social group, I remember always having to hide both my weirdness (I took records very seriously, dreamed about sleeping buck-naked out in the woods, thought Desolation Row sounded like an improvement) and my softness (I can't remember gentleness in young men ever being encouraged). It's funny, but those songs, none of them necessarily the greatest in Lou's oeuvre -- though I will punch you if you blaspheme "Coney Island Baby" or "Satellite of Love" -- couldn't have prepared me for what was coming in five years when I was first able to hear the third Velvet Underground album, and even Loaded, where Reed's ability to plumb the complexity of city people to write songs tender, weird, and life-affirming reached an early peak. (It's crazy, but damned important, to realize that, without an Internet and most of the Velvets' records temporarily out of print, you couldn't just go buy that stuff, or click on a YouTube link.)
Ken: Agreed. You had to go hunting for stuff back then.
Phil: So, really, my first exposure to Reed and his work helped me resist being buffed down into someone smooth before I really knew that wasn't something I wanted to have happen to me. You don't have to live in Manhattan to be at risk in that way. And you?
Ken: Hmm, lemme see. I wouldn't have been as big of a music fan if I hadn't also been a reader. I first caught wind of Lou not via St. Lester, but from a Rolling Stone review of the Velvets' Live At Max's by Tony Glover, the blues harmonica player, who caught my attention by describing Lou Reed as "maybe the most advanced lead guitarist in America."
I was a pretty angry and alienated 14-year-old back in '71 -- my best friend from middle school had moved upstate the year before, and I wasn't digging high school real much. I was considered a weirdo by most of the kids in my classes for having long hair, and my only friends were a black kid (whose band I wound up joining a couple of years later, when they lost their lead guitar player at the precise moment I was getting my first electric, after bullshitting him that I knew how to play since we'd met), a Puerto Rican kid, a white kid who'd just gotten back from a year in England with his family (he turned me onto both Slade and Monty Python!), and the smart kid who didn't reach puberty until the year we graduated -- or rather, they did (I'd talked my way out of senior year and into an early admissions program at the state university at Albany, where I lasted exactly three semesters before I proved my high school counselor's original belief that I was "not college material").
There was another longhaired kid I spent two years goofing around with in the back of English class, who'd found his dad after he committed suicide a few years back. We had an ongoing argument over who was the better songwriter: I said Lou, he said John Denver. And I filled my English journals with bullshit and blather about the Stooges and MC5, modeled on St. Lester, that got me a referral to the school shrink (I also got in trouble for reading The Catcher In the Rye in 9th grade). But I digress...
Anyway, it was Lester's tandem review of Live At Max's and the debut RCA LP in Creem that really piqued my interest, and I was able to score both of 'em out of the used bin at the hipi record store that opened one town over in the spring of '72 (and where I wound up working as soon as I turned 16).
I bought Transformer when it was new, then Loaded, then the first VU album, then the third...White Light/White Heat was last, and I told you what happened with that one. It was like entering a strange new world, filled with people and ideas that it was hard to wrap my 15-year-old mind around -- although I'd seen a transvestite in W.T. Grants when I was younger, and working in the record store brought me in contact with the first flamboyantly gay person I'd ever met (who wound up achieving a measure of notoriety when he cut a punk-era record called "Death To Disco" under the rubric Jimi LaLumia and the Psychotic Frogs) and where I sold lots of disco records to the cats that used to come through the town where my store was to catch the ferry to Cherry Grove over on Fire Island. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Lou kicked open the door for gay culture in the same way as Jimmy Reed (to paraphrase Joe Nick Patoski) kicked open the door for MLK, I suppose it was a formative experience to hear songs like "Wild Side" and "Candy Says" that spoke with compassion about people with other-than-"normal" sexual identities.
I'm not generally a lyrics-first type listener, but the thing in Lou's music I responded to first was not the sonics (I was already a Stooges fan, so the first Velvets album actually sounded a little quaint to me, the way Howlin' Wolf did after listening to the Animals, Stones, Yardbirds, and Butterfield -- it took me a few years to get hip), but the words and the things he sang about. Rather than speaking in slogans or riddles like Dylan and his followers, Lou spoke plainly, put things right out there in a way that was both easy to apprehend and impossible to ignore.
I steered clear of Berlin when it was new on the basis of St. Lester's pan, which itself was based on the premise that the album was depressing! In the fullness of time, that record just sounds to me like literature set to music (and Lou himself said that he wasn't writing about anything in the Velvets that Hubert Selby et al. hadn't already written about). I think the rock audience in general was still pretty naive then (and how strange it is to think about a time when there was an entity you could call "the rock audience" -- in this age of intarwebs and social networking, when everybody curates their own information bath, we've gone beyond St. Lester's "never agree about anything the way we once agreed about Elvis" to the point where we can never agree about anything, full stop). It took us a few years to catch up with him.
On Rock and Roll Animal, Lou came down to our level, with a "normal"-sounding Big Rock band built around Steve Hunter's guitar (with which I was already familiar from Mitch Ryder's Detroit album, from whence came the version of Lou's "Rock and Roll" that every idiot band on Long Island used to play -- I was in a few of 'em). That was back when Twisted Sister (in the days when they were still billed "They're no ladies, Mister") used to advertise their "Sweet Jane" singalong. Not really germane to this discussion, but I think it's interesting the way glam became a kick for suburban kids -- boys putting on blue eyeshadow for the Bowie concert, the whole Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight movie phenom (of which both my wife and my ex-wife were enthusiasts).
Having said all that, I think when he tried to make a statement about sexual identity with "Make Up" -- "We're coming out / Out of our closets / Out on the street" -- he was strident and failed, the way I think he failed with "Women" (his "methinks he doth protest too much" song) and especially "Heavenly Arms" (you can almost hear Sylvia whining, "Lou, why don't you write a song about me?"). He's much more effective on the same subject on "Trading Up," or when he's creating a vignette of the singles bar scene on "So Alone" (Zappa was comparatively hamfisted in his attempts to lampoon same in "Disco Boy" and "Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me?"). He's even poignant when, as a single, childless old man in "Baton Rouge," he conjures a family, then blows it away like a wisp of smoke. And are there better rock ruminations on aging and death than "Who Am I? (Tripetena's Song)" -- which completely slipped by me on "The Raven," and now just might be my favorite Lou Reed song of all ti-i-ime -- and the whole "Magic and Loss" album? I'm thinking not.
To be continued here...