An electronic wake for Lou Reed (Part Four)
Ken: We're all different kinds of fans, and thank goodness for that. I know lots of folks that want "all of it, not just some of it." Myself, I'm constantly trying to figure out what I can do without. Partly it's a matter of economics, but whatever the reason, I've always been this way, and as a result (plus geography, plus having done a lot of different things at different points in my life), I've missed out on some things. Lou's career trajectory makes a convincing argument for going for the whole ride with artists we dig, even if they throw us some funny curves sometimes. (That said, I don't know if there'll ever be space in my life for Metal Machine Music or Lulu.)
As I said earlier, I initially lost the thread after Rock and Roll Animal, during the phase that produced MMM and Sally Can't Dance. That was around the time I started going to Monday night wrestling at Madison Square Garden instead of rock shows, and became a jazz snob for awhile. After that, I moved to Texas, where I bounced between Dallas (where my drummer from college persuaded me to move instead of Boston after seeing the Sex Pistols, whom he said sucked, and the Nervebreakers, whom he said were great -- and was correct), the Gulf Coast, Fort Worth, and Austin; spent a very dissolute winter in Aspen, of all places, trying to make a band with some old allies from New York; wound up back in Fort Worth; moved to Memphis to open a store; got fired a few weeks after discovering my future ex-wife was pregnant; joined the Air Force basically out of desperation and spent ten years Guarding Freedom's Frontier, then another nine-and-change as a Reservist while working multiple jobs to pay my child support.
During my last active duty assignment, in Bossier City, Louisiana, I stumbled on a copy of New York at the mall and got re-engrossed after reading in Lou's liner notes, "You can't beat guitars, bass, drum." The album was like a musical counterpart to Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, a panoramic view of Lou's hometown at the end of the orgy of greed that was the '80s. Sitting still for an hour to listen to it was like reading a newspaper -- in fact, one song, "Hold On," actually ran as a poem on the NYT op-ed page. And Lou managed to pull this off without losing his street sense -- the characters in "Romeo Had Juliet" and "Dirty Blvd.," say, could have come off the same block as the ones in "Street Hassle." Hearing Dion DiMucci wafting out of the chorus at the end of "Dirty Blvd." was just the icing on the cake. "Busload of Faith" and "Beginning of a Great Adventure" even hinted at a kind of cautious optimism that would have been unimaginable from Lou a few years earlier.
The last song, "Dime Store Mystery," featured Mo Tucker on drums and rendered a lyrical salute to the Velvet Underground's patron Andy Warhol, with whom Lou had broken bad years ago. Reconciliation seemed to be in the air, and New York was soon followed by Songs for Drella, a full-blown Warhol tribute done in collaboration with VU co-founder John Cale, whom Lou had fired in 1968. This was a far cry from the aura of jaded ennui that sunk much of Lou's late-'70s output and I was yet to discover The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, which I read reviews of while stationed in Korea -- my Village Voice subscription followed me around the world. What struck me the most about this music was its palpable humanity and sense of giving a shit -- not hallmarks of the Lou I remembered.
The clincher was Magic and Loss, which was unlike any rock music I'd heard to date -- a somber rumination on mortality, bone-deep with both compassion and vulnerability. These albums were music for grown-ups, acknowledging all the bits of life that we tend to sweep to the margins until we can't anymore, and it had the feeling of a lot of old debts being paid. (Try listening to "New York Telephone Conversation" back-to-back with "The Halloween Parade." If your eyes are still dry, let's just say that you and I are different kinds of listeners.) I'm 15 years younger than Lou, so I was 34 when Magic and Loss was new, and I can't honestly say I understood everything it was about back then, but over time, it's only gained stature in my estimation.
We've called this "adult rock 'n' roll," but really, it was nothing new to Lou -- he'd been doing it since the first Velvets album. It's important to remember that Lou was 25 when VU and Nico was released -- he was an adult man with a literary education who was writing to his peers, although at that point, most of his peers weren't listening. People my age, who discovered Lou as a forbidden kick in the glam era, had to grow into him, while the succeeding generations of fans, who might have seen him on MTV or caught his act at Lollapalooza, grew up in a time when other artists were building superhighways on the trails he blazed.
As huge of an impact as Magic and Loss had on me, I chumped on Set the Twilight Reeling -- which I've been listening to non-stop (back-to-back with Live In Italy) since his death -- and so missed my one and only chance to see him in the flesh (at the Bronco Bowl in '96). But Ecstasy brought me back into the fold. I bonded with my buddy Geoff from Philly over that record (previously, we'd been circling each other like panthers). Back then, he wrote, "It's everything you like about Lou, and lots of it." Bingo. There are a couple of good LPs' worth of toons in there, and it's one of the few 80-minute CDs to justify its length.
After that came the Poe trib, a live album, an orchestral Metal Machine Music (with a European orchestra, of course), the Metallica collaboration, and gigs where he played improv noise with his wife Laurie Anderson and John Zorn, as if to remind us, "I do exactly whatever it is I want to do." His legacy requires no defense. For myself, I'll just say that while there are others whom I love more, he was the rock performer of his generation who made the most music that mattered to me over the longest period of time. I have a feeling I'll be listening to the stuff of his I love until I stop drawing breath. And I'll probably be face-palming over the stuff I dismissed for as long.
