HOW DO YOU THINK IT FEELS

1

The last time I recall pulling out a Lou Reed album was to refresh my memory of Rock n Roll Animal for one of a series of articles on the joys of ‘live’ albums. I didn’t actually need to play it again –  it’s an album whose slashes and strokes are burned into my auditory cortex – but I enjoyed it anyway.

Occasionally I reach for a bit of Velvet Underground, often the amiable shambles that is 1969 – another live album. Less often, out comes the first VU album: still astounding in its originality and affecting in its intensity.

Lou Reed’s catalogue is substantial. There’s the Velvet Underground legacy, sealed in the radiant amber of inviolate legend. And that was just the first few years; there are well over 30 solo albums and collaborations. Yet I did not make much effort to follow Lou beyond the mid-70s.

So why, on hearing of the songwriter’s death earlier this week did I find myself assembling a shrine of Lou-related material and sitting down at the keyboard to ponder what it all means? How come I felt both sad and sneering?

Reed Collection

2

The Rowden White Library at Melbourne Uni was a safe haven, a place of belonging, a garden of delights where you could slouch in and collapse into a vinyl armchair, jam battered phones onto your head and turn the dial to any one of six LP-playing channels. On the way in I’d scan the album covers leaning against the glass in front of their respective turntables and estimate the number of lectures I’d have to skip if I wanted to select something myself and actually get to hear it.

In the Rowden White it did not matter if you knew no-one, understood nothing and had absolutely no idea how you came to be enrolled in Optometry. It was a floatation tank with the world’s best soundtrack. As a lost and lonely first year student who, as previously noted, was desperately striving to become a pretentious plonker, I needed frequent breaks to recharge. I spent a lot of time in that listening room.

Jeanie was a spoiled young brat
She thought she knew it all
She smoked mentholated cigarettes
And she had sex in the hall

(‘Hangin’ Round’ Transformer, 1972).

So what if the only connection with Jeanie was the menthol ciggies? I was drinking straight vodka and wondering how you found a second friend in the middle-class wilderness of Melbourne University. And I was in awe of Lou Reed.

I listened to all the early solo stuff in the Rowden White, straining to get the lyrics of this contemptuous outsider who seemed somehow to revel in his alienation. How did that work? I had to find out because I was fucking miserable. Maybe it was about confidence. Like insisting that the short plaintive rendition of ‘Berlin’ (on the album of the same name) was not a patch on the initial version on the first album, Lou Reed (1972). The bridge, that’s where it’s at.

You’re right
Oh, and I’m wrong
You know I’m gonna miss you
Now that you’re gone
One sweet day…

Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman of Yes played on that album. Stick that, anti-prog dickheads. ‘I can’t stand it any more more’. Fuck you, singer-songwriter wimps…

No, I wasn’t angry at all.

Rowden White Lib

3

Under anger, sadness.

Under confusion, fear.

Lou’s middle-class accountant parents committed their 17 year old son to a psychiatric facility where he was administered electro-shock therapy to correct his ambiguous sexuality.

‘They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland County then to discourage homosexual feelings.’

(cited in J. Reed)

All your two-bit psychiatrists are giving you electric shocks

(‘Kill Your Sons’, Sally Can’t Dance)

When I put a spike into my vein, then I tell you things aren’t quite the same

(‘Heroin’, lots of places, but here Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, 1974)

Men of good fortune often wish that they could die

(‘Men of good fortune’, Berlin, 1973)

Lou Reed wasn’t simply singing about stuff, he was living it. Songs ground out with cruel wit and bitter accusation. Simple songs, often musically stripped back to leave room for Lou’s listless, limited voice. He once quipped to a hapless interviewer, ‘I only play three chords, but I play ‘em pretty good, those three chords’. He might have said the same about his singing.

Eternally suspicious of, well, everything, he was not exactly overwhelmed by the unexpected success of Sally Can’t Dance (1974), commenting, ‘It seems like the less I’m involved with a record, the bigger a hit it becomes. If I weren’t on the record at all next time around, it might go to Number One.’ (Wikipedia)

Was his next offering a response? Metal Machine Music (1975). Four sides of feedback and white noise. Get your head around that, motherfucker.

Almost cost me my Record Store job, that album. I insisted on playing it to a customer before purchase. His face falling with each random placement of the stylus on the spinning record, he eventually staggered out of the shop, bemused and upset. So was my boss.

‘That is probably the only chance we had to sell that awful record,’ he admonished, ‘Are YOU going to buy it out of your wages?’

Well, no, of course not. Though I wish I had. Lester Bangs wrote that ‘sentient humans simply find it impossible not to vacate any room where it is playing’ but Metal Machine Music is actually a significant, if confronting piece of rock deconstruction and perhaps Reed’s most courageous release. Though I recommend only listening to one side per sitting if you value your own mental health.

R&R Ani back

4

Something has shifted. The first song on Coney Island Baby (1976) is positively jaunty. The stories are becoming more cynically observed, more B-movie (‘Kicks’). Literature graduate writes short stories rather than extracts then transmutes his own turmoil. More arch than anguished. More cartoonist than comrade in adversity.

