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?
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.
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.
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 feelsAnd when do you think it stops?When do you think it stops?
(‘How do you think it feels’, Berlin 1973)
Reed, Jeremy (1994) Waiting For The Man: A Biography of Lou Reed. Picador, UK