Phil: So, we haven't just lost someone who can be counted on to write and play convincing rock and roll for adults -- as you pointed out, Ken, over a very long course of time--who can be trusted to "do whatever he wants to" and both exert quality control and also not be too controlling/controlled in the writing and playing, but who encourages listeners that they can write about anything! Plenty of current songwriters can convince you that a particular thing can be written about; but few if any have Lou's range, from chocolate egg creams to dominatrixes who ask you to taste the whip. And behind that -- maybe we need to get out the wading boots, but, hey, ta'i chi! -- is the affirmation of an artistic and spiritual value for all things, from the everyday to the tragically once in a lifetime. Bullshit? Probably. But what's an electronic wake for Lou Reed without an abortive stab for something out of reach?
I think the source of most of my sadness in Lou's having stepped on a rainbow is that he was the link that tied me to three of my very best friends, that, along with other musical phenomena, convinced us that we could be in a band, that convinced me and probably them that we were not actually weird but in fact, perhaps, on to something. Of course, we still have the music--even if some electromagnetic pulse wiped out all digital evidence that Lou and the Velvets existed, and somehow all tapes and vinyl were melted down (funny how that's harder to imagine), I would still be able to hear in my mind's ear one of my favorite Lou Reed songs, "What Goes On" -- simply by virtue of having practiced and played it with those guys so many times.
Phil: I stand by Ken in saying that, like most such lists, this one's only good for the next 24 hours at the most:
1. What Goes On -- First, I fell in love with it on 1969 VU Live: "Man, someone really believes in rhythm guitar." Then, I fell in love with it again on the third VU album, where it was both more hushed and more demonstrative. Finally, I fell in love with it forever when a bunch of other guys and I learned how to play it, and managed to perform it live a few times. In fact, when that band broke up, it seems like all my friends' other bands seemed to know how to play it, and could always invite me up on stage to do it. It's not his best piece of writing or playing, but...there you go. Ken, I always wondered if the chorus phrase was a whimsical reference to the classic be-bop/swing touchstone "Lady, Be Good."
Ken: I think Lou was definitely aware of the Sinatra version.
Phil: 2. The Blue Mask -- The lyrics are rather too much in my face (but that really isn't Lou's problem), but lord do I love caterwauling guitars, and the sheer spasmodic beauty of Reed and Bob Quine going nuts in separate stereo channels is irresistible to me. It was either this one, "I Heard Her Call My Name," or the Live In Italy "Kill Your Sons."
3. Coney Island Baby -- Sometimes I am not altogether sure I know what this song means, but the twining together of the inescapable obligation of playing football for the coach with a tender plea to a well-known differently-sexual companion of Lou's is an awe-inspiring "you can write about anything" moment that, as a former high school football player who had distinctly non-gridiron tastes, I get off on over and over. It's compassionate, angry -- the "Remember that the city is a funny place" section splits the song like a bolt of lightning -- deeply strange, and, yes, mysterious in that way that many great songs are. You can't get to the bottom of it, but you do keep going back.
4. Venus in Furs -- Even if I didn't understand English, I'd treasure it, because it sounds like -- and I've probably worn this simile out -- something that's escaped from an ancient Egyptian tomb (one something very foul was buried in -- like the "rough beast" in Yeats' "The Second Coming"), and the lyrics? Well, to me they've always been an epater le bourgeousie aimed at the Love Crowd. Fine by me.
5. I'm Set Free -- What an advanced piece of rock and roll songwriting for '68, and it'd sound mind-blowing if it just came out! It seems to describe my life process while also operating like an anthem. "I see my head laughing/Rolling on the ground" could be a Zen master-penned mantra that would help anyone evolve if adopted.
6. Street Hassle -- Certainly, one of the only successful so-called rock operas, with The Who's "A Quick One," and they have something in common: deep compassion and forgiveness. Like Ken said, Lou's then-beloved "binaural sound" preference does nothing for this 11-minute track (oh, to hear it remixed, but that probably won't happen); also, Bruce Springsteen's intrusion and faded "Tramps like us/We were born to...pay!" are corny (I loved it at the time: the motto of Brooce fans in recovery). Nonetheless, the song's a masterpiece of songwriting, arguably the apotheosis of Lou's exploration of the urban demimonde. That's saying something, folks.
7. Romeo Had Juliette -- Really, it's hard not just to take the whole album. But I flipped a coin between this and "Dirty Boulevard," as "Busload of Faith" was gaining on both of them, and I'm happy with the result. Aside from the stellar band and the rolling writing that sounds totally improvised, like you were talking to Lou on a street corner or in a coffee shop, the production is crisp and hard-assed. One of those rare records that just plain sounds great.
8. Lady Day (from Rock and Roll Animal) -- I have yet to be impressed by Berlin. The record is lugubrious in the extreme, and the writing, for my money, has little in the way of useful insights. But on this famous live recording, Lou sings like his life depends on it, and it's exciting.
9. An imaginary single: September Song/Little Sister -- Neither of these were album tracks, but Reed did a wry, self-aware, and passionate job on the former Brecht/Weill nugget on Lost In the Stars (knocking Ol' Blue Eyes out the box), and, though I can't honestly recall what loss-leader comp or soundtrack the latter was on, I think it was Lou's first outing sans Quine with his classic '80s band, and besides paying warm tribute to a real or imaginary sister (complete with twinkly bells), it closes with a killer guitar coda. Both stellar examples of The Nice Lou.
10. Rock and Roll (from 1969 VU Live) -- The ultimate statement of rock and roll's value, and the false-ending version that resumes with those bright, optimistic chord-strums is the one you want. My life was saved by rock and roll, and very notably by Lou's brand. And, to quote D. Boon, who wasn't talking about Reed but could have been, "There should be a rock and roll band on every block, man, 'cause it can happen." (Note: He said "rock AND ROLL.")
Apologies to Lou's post-New York albums, which I enjoy most for their respective gestalts. They are damned underrated and you should explore them forthwith if you chose not to follow Lou out of the '80s.