Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed Rules

One of the few Lou Reed records I never owned was Transformer.  I was never a David Bowie fan.

David Bowie worshipped Lou Reed, but Lou Reed was always a different story. The best thing about Lou was that he was not commercial, why get his most commercial record?

I was way too cool for commercial.

I had most of the other  Lou’s, up to and including New York. Transformer? Why indulge this pandering to the mainstream. Of course, Lou’s going commercial meant a song about transvestite and junkies with a transcendent saxophone solo when that instrument had become nearly absent from the top 40.

I later warmed up to the song (and record, which I would ask friends to play when we hung out at their pads) when I found out it was written for a Broadway show that never happened based on the great novel by the same name by Nelson Algren.

I listened to Lou in my late teens and into my early 30s, but truth be told, Lou Reed was much of the soundtrack of my 20s. That’s the period where I wore out those lps. I’m sad he’s dead, another part of line now designated to the dustbin of history, another new crevice forms on that face in the mirror.

 I grew out of Lou by my 30s, certainly by the time my music went to CDs/MP3s , he was barely making any music and what he was making was forgettable. By then, I was dipping back into the punk and related rock less and less often.

Lou left music, I left Lou. But Lou never left me.

 It’s not like I ever proclaimed, I am never  listening to Lou again. I listened to him lots and lots, then less and less. The months turned to years and to decades. Same is true for Bob Marley. Why?  Why not?  So it goes. Our soundtracks shift, but that shift is always gradual.

By the end of the 1990s and the dawn of new century, Lou seemed to have retired, doing lackluster stunts like songs based on Poe writings, or more recently, a record with Metallica. I had zero interest, especially when I heard these late-period misfires.
Berlin being resurrected was cool. He toured with, performed the entire record live, reissued it.

Berlin is the greatest concept records ever made, dark and uncompromising but I had moved on to be excited enough to buy the re-introduced versions.

I was glad he reunited the Velvet Underground, but ticked that he never brought them to the United States. He only toured Europe. Kind of shitty to his fans.

He seemed to be happy with the marriage to Laurie Anderson – an artist I like and admire; I respect her music but never wanted to hear any of it twice – I  liked them as a couple, it doesn’t get more New York than them two, but the New York they embodied is gone. That New York was dead before Lou.

 Lou’s passing has dozens of implications, none of them positive.

Anderson and Reed seemed to have found happiness together, they liked each other, you could just tell. I feel sad for her, the grief she must feel. There were news reports about his liver transplant and then no news until now. He couldn’t afford New York hospitals, he had to go to Ohio. The transplant happened in May. He spent the last summer of his life where he grew up, Long Island.  There would be no more songs.

Lou never had his Time Out of Mind. I always wish, like Bob Dylan or Neil Young or a few others, his fellow elder statesmen, Lou would put out a late-career masterpiece. I wish like Johnny Cash, he could have found his Rick Rubin and put out a NYC version of American Recordings. Lou sang about desperate hours, his back was against the wall, his candle burned at both ends. To longevity, those artistic obsessions lend themselves not.

Considering the rumors of his drug use, it’s remarkable  he made through to and through his sixties. In the 1990s, he produced a great comeback record for Dion, King of New York which put that 50s era star back in the charts and in the hearts and minds of Rock & Roll lovers everywhere. More recently, he o produced  his wife’s  comeback record, which garnered great reviews. Think about that contrast. Who could more different than Dion and Anderson, doo wop and electronica. Lou was comfortable in both worlds.  This dichotomy that makes so much sense you could not make it up.

Lou was an original. No one else was like him, although many tried.

Unlike other rockers, he had no interest or apparent musical influences beyond Rock & Roll.  He did not dabble or listen to the blues, folk or country – tributaries that not only flow into and out of rock and roll, but welcomed songs inspired by experience and age . Rock & Roll, especially the 50s and 60s that Lou great out of was about youth, anything else was simply irrelevant.  He was Berlin Stories than Sun Sessions.  He only required enough technique to tell his dark tales. The sound was simple, the subtext was as complex as Joyce, Artaud or Celine.  

Lou was about youth, but his youth was the pursuit of experiences, of finding what it meant to FEEL alive.

Lou was ornery, challenged his audiences. He could be inconsistent – Growing Up In Public and Rock & Roll Heart, for example, are dreadful records. You had to buy his records on faith, there rarely received airplay, listening booths were long gone. Which Lou would should up this album? Luckily, the cynical but honest Lou  more often than not showed up, plugged in his loud, very electric guitar and told us of his latest dark nights of the soul.

He was neurotic and self-absorbed, like the city that he loved and lived in. Metal Machine Music is stupid crap, although the liner notes are extraordinary, almost worth it (I bought it as a cut-out; maybe it was worth 99 cents).

The Velvet Underground never got their due, which seemed to piss him off his entire life.  He kept on returning to those songs – his earliest solo album is a re-recording of the Velvet Underground playlist; Rock & Roll Animal a heavy metal reinterpretation of the same songs. To be a Lou fan is to own dozens of versions of Sweet Jane. He never matched the original, and there always seemed to be misgivings by him over those songs he wrote in his 20s.  He was angry about his audiences or his record companies that seemed to mask some deeper resentment. He was one of those artists whose art could never make him as happy as it made his  audiences.

