An electronic wake for Lou Reed (Part Three)
Phil: On my way to work this morning, I listened to the version of "Heroin" from the Quine Tapes box and it took me back.
First version I ever heard was on 1969 Velvet Underground Live, which was the first VU album I ever bought (Northtown Mall, Joplin, Missouri, 1979 -- my mom bought me a personalized rubber stamp kit to get ready for college life -- no foolin' -- and it was the first thing I stamped...I still have it). That record and maybe Loaded were the only VU records in print at that time, and, since it was the only one, it had to do til the real things came along. I loved the drone, the flat beat, Lou's singing and conversation (I remember thinking that maybe I could sing in a band and not be terrible), the lyrics, the variety of moods, and I think it's a tribute to the band that if this still were the only record of theirs I could have, that'd be...great! I had no art training, really, so that's another point scored for it; I don't know why I responded so strongly to something so deadpan and strange compared to all else out there, and all else out there, for me, was really just a sliver: what they played on KSYN out of Joplin, which was not much. But I am getting off track here.
"Heroin" was the song that jumped out at me off 1969 VU Live: the first-person narrative, the sensationalistic subject matter, the connection to current events (still current as I first listened in 1979), the mesmerizing guitar figure, and the slow build to fury, which I didn't know was pretty neat musique concrete. I worshipped the song, immediately elevated it to my personal pantheon though I had no interest in trying the drug (as if that mattered), screamed along with it on nights when I was alone in my dorm room and pretended I could strum along with it (and boy oh boy could Lou strum electric rhythm!!! To this day, when I think that I might learn guitar, all I want to learn is VU rhythm and Hank Sr. chop-country-chords), raved about it to my friends.
Not surprisingly, when I was eventually in a band, we played it. I felt somewhat sheepish "becoming" the persona, considering how totally straight I was, but it was the musical rushing on my run that was the point for me. We were known among our small Fayetteville, Arkansas, audience as "The Band That Couldn't Get Laid (except for Don)," as the band you went to see to see if it could get through a set, if not a song, as the guys (and girls) who had so much fun playing with such bare competence that you understood, indubitably, that you could do it, and the fact that we played "Heroin" as the lead-in to a medley that concluded with "Freebird" and "Here Comes A[n Ir]Regular" underlined our somewhat conscious message that we weren't urchins from the demimonde.
Nonetheless, the song remained a touchstone for all of us, and, after I'd become an English teacher, I admired it and Lou all the more for the song's conceptual daring. By that time, I'd heard the original [kids, it took me until 1983 -- no Internet, no big brothers or friends who owned it, no mid-American used stores that had it (no one, but no one, sold that record), no labels that bent over backwards to reissue everything -- to finally get my hands on a copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico, and that was even after Rather Ripped Records of Berkeley, CA, ripped me off via mail order], and Mo's drums and Cale's viola made it sound even more like something that had escaped an ancient Egyptian tomb.
Ken: The studio version still reminds me of the scene in Conan the Barbarian where James Earl Jones turns into a snake in the middle of the orgy. The stewpot full of skulls and bones...
Phil: I confess: I've gone through a period during the last decade where my most intense admiration has shifted to other VU songs -- "I'm Set Free," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," and -- odd song out -- "Venus in Furs" more directly punch my pleasure buttons) and I feel a little sheepish when students ask me what I think of "Heroin," if it isn't just the best. I always feel compelled to say, "Well, it's a little over the top...." but listening to it this morning made me realize I am just trying to put distance between myself and an experience that's maybe too long gone.
Ken: I'm ambivalent about "Heroin" because my best friend during my late teen years was a junkie...long deceased now. He didn't give a rat's ass about Lou Reed, either -- Johnny Winter was more his speed. Part of what you get from a writer who looks at the seamy side of life through clear eyes is a lot of stuff that's hard to take in, and I don't think Lou ever cut his audience any slack (although I suppose, viewed from another perspective, that he never gave up titillating us with views of the forbidden). Even on Ecstasy, which winds up being a final testament of sorts (although I'm going to have to revisit the Poe thing) there was "Rock Minuet."
Anybody who thought Lou was writing autobiography need only listen to "Kicks" or "The Gun" to realize the spuriousness of that assumption (although I do believe he was doing more "fieldwork" in the '60s and '70s).
As I've said to you before, one of the things I like about Lou is having an artist whose work I admire, about whom I'm so ambivalent. I let my copy of The Blue Mask go because I'm so not into "Women" and "Heavenly Arms," but I wound up having to buy another copy because after he passed, I really needed to hear "My House" and "The Day John Kennedy Died" -- not to mention "Underneath the Bottle" and "Waves of Fear." It's kind of like what I went through as a snotnose when the 'orrible 'oo followed Live At Leeds with all the synths of Who's Next and the orchestration of Quadrophenia (which I probably listen to more than any of their other stuff now, even Sell Out). Uncle Lou made me struggle with my own response to his subject matter (even though it wasn't through discovering Transformer as a teen that I was able to outgrow the homophobia of the cultures that formed me -- my middle daughter and her friends did that).
