Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Music Library: Lou Reed

Lou Reed is one of those guys who looms so large in my imagination that he seems fictional.  It seems so amazingly unlikely that any one guy would form the noise-pop-folk-and-above-everything-rock-rock-rock Velvet Underground, befriend Andy Warhol, go glam and androgynous in the Bowie-fueled 70s, release Metal Machine Music, spar with Lester Bangs, pluck Bob Quine from the punk scene and set him at his rightful place only to dump on him out of jealousy, go confessional, accept the elder statesman of rock mantle, and marry Laurie Anderson.  His coolness isn't just a shield but his divine right.  He doesn't need protection from people like me.  He was born into the natural aristocracy of music and legend.  And yet for such an amazing guy he has sure churned out a ton of shit.  The man has a bunch of albums that I would almost certainly never own.  And here's the ones I would own.  Are there more that I should have?

"(Do The) Ostrich."  Credited to Lou Reed and The Primitives, this is the 1964 dance craze that never happened, mostly because few were willing to follow the steps, which include instructions to put your head on the floor and let someone step on it.  Also on the single was one John Cale, who would play a large role in Reed's musical development.

Transformer (1972).  I've never picked up Reed's first solo album, but I probably should.  This is his second, on which he reinvents himself as a glam-rock icon.  This is a weird move for the man, since glam was at least partially built on Reed's own music with the VU.  It was like he became his own grandson.  Any album that includes tracks like "Perfect Day" and "Satellite of Love" is okay by me.

Berlin (1973).  This is Lou's intensely depressing concept album about a couple who destroy their lives through drugs and hard living.  Many of these songs recycle parts and themes he had been working on for years with the VU, and I think it's safe to say that this was his peak as a lyricist.  His songs work like little short stories throughout, capturing details that express more of the narrative than anything Reed could say directly.  The music is bombastic, which is what you can expect from producer Bob Ezrin.  And the album is a stone classic, although one that I find it hard to sit through.  I used to laugh about the insanity of the story of how Ezrin got the crying children in the background of "The Kids": according to legend Ezrin told his own children that their mother had been killed and recorded their anguish.  Now, with children of my own, the effect is more of what Ezrin was shooting for: I am horrified.  Is there a German word for unpleasant pleasures?

Metal Machine Music (1975).  One of the hallmarks of great provocateur art is the response of those who do not understand it: "I could do that!"  MMM contains four tracks, each roughly 16 minutes long (the album claims that they are all 16:01, but it lies), of two guitars feeding back.  The feedback is sometimes harmonious but more often dissonant.  The sound has been endlessly reviled, often winding up on 'worst album of all time' lists, but it has also inspired followers, such as Merzbow, Sonic Youth, most industrial bands, and any number of dark ambient metal bands.  Like most provocateur art, I find it more interesting to talk and read about than to experience.  But it will definitely spur a reaction, and I give it a spin every couple of years or so.  I would be remiss if I didn't link to at least one of Lester Bangs's articles about it.  I prefer a different one, though, where Bangs describes himself cruising in his car with MMM cranked on the stereo.  That's an image that never gets old.  Even better than ol' Lester, though, is my pal William Ham's article on MMM.   The Wall Street Journal recently quoted one of Bill's lines, marking the first appearance in those august pages of the phrase "sounds like Marshall stacks being pack-raped by angry kitchen appliances" since Reagan died.

The Blue Mask (1982).  What, you may ask, no Street Hassle?  I should get another copy of that sometime, true, since not only will I never listen to my cassette again, but I gave it away a few weeks ago.  But I have the title song on the collection at the end of this review, and that's really the best part of album.  The Blue Mask is another story, with Reed and Bob Quine making the best rock music of Reed's solo career.  Sadly, the lyrics are subpar at best.  I mean "Waves of Fear" is okay, but man, then there's "Women," in which Rock's Very Own Grumpy Uncle overcompensates for his gay-baiting past.  Embarrassing for all of us.  And yet it still rocks.  Question: why is the cover yet another version of the image of Reed from the cover of Transformer?  Was Transformer/glam music the mask, and if so, why is that mask blue ten years later?

Legendary Hearts (1983). The follow-up to The Blue Mask brings back Quine and bassist Fernando Saunders along with new drummer Fred Maher.  Musically, it's almost as good as The Blue Mask.  Lyrically, it's more evened out, but while the lows aren't as low as on the previous album, the highs aren't nearly as high.  Which isn't bad, really.

Live In Italy (1984).  Same band as on Legendary Hearts playing songs from as far back as the VU and on through the 70s.  Bob Quine notoriously complained about how quiet his guitar is in the mix, but I can hear him fine.  Still, there's no doubt that Reed was sick of Quine by this point (and vice versa).

New Sensations (1984).  Quine is gone, as is most of the music of interest.  This album has a lot of songs about embracing the quiet suburban life.  It's not so great.  Or good.

New York (1989).  Much was made of this as Reed's big comeback album, with Mark Deming at Allmusic even calling this his best solo album.  That it isn't, my friend.  It's quite good, mind you, but where Reed the lyricist once relied on nuance to tell his stories, this is nothing but angry confessional throughout, the equivalent of listening to deadpan Air America talk shows played in the key of G. One reference to the "Statue of Bigotry" might be acceptable if a little winceworthy, but Lou brings it up in two separate songs.  And his rant against Jesse Jackson in "Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim," as if the two were remotely equivalent, is bewildering.  Bad lyrics, incomprehensible politics, good music.

Between Thought And Expression (recorded 1972-1986).  This is an adequate retrospective I picked up nearly 20 years ago for a song.  I like having tracks from albums I don't want (like The Bells, for instance) and the unreleased tracks are generally pretty good (Don Cherry joining Reed on a version of "Heroin" from the late 70s, for instance).  Not a bad purchase, all in all.


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