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Rock's original cynic: Why Lou Reed will always be cool



Obviously, there is only one Lou Reed. But then again, perhaps this is not so obvious, so I'll take it back. There are--or have been--many Lou Reeds. First there was the underground Lou, then the decadent glitter Lou, followed by the burnout Lou, the mellow Lou, the punk Lou, the jazzy Lou, and so on. I used to find it all so confusing. But now I understand, or at least I can tell myself I do.

Lou played at Park West recently ($25 a head!), obviously enjoying the crowd, performing with a genuine warmth tempered by the wary reserve that has never left him. He has a terrific band, and he sings in a voice that several female friends of mine have called the sexiest in rock 'n' roll (one said it reminded her of getting rubbed by a faceful of whiskers), but which has shown signs of deterioration in recent years. Not that Lou has ever been what you'd call a conventionally good singer. But while he once was at least able to carry a tune and use his voice expressively in a dramatic sense, he now talks more than sings, and seems afflicted by an irritating, brittle vibrato that becomes especially pronounced whenever he gets too excited. He still writes cool songs, and still plays the kind of crappy guitar I love to hear, but his voice is a mess. I don't know, maybe it's all those years of drug abuse. But the question of drug abuse (Lou now does antidrug spots on MTV) only reminds me how fine it is that he's still alive, much less writing good songs and playing great crappy guitar. Guess you have to take what you can get.

Reed ranks as one of rock's great originals. Sure, he has his antecedents: Bob Dylan and James Dean can be pinned down without too much trouble, and ghostly traces of Eisenhower-era doo-wop and R&B pop up in his music too. But Lou's essential Reedishness lies in his unprecedented cynicism, along with his conviction that rock 'n' roll could be used as a medium for serious expression without giving up its trashy, offensive vitality.

We must begin by turning back 20 years, to a time when war raged in Vietnam, college students burned draft cards, and the car radios of June oozed and throbbed the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, hyped and received as rock's arrival to the world of "art." Soon more and more bands followed the Beatles' lead, dropping acid and cluttering their records with sitars and overblown string sections. The complexity-for-complexity's-sake aesthetic was embraced by a hip culture naive enough to advocate communal utopianism ("We gotta all get together") and personal freedom ("Do your own thing") at the same time without seeing the contradiction.

But Lou Reed saw through that jive, and that's Reason Number One why he's eternally cool. He was a smart cynic, and knew the big advantage of being a smart cynic is that nobody pulls the wool over your eyes. Like Frank Zappa (another smart cynic), Lou also understood that drugging oneself to achieve "awareness" was a major error in judgment that might actually work to the advantage of the powers in control. Unlike Zappa, though, Lou nonetheless liked to get high--maybe needed to. The inner confusion must have been very painful and lonely. Which might explain why when other 60s rock bands were writing songs about eating acid and saving the world, Lou Reed was writing about doing heroin ("I'm Waiting for the Man," "Heroin"), having kinky sex ("Venus in Furs," "Sister Ray"), getting burned by cold women ("Femme Fatale," "Here She Comes Now"), and enduring life's vague, undefinable anxieties ("Sunday Morning").

Lou was the rebel who rebelled against the other rebels. His band, the Velvet Underground, did not sing white-dove peace fantasies embellished with sitars and Tibetan bells. They sang songs about the shit they saw around them, embellished with Lou's jagged guitar and John Cale's screeching electric viola. Even Lou's occasional romantic ballads, like "Pale Blue Eyes" or "I Found a Reason," were laced with a subtly sarcastic, world-weary sense of futility. But it would take most of the rock audience at least ten years to reach a level of cynicism anywhere near Reed's. This is crucial for today's younger Lou Reed fans to realize: In their time, the Velvet Underground were not very popular. Reed left the band in 1970; they broke up shortly after.

I never heard the Velvet Underground in their day, although I do remember hearing their name. It was just a name, one of the hundreds of band names that went in one ear and out the other. And I didn't know who Lou Reed was until 1972, when I heard "Walk on the Wild Side" on the radio. Everybody in my school crowd was talking about the new hit record wherein the singer sang about "colored girls" and giving head" and someone who "shaved her legs and then he was a she." I loved it then as now, but to this day I can't fathom how lyrics like that ever got on the radio (even now, in the age of Tipper Gore, "Wild Side" pops up as a golden oldie on the most mainstream rock stations). But it became Lou Reed's first--and so far only--Top Ten single.

"Walk on the Wild Side" was on Transformer, Reed's second solo album, produced by someone who had dug the Velvets in their day and had been deeply influenced by them: David Bowie. Transformer demonstrates that by 1972, Reed's cynicism had really taken over. Now he was more interested in fucking people's minds than in revealing anything. Whereas the earlier Reed had performed "Heroin" ("It's my wife / And it's my life") as an actor might portray the tragedy of an addict killing himself slowly to get out of a fucked-up world, the Reed of Transformer played up junkie jive for mere shock value. Now "Heroin" took on a different hue as Lou sang onstage in bleached hair and heavy makeup and tied up his arm with a microphone cord and put a fake needle in it. We were invited to view Lou Reed, the Rock 'n' Roll Animal, demonstrating how cool and decadent he was. This bullshit routine made him lots of money. As he put it at the time: "I mimic me probably better than anybody, so if everybody else is making money ripping me off, I figured maybe I better get in on it. Why not? I created Lou Reed. I have nothing faintly in common with that guy, but I can play him really well."