Phil: Regarding autobiography, I've doubted Lou ever shot that stuff from early on, but, y'know, it's not so much "Heroin" that the song is really about. I gotta keep that in mind to keep loving it. And, as for my own autobio, I've never seen the stuff nor knew anyone intimately who ever used it. Again, viewing the demimonde as if it were Pluto, or a satellite gone to Mars.
Speaking of, there's some of the same "all of the jim-jims" feeling in "Satellite of Love." I like how, in the Live In Italy version, after the "Harry, Mark, and John" verse, he counters with understanding, rather than the "fuckin' piece o' trash" of Take No Prisoners.
Ken: Stephen Crane never heard a shot fired in anger, yet wrote one of the best war novels of all ti-i-ime. Lou's experience/non-experience of his subject matter is irrelevant. He opened a lot of doors in terms of what was conceivable as subject matter for rockaroll lyrics. I don't blame him for anyone's drug use anymore than I blame him for G.G. Allin. And yes, I think he'd come to a more compassionate stance over the four or five years that separate those performances.
Phil: Great point, comparing Crane to Lou artistically, though Lou was a mite closer to what he was describing. But their ends were the same, don't you think? And that's so rare...that compassion...in ones as young as they. It's fucking moving.
Ken: Yes, abso. And you wonder, "How can he know that?" Like Eliot writing "Prufrock" when he was 19. I think Lou's great achievement as a songwriter was just that: encapsulating experience, and making us feel empathy for people whose experiences were very foreign to our own.
Phil: I concur completely. And that's far from the usual experience in rock and roll, lit, art, what have you.
Ken: As beautiful as the music is, I find Hunter's stately and majestic architectonics on the Animal version of "Heroin" false and inappropriate. Whereas on Mitch Ryder's "Rock and Roll," he made the music tougher, grittier, and sexier, and therefore more appropriate. I think the original "Heroin" is still my favorite, since it's the starkest. I find it interesting that by '69, he'd changed the opening line (on some versions) to "I know just where I'm going."
Phil: Regarding the much-maligned (by you and initially by me) "Women and "Heavenly Arms" on The Blue Mask. You know, I remember getting my mitts on the album the day it came out -- I had heard advance notice that Reed would be playing guitar (!) and that he and Quine would be in separate channels -- slapping it onto the turntable, putting on headphones, cranking it up...and then being discombobulated by that weird, pulsing bass in the front of the mix (which I would grow to love), the meditative tone and sound of too many of the songs (which I would grow to love), and those two Valentine's Day cards I considered slightly atrocious, especially since they were on the same record with "The Gun," "The Blue Mask," and "Waves of Fear" (but which I have also grown to love).
Here's my take: they are musical statements of serious audacity, especially given what we all knew about Lou's bent sexual history, what we'd learned to love about the incisiveness and swervy detail of his songwriting -- they are so plainspoken! -- and what we'd had to get used to about his "singing," primarily a bored, sarcastic bitchiness (which, yes, had its pleasures). "Heavenly Arms" is sung with such an open throat, if you know what I mean, that it's hard to gainsay his sincerity; in fact, it sounds brave. Also, doubling back, I had to finally admit that, given what "The Gun," "The Blue Mask," and "Waves of Fear" deal with, they couldn't be more appropriate for an album by a fabled truth-teller trying to stare down the truth of his own wicked ways. Does that make sense?
Ken: Totally. He always makes you work for it. He's not concerned with meeting our expectations.
Phil: It's like the sun breaking through the clouds, and...so what if those rays aren't as verbally piquant as the darker ones? You had to root for the guy. Listening to them over and over -- not because I wanted to, but because I loved the album as a whole -- I often found myself thinking of the seeming misery he endured/brought upon himself between Lou Reed and The Blue Mask. I got the sense that I was hearing a human being in the moment of liberation, which is pretty cool to get off wax, and from a guy you might expect to be skeptical about that kind of liberation.
Ken: I think as he went through life, he became open to a lot more things, which is what we tend to do, if we're fortunate. Dig the fact that he died doing ta'i chi in a beautiful spot on Long Island (talk about your "spirit of pure poetry"). I don't think he was what we might have imagined him as being from his work (and in my case, from reading St. Lester, who was writing about himself as much/more than he was about Lou). I'm thankful that when I was 35, I heard Magic and Loss and began to intuit that parting and grief are hardly anomalous events in the human experience -- a fact of which I've been hyperaware lately.
Phil: Well, you hit on something very nice there: "what we tend to do." Have any other rock and roll artists as accurately represented that? I mean, here's a former Warholite who hung around/romanced a transvestite/sexual, with a copy of the PDR slung over his jellied shoulder for the better part of a decade, who ends up, careerwise, being our mirror. Did that make sense?
Ken: Sure. Try this one: Like Malcolm X -- another literary hero of mine, who may have been the creation of Alex Hailey -- his life journey was one of constant self-reinvention. Which is to say, the most American kind.
Phil: I am definitely down with that. Another hero I share with you, except he didn't get to keep reinventing for another three decades, and we're the worse for it.
To be continued here...