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Vying for the pantheon: Lou Reed considers death

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In film and painting, dance and theater, even most forms of music, the deep, wise, elderly artist is a touchstone, a hero. But a mature rock 'n' roller is an oxymoron. The only honorable option for an aging rock star is to retreat to some island somewhere and grow old gracefully, but instead there's a growing population of middle-aged rock figures who put me in mind of no one so much as Norman Mailer--pushy and arrogant, ruthlessly trafficking in long-ago triumphs, growing fatter, more opinionated, and less coherent as time goes on. Lacking England's traditions of critical invective, the American press just acquiesces; since people over here don't like to read, much less read what they don't want to hear, it's easier just to recycle, with stories like "The Stones Roll On," or "Bowie Does It Again," or "The Who's Greatest Show." All the rest of us can do is stare in disbelief as tired old hack after tired old hack gets trotted out for the feature pages yet again.

I lost patience with Lou Reed right about the time of his New York tour of 1989. Standing onstage at the Arie Crown with his poodle haircut and the ludicrous accoutrement of a music stand (to hold his weightier-than-normal lyrics, y'see), Lou was the picture of the Serious Rocker as he enunciated his way through the songs from the new record. New York, remember, was a sociological meditation on a major geographical area, something some very important writers had done in the past ("Faulkner had the South, Joyce had Dublin," Reed explained helpfully to interviewers), and Lou was trying to project the requisite gravity. The man who was an all-purpose rock 'n' roll brat for two decades was making his bid for rock paterdom.

In hindsight you can see the roots of this inflated sense of self-importance. The Velvet Underground, Reed's band in the late 60s, went almost unnoticed during its short existence but had a remarkable rehabilitation in the 80s, thanks to avid followers like R.E.M. and the Feelies. The Velvets produced a signal and frequently beautiful music, fueled primarily but not exclusively by Reed's gritty but clear-eyed dispatches from a polymorphously perverse heroin-soaked demimonde. But the band members' studied cool and art-school pretensions virtually guaranteed that they'd eventually fall prey to some form of rock 'n' roll ridiculousness. True to form, Reed fired John Cale in a snit, other members groused about what to their minds was Reed's rather optimistic view of his contributions to the songwriting, and the Velvets were no more.

Of course Reed is an original; in his early solo years he alternated brutal hard rockers with softer but scorching acoustic numbers, all the while indulging a taste for the, ah, exotic that made David Bowie look like a prude. His first seven or eight solo records were frequently excoriated by critics, both for Reed's occasionally careless songwriting and because of a widely-ascribed-to view that Reed held his audience in contempt; the latter was seemingly confirmed with the release of the notorious Metal Machine Music, an audacious, if accurately titled, two-album set of nothing but anonymous metallic clanking and humming.

That album's liner notes contain, ironically enough, one of Reed's most interesting pieces of writing. Grandiose to be sure, and certainly snotty, the notes see Reed trying to make a case for his solo work: "The records were letters," he writes. "Real letters from me to certain other people. Who had and still have, basically, no music, be it verbal or instrumental, to listen to." And the four full sides of monstrous clanking? "It is the only recorded work I know of seriously done as well as possible as a gift, if one could call it that, from a part of [a] certain head, to a few others. . . . For those for whom the needle is no more than a toothbrush."

Now, all of this sounds a little melodramatic, nearly 20 years on. Reed was just a middle-class college kid who'd just spent three or four years scampering about in the pop-culture capital of the world with one of its crown princes, Andy Warhol. But at the same time, he was taking seriously what he saw as his artistic mission; he was carrying a key aesthetic precept of rock 'n' roll--the louder and rougher the problem, the louder and rougher the music--to its logical extreme, and understood that to do it right he had to commit himself fully. Like a musical Patty Hearst he crossed over to the other side, and, worse, stuck out his tongue at us from behind the barricade. Thus the final kiss off from the notes to Metal Machine Music: "My week beats your year."

And don't forget that he could back up the posturing with chops. Reed's fucking-faggot-junkie years (his words)--from his first self-titled solo album of 1972 to, I don't know, say 1979's The Bells--proudly demonstrated rock 'n' roll's extravagant ability to codify decadence. His underground weirdnesses aside, Reed always had an ear for the rock classic (as the epochal latter-day Velvet songs "Sweet Jane" and "Rock 'n' Roll" attest) and was always acutely aware of his rightful place in the pop firmament. His economical, hugely melodic portrait of the Warhol gang, "Walk on the Wild Side"--one of the greatest fluke hits of all time, a sort of Canterbury Tales told by the Factory crowd--the fierce and blasting Rock n Roll Animal live album, the wistful and edgy Coney Island Baby, the sardonic and brutal Street Hassle, and the almost unbearably searing The Bells: these are the benchmarks of a solo career equaled, in the 1970s, by perhaps Neil Young and certainly no one else.

Somewhat exhausted, it seemed, Reed eased into the 80s with the substantive but overdone Blue Mask; he soon got bored and spent the rest of the decade rather cynically, cleverly playing out his celebrity with some good-natured seminovelty action ("I Love You, Suzanne," "My Red Joystick," "The Original Wrapper") and cheerfully prostituting himself in commercials for Honda and American Express. New York and its follow-up, Songs for 'Drella, were a way to bring things back to earth and get Reed back into the rock 'n' roll pantheon he so firmly believes he's a part of.