Just turn around I’m by the window where the light is

(‘She’s my best friend’, Coney Island Baby)

I want it to mark the beginning of a slow journey towards some sort of happiness. Projection? You bet. But I didn’t connect with Coney Island Baby then and I don’t think much of it now. The idea that artists need to suffer for their art is a crock, an insidious lie perpetrated by complacent fantasists with high self-regard and low self-awareness. Yet my interest in Lou kinda faded; the albums seemed knowingly constructed around posturing rather than passion. By the time of New York I found the outré ranting empty and unconvincing; I wanted ideas developed, anger pursued. Not congealed lists of sitting-duck targets. In just one song on that critically lauded 1989 album did Lou break through the torpor and grab me.

Maybe I moved to a different dealer in musical medication. Maybe other lonely alienated souls picked up where I left off and found satisfaction in the urban cartoons, alternatively grimy and lurid.

We’ll always have the Velvet Underground. And after the hagiography subsides maybe they’ll regain their due as a band, not just a vehicle. So I’ll pull out VU’s ‘Sister Ray’ to get a dose of that primitive ‘fuck you’ energy and ‘Murder Mystery’ to be confronted and confounded… and refile the rest under ‘That was then’.

Today, though, I’ll cede the last word to Lou:

How do you think it feels

And when do you think it stops?

When do you think it stops?

(‘How do you think it feels’, Berlin 1973)

Berlin booklet

*

RESOURCE

Reed, Jeremy (1994) Waiting For The Man: A Biography of Lou Reed. Picador, UK

20 comments

  1. Wonderful, as I knew it would be Bruce.

    The myriad choices of his fate
    Set themselves out upon a plate
    For him to choose
    What had he to lose (Black Angel’s Death Song)

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  2. I bought Coney Island without having heard it … didn’t like it, and didn’t think about it. I just left it unplayed. Now I know why. Thanks Bruce.

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    1. The normally reliable Allmusic guide gets its ratings for Coney Island Baby and Sally Can’t Dance rather muddled, I reckon.

      Very happy to have helped solve an old puzzle.

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  3. The Prudent Groove · · Reply

    “Urban cartoons” is a picture perfect description. Great post! RIP Lou.

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  4. A very insightful article, Bruce. I love it that you made the customer listen to the album. I can just picture the guy’s face slowly falling with each increasingly odd song. Ah, Lou.

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    1. And my boss was correct. I don’t think we did sell a single copy. ‘Metal Machine Music’ was, or so I’ve heard, the most ‘returned’ album of all time. Probably not the sort of stat most artists would cherish, but then Mr Reed wasn’t your mainstream sort of guy.
      Laurie Anderson’s Rolling Stone reflection is lovely, if you haven’t read it yet.
      http://rol.st/18be2QR

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      1. I just read the article. How cool that she went from not even knowing anything about the Velvet Underground and thinking Lou was British to being his loving partner for many years. And heart warming to know she was with him at the end. Glad to hear he had no fear and was at peace too. Beautiful piece – thanks for sharing it.

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  5. Hey Bruce. I was preparing to tell you about a post from “The Dish” blog, and I just realized that it’s an excerpt from the Rolling Stone reflection you mention above. I’ll share the link anyway,as the Anderson quote is paired with an apropos song from Lou… http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/11/07/quote-for-the-day-284/

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  6. Thanks for the article. Well-written and level-headed. You should give Songs For Drella and Magic And Loss a good go if you haven’t. … Ah, “Sister Ray”: one of the most thrilling sounds ever!

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  7. […] left by going to uni and not studying (more on my favourite diversion, the Rowden White Library, here). The record store where I worked 6 hours a week offered me a full-time position. At that time it […]

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  8. […] So it is not surprising that the name Zorn crops up quite often, especially in avant-grade circles. One recent name-check appeared in Laurie Anderson’s farewell (Rolling Stone) to partner Lou Reed. […]

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  9. […] “How do you think it feels?” (A personal response to the death of Lou Reed) […]

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  10. […] artist’s name. One album I’d heard in the Rowden White Library Listening Room [see Part 2 of this post] was bluesy and rocky and had an amazing watermelon-guitar on the cover. Hard to picture? Here you […]

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  11. […] spent the first fifteen minutes (the ‘lock-down’ phase when no-one is allowed out) writing out Lou Reed song lyrics in the exam booklet. If the subject had been 20th Century Literature I might have got a […]

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  12. Listening to Lou Reed tonight and found your post. I enjoyed the whole thing, but found section “2” and the idea of Lou’s reveling in alienation and anger as reassuring to the miserable and confused VC especially poignant. I’m glad you don’t usually resort to “fuck yous” in your writing, as it makes your opting to toss in a couple here ring truer.

    I tried my hand at a “Personal Approach” to Lou Reed just a few days after you posted this. It was not an especially good offering and, in hindsight, was probably forced. That said, I’m probably one of the few, if not the only, eulogizer to focus on outcasts New Sensations and Lulu. But personal is personal, right?:
    https://victimofthefury.com/2013/11/05/doubt-every-meaning-a-view-to-lou-reed/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Enjoyed your piece, Vic.
      Yes, the above tried to channel some of the simmering rage that was a perpetual underlay back then – and entirely out of my awareness. Fortunately I never even get slightly cross these days. True (as 1537 would say) story.

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  13. […] So it is not surprising that the name Zorn crops up quite often, especially in avant-grade circles. One name-check appeared in Laurie Anderson’s November 2013 (Rolling Stone) farewell to partner Lou Reed. […]

    Like

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