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The Godfather of Junk

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Of the great stars of the 1960s still with us today, Lou Reed is the least affected by the passage of time; his problems transcend age. Many of his compatriots from those days are merely ridiculous; those who maintain some semblance of dignity--Neil Young, say--still must define themselves and be defined by others as fighters in an increasingly strained battle against time and irrelevance. As I've written before, age plays a unique role in rock. As in no other genre of creativity, rock restlessly, literally rejuvenates itself in an often convulsive way--indeed it's actually defined by an ineluctable process that sees new generations disposing of their elders in order to form a new communicative bond with their peers. But Reed has managed to sidestep this phenomenon. He disassociated himself from his generation many, many years ago; very early on, just after the dissolution of the Velvets, he recorded a series of solo albums that were mercilessly reviewed by his onetime champions. It was a view held by Lester Bangs, for example, that Reed fatally held his audience in contempt. It wasn't until the romanticist essay Coney Island Baby in 1976 that he regained some critical respect, which he consolidated with major works like Street Hassle and The Bells. Since then he's been something of a punk lodestar, and he's played the role agreeably, even cannily: his legendary snappish persona in interviews is always detailed by interviewers with a masochistic glee. Of late he's churned out well-reviewed concept albums--on New York (New York, 1989), Andy Warhol (Songs for Drella, with John Cale, 1990), death (Magic and Loss, 1992), and now love--spelled L-U-V--(Set the Twilight Reeling).

Reed has preserved himself by the simple expedient of having become the single most pretentious human currently alive on the planet, a horrific status too often interpreted by fans and critics as evidence of serious intent. Reed does not write songs anymore, he constructs musical settings for his jut-jawed, one-dimensional, puffed-chest views on all sorts of things, each one more crushingly boring than the last. The new record, which in this age of overlong CDs has the modest virtue of being short, begins with a droning guitar workout called "Egg Cream," with banal lyrics about where you can get a good soda. The chorus goes, "You scream / I steam / We all want egg cream." We're supposed to get a charge over an important guy like Reed taking the time to salute something many common folk love, and shiver at the key word change in the chorus that reminds us that Reed is really a simmering volcano that could blow at any moment. In "NYC Man" and "Hang On to Your Emotions" he bleats out streams of lazy cliches and mind-numbing literary allusions--in the former, there's an entire verse of references to plays by Shakespeare. A few songs later we get "HookyWooky," in which the great Lou Reed creates his own cute little word for fucking and manages to play the guitar while simultaneously patting himself on the back. In "Sex With Your Parents" he gets fonky.

Speaking of which, the record's less-than-well-hidden subtext is Reed's tedious romance with performance artist Laurie Anderson. Is it just me, or does a lyric like "I met a woman with a thousand faces / And I want to make her my wife," sung with a bowel-churning sincerity, represent some sort of nadir of rock music, pop generally, or possibly art from the beginning of time? "The Adventurer" seems to be about Anderson as well: this is a logorrheic and heavy-handed tribute that Reed just can't help injecting himself into:

You redefine the locus of your

time in space-Race!

As you move further from

me and though I

understand the thinking

And have often done the same thing I find parts of me gone

You're an adventurer...

And from the title on down there's a lot of evidence that Reed remains the music's reigning bad poet: "the chemical sky," "I was thinking of van Gogh's last painting," "in the muscle of my sex," "Senators, you polish a turd," "butchers with aprons hack meat in the snow." Reed spins in an emotional maelstrom of artistic insecurity. His formidable contributions to rock have everything to do with attitude and a natural affinity for the music's soul and almost nothing to do with being a lyricist and a Maker of Major Statements, as he might think. Now he's reduced to campaigning for inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whose very success is dependent on the neediness of artists like Reed. News that he finally made it is stickered on the cover of the new album, and Reed agreeably showed up with the surviving members of the Velvets at this year's ceremonies to perform for the assembled industry sleazebags. Reed probably thought he was there to have his butt kissed, but what actually went on was precisely the opposite.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

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