This period was not a total waste, though. Despite its cartoonishness and share of dog cuts, Transformer boasted some fine mumbo-jumbo weirdness ("Andy's Chest") and gut-crunching rock 'n' roll ("Vicious," "I'm So Free"), along with one of Reed's most charming ballad-baubles ("Satellite of Love"). And then came 1973's Berlin, an LP I can only bear to listen to once a year, which deserves distinction as perhaps the most bleak, frightening rock 'n' roll record ever released. But soon Reed sank into utter confusion, turning out hack shit like Sally Can't Dance (which, oddly enough, went Top Ten), sounding like an oversedated sleazoid who needed assistants to pick him up bodily and hold his face in front of the mike. Around this time I finally gave up and stopped buying his records.

The downward trend led finally to the unforgettable Metal Machine Music, a double LP containing no singing, no songs, no instruments--nothing but four sides of screeching electronic noise. Record stores were besieged by angry customers demanding refunds, and the album was quickly deleted by RCA. Reed gave interviewers a different answer every time: it was avant-garde classical music, it was "about energies flowing," it was a ploy to get RCA to release him from his contract. I have a friend who actually claims to consider Metal Machine Music Reed's best album, but in retrospect it seems to me one very big, and very necessary, creative vomit--Lou was puking up the bones of the cartoon character into which he'd transformed himself.

With the very next LP--1976's Coney Island Baby, on Arista, not RCA--Reed pulled a big surprise. This music sounded warm, understated, intimate--rather like the third (untitled) Velvet Underground album. On the title cut, Lou opened rapping not about drugs and kinky sex, but about his days as a Brooklyn high school kid who wanted to "play football for the coach." Having bled the "decadence" hustle for all it was worth, Lou was now working his way toward a more personal art. Since it was so unlike what he'd been tossing out before, Coney Island Baby sounded more brilliant at the time than it does today--but clearly it was Lou's important first step in a much-needed new direction.

Over the next few years, Reed tried out new ideas, sometimes producing his best work in years (Street Hassle), other times just interesting failures (The Bells, Growing Up in Public). He improvised comedic monologues onstage, jammed with Don Cherry, multi-tracked himself on bass and piano in "binaural sound," and spilled his guts in long, unharacteristically verbose confessionals. The search finally led to the high point of Reed's solo career. Not long after getting hitched ("There's this myth, as if by getting married you suddenly become old and senile and move to the suburbs and never do a meaningful piece of work again. A lot of people must be terrified of marriage"), he assembled his best band since the Velvets--a lineup featuring ex-Richard Hell guitarist Robert Quine and jazz-fusion bassist Fernando Saunders--and recorded The Blue Mask (1982), in which mystical joy in life's simple pleasures ("My House," "Women") coexists with the most primal anxieties imaginable ("Waves of Fear," "The Gun"). The Blue Mask is an LP stunning in its clarity and wholeness. Here, Lou strips himself emotionally naked and suddenly he's not an individual anymore; he's everybody.

But these are the cynical 80s, and there are some who call Blue Mask a "sellout." Once I was talking about Lou with this guy who agreed with me about the old stuff, but who answered my raving about Blue Mask with: "Oh, don't tell me you dig that 'only a woman can love a man' shit." (He was quoting "Heavenly Arms," Blue Mask's closer.) But I do dig it, because it shows Lou is still rebelling against the other rebels. When he insists on singing his wife's name over and over again ("Syyyylveeee-yuuuuh"), he's saying, "Fuck hipness, fuck street credibility, fuck promiscuity, fuck everyone who wants me to write another 'Walk on the wild Side'--fuck you all, I love my wife." He's repudiating his younger self, and reminding us that life's most mind-blowing experiences are precisely its most commonplace. Scratch a cynic and you'll find a romantic idealist.

Lou's three most recent studio LPs are worthy attempts to follow through with that creative breakthrough, but neither Legendary Hearts nor New Sensations nor Mistrial comes close to The Blue Mask's unity and intensity. Even so, they contain a number of great songs, and show far more consistency than Lou was ever known for in the 70s. New Sensations (1984) is the best of the three: Lou abandons the notion of thematic unity in order to write about a wider variety of subjects, and his gamble mostly pays off (especially since he gets up the nerve to actually try out a few new chord progressions). The LP is a panorama of the modern world as seen through the eyes of a particularly candid New York guy: video games, jealousy, motorcycles, Martin Scorsese movies--and best of all, nuclear holocaust seen as a joyful spiritual encounter with the infinite ("Fly Into the Sun").

Lou Reed is 44 years old and not the sarcastic viper he used to be. But while the myth persists that the best rock 'n' roll comes from very young people, Lou is writing and playing some of his strongest music ever, and he knows it--at Park West he positively radiated confidence. Sure, he dutifully did some old songs like "Sweet Jane," "White Light/White Heat," and "Rock and Roll"--mostly at the beginning of the show and as encores--but the bulk of the set was 80s stuff, and I would have been happy if he'd skipped the old material completely.

Here's why the new songs make me happy: having begun years ago from the premise that Aquarian peace was unattainable, Lou Reed rebelled anarchically against everything, including the other rebels, and almost destroyed himself. But then, starting with Coney Island Baby, he slowly built himself a new psychic universe out of the debris of the old one. While a large segment of today's rock 'n' roll crowd has caught up with where he was at 20 years ago, Lou is still rebelling against the rebels--only now it's rebels who were inspired by him. Drug free and clearheaded, still capable of performing a loud, exciting rock 'n' roll show, Lou's attained a stability that ensures he'll be making good adult rock 'n' roll for a long time. And after a while, I suspect he'll break yet another frontier, by writing good rock 'n' roll about growing old. I'm sure it'll be fascinating.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Waring Abbott.

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