Though New York was an all-but-tuneless rant created by an obvious crank, the critics unaccountably bit. Songs for 'Drella, a tribute album to Warhol conceived and written with stupefying literalness by Reed with help from Velvetmate Cale, was step two, and the process continues with the release of Magic and Loss, a patent quest for respect. Magic and Loss may be the first album made to encourage an induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. (Lou and the Velvets were nominated last year, but didn't get in.) Reed's accordingly serious topic here is Death. While AIDS and cancer are the unspoken subtexts, Magic and Loss is not an AIDS album (it doesn't mention the word, and it's dedicated to two friends of Reed's who died of other causes), nor is it really about the people who are dying. It's about how Lou feels about all this, and like a lot of his worst work the record suffers from this limiting conception.

The first hurdle, believe it or not, is the titles of the songs. Each has a name and a sort of identifying label: "No Chance--Regret," "Gassed and Stoked--Loss." They're kind of like Hallmark Card categories ("Sorrow--Pet Death") and get old very quickly, along with all of the record's other hoary elements, including a short instrumental rave up that kicks things off ("Dorita--The Spirit"), a reprise ("Power and Glory--The Situation" and "Power and Glory, Part II--Magic--Transformation"), and a big record-closing title song ("Magic and Loss--The Summation"). That number ends with the line, "There's a little magic in everything / And then some loss to even things out." Hey, Lou, the love you take, ya know?

The second hurdle is the songs themselves. Even New York, a glum, soulless, self-centered, and ranting record, had "Dirty Boulevard," which rocked. What we get on Magic and Loss is lots and lots of Reed's talk-singing, that sardonic logorrhea full of notebook jottings, street scenes, remarks from friends, unexplained literary allusions out of English 101 ("It made me think of 'Leda and the Swan'"--how exactly, Lou?), and boring reworkings of others' better ideas ("Power and Glory," for example, is a "Hard Rain" rewrite). It's all set to occasionally pretty music. The wash of sound on "The Sword of Damocles" works just fine, and there's a plaintive backing track of guitar noodling on "Harry's Circumcision" that contrasts nicely with the gritty if cheap lyrics.

As for lyrics, Reed's in big-statement territory on Magic and Loss, so he pulls out all the stops, cliche-wise: A disconnected telephone stands for death; a luckless victim wants to kill himself and can't even manage to do that. The lyrics are regularly banal: "It's not fair," "It's too early for my life to be ending," "The sword of Damocles is hanging above your head," "I didn't get a chance to say good-bye," ad absurdum. (I don't think it's being picky to point out here that the sword of Damocles is a symbol of precariousness not imminent death. You might say that in the age of AIDS we all have the sword hanging over our heads, but the person in the song--who's dying of AIDS or cancer or whatever--is one of the unlucky ones who have already been hit by it.)

There's nothing wrong with doing a rock song-cycle on death--lord knows there's a lot of it around these days. But why does Reed have to be so pretentious about it? In his glory years he put his not inconsiderable talents to work giving voice--in a way that can still capture our imagination today--to an authentic and theretofore silent subculture. But now his sardonic running off at the mouth doesn't tell stories, set scenes, or blow our minds, it just runs. Magic and Loss is supremely artless, in the negative sense of the term; Reed's just given us his rather unstructured feelings on death without doing the work it would take to re-create them on album in a way that might be affecting, moving, or saddening. Self-importance doesn't illuminate, it obscures, and that's all it does on this dreary album.

Readers of the Sun-Times, curious how the paper's pop-culture coverage could get any worse in the year since the departure of the respected rock critic Don McLeese, got an unwelcome answer a few months back when the paper tightened its free-lance budget, effectively muzzling its best music writer, Michael Corcoran.

Corcoran, a nationally known bad-boy critic who'd written a series of loopy profiles and humor pieces for Spin and a notorious column, "Don't You Start Me Talkin'," in the Texas weekly the Austin Chronicle, had been on best behavior during his free-lance gig at the Sun-Times, and made no bones about wanting to be hired as a full-time critic in the third-largest media market in the country. Over his two years at the paper he produced thoughtful articles on everyone from Sinatra to Metallica and still managed to wield a wicked pen when he needed to. (On Bob Seger's The Fire Inside: "Produced by the aptly named Don Was. Seger was a good singer.") Less than sanguine about his future at the paper, last month he accepted a job as country critic at the Dallas Morning News. (The paper recently swallowed its competition, the Times-Herald, and has been busily expanding.)

Even with Corcoran the Sun-Times's pop coverage was inadequate, overreliant on wire-service material and almost completely bereft of trend articles or explanations of major news events in the field. Where the Tribune sent critic Greg Kot to cover the beginning of the biggest tour of the year--U2's return to the concert stage--the Sun-Times could only belatedly pick up an article from the Los Angeles Times. And Corcoran was the only writer on the paper who wrote about rap at all.

Now, aside from some passable work by heavy-metal free-lancer Cristi Kempf, the paper's rock coverage is back in the uncertain hands of Jae-Ha Kim, who doesn't seem to be improving with age. Here she is reviewing a band called the New Fast Automatic Daffodils, who performed a live version of "Purple Haze":

"The New FADS are smart enough to realize that re-creating Hendrix's style won't work for them, so they make a version that is musically almost undistinguishable from Hendrix's classic, while retaining the song's anthemic qualities."

As far as I can tell, she's trying to say that here's a band that knows they shouldn't do a straight cover of the song (the "anthemic" "Purple Haze"), so they do a straight cover of the song, even while they do a straight cover of the song.

Evidently the Sun-Times's elders are aware of some of the entertainment section's problems, and there is talk that they've resolved to hire a new critic. Before he left, Corcoran let them know he was going, and why. Startled, one of the Sun-Times's top editors suggested that the paper might match the Morning News's offer. The 35-year-old Corcoran, a struggling free-lancer for more than ten years, shook his head, marveling at a world that offered him either no job or two. He voted with his feet, and went to Dallas.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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