 Those Velvet songs are so classic – in terms of influential, influence being inspiring emulation, Lou Reed comes close to Bob Dylan as being the most influential musician of his generation. There are hundreds of acts that made the charts when the Velvet Underground was making records that are entirely forgotten and we are still talking about the Velvet Underground with awe and respect. I can sing most of their songs and I never play their records anymore. My shower  sounded like a Max’s Kansas City set this morning.  Lou has a lasting power as a Lieber & Stroller or Doc Pumus, he knew great hooks, but he played through a distorted guitar and layered them with subculture obsessions.  I think he was pissed because he never understood why the mainstream continued to ignore the outsiders he extolled.


After the RCA years – the on again off again search for the Walk on the Wild side follow up – he made tremendous, classic records for Arista, that should have been major sellers. Many of them masterpieces, but mostly they were ignored. Even few of my friends liked them. You either loved or hated them. I loved them. Street Hassle, The Bells and The Blue Mask are a tribology of Rock & Roll that belong in -

I saw him around this time, right after Street Hassle, at the Bottom Line – a table so close to the stage that he knocked over my buddy’s drink with his guitar cord; This was during the I want to Be Black shenanigans.  Man, he rocked out. Street Hassle, followed by the Bells, are great, under-rated albums. Then he realized The Blue Mask, must have been Junior year in college. I think it is one of his best records, his best non-Velvet for sure.

Interest in Lou was revived as New York Punk gained some acceptance and began to spread around the world. The Sex Pistols made the headlines, the Clash made the charts. Lou Reed records were heralded in the review sections of magazines and newspapers, but sales and radio play were not forth coming. Lou was stuck in clubs when bands he inspired, from Talking Heads to the Replacements, were playing theaters and arenas. Lou was putting some of the greatest Rock & Roll of the time, but there was also a feeling his moment had passed.

His work was consistent through the 1980s, even though he had calmed down and the songs about the grit of the city seemed more inspired by headlines than all-nighters. He always had a reportage approach, now he was reporting on what he was seeing on television, not quite the same as describing going up town to meet his man.

 The album New York at the end of the decade, was his last great record.

Around the Magic & Loss period, my buddy Tony dragged me to see Lou at Radio City. I was not listening to Lou, I had moved into New York and instead of listening to my Lou Reed tapes, I got deeper into Bruce and soon enough the downtown that welcomed me was the one on the other side of the Hudson.

Tony said to me, “if we don’t go see Lou Reed, who will?”

Well, it was a good show, even though Magic & Loss is a pretty lackluster effort

Ole Lou was insistent that the show would not be about his hits, but only his new record, which I found lame, although he did play some of those New York songs too, a melancholic yet elegiac record – Halloween Parade, which I am sure will be played extensively  this week – is a downtown folk-anthem, a eulogy for the victims of the AIDS crisis. It has that Lou Reed feel; a song when you hear seems like you’ve always heard it.

Lou had this book of lyrics on an easel, and wore glasses to read them. The encore, which was extended, was a bunch of Velvet material and solo hits. I believe he played the title track of The Blue Mask too.

Around this same time, Lou appeared on the Bob Dylan 50th Birthday bash, known as Bob Fest by his fans, and did a killer version of the unreleased song, Foot of Pride, one of the highlights of the evening. I also have a tribute to Doc Pumus record where he rips into This Magic Moment. The sales may never have arrived, but he was respected as rock’s elder statement?

How did we start listening to Lou out in the hinterlands, the suburbs of Bergen County where most of our music came from Scott Muni and WNEW 102.7 and they never played Lou or the Velvets or even the then emerging Punk Rock?

 I was not a glitter rock guy at all – T-Rex, Alice Cooper, Bowie – I never listened to that crap – Kiss, even the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop, I always thought were over-rated. T-Rex? Dopey.

 I was a smug purist.

If you had to wear a dress to sing your song, I didn’t want to hear it.  Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side seemed to be part of that Gary Glitter, show-boat crowd. It never entered into my purview, but when it was a hit I had just started buying records – or was it a hit just before my first 45s –  and those hits, they came and go. Lou was barely on my radar, the associations were not cool to me and then he was off that radar. There were other records to buy (Aqualung, then Music from the Big Pink).

I loved Dylan (Always Dylan), but also the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. When high school started,  the 70s at that point were still steeped in 1960s. Acid Rock and psychedelics songs spoke to me. I was also a literary young man, Ken Kesey and thus The Beats were   connected to the Grateful Dead. My record collection was basically dictated by my older brothers, who were hippies and war protestors. In fact, it was mainly their records I was listening to. They had nothing produced by Andy Warhol.

And then came Horses. My older brothers and sisters HATED Patti, which only made me love that record more. She was mine.

 And while I still loved that 60s stuff – some of my earliest memories are of hearing Beatlemania era Beatles, and my tastes always tend towards simple Rock & Roll –Patti Smith was Rock  & Roll, but who was this Rimbaud guy. The Doors were rediscovered. The Ramones appeared and my favorite at the time, Television. Smoking, reading, listening to music – for a while, everything coincided and all I needed was a girlfriend.

By college, the Brits were invading again. But inbetwen then and the before then, this buddy Kevin Ford had Velvet Underground records. Now, Kevin was an interesting cat, a proud cynic and nihilist, really into film; also a conservative, hated anything hippie, thought Nixon was a great – just like Johnny Ramone. And, he had these Velvet Underground records. He was the first one to speak well of the Moloch of our childhood, tricky dick, and point out that the North Vietnamese were evil communists. And he listened to the Velvet Underground. Somebody other than California hippies made rock and roll music – records that Patti loved?

See, when Punk changed everything, the Velvets (and Iggy, and to some extent, Jonathan Richman)  were seen as the prototypes. We’d go to Kevin’s house, smoke (he was not that much of a conservative, I’ll tell ya that), and listen to his Velvet records. They were revelatory. They sounded very similar to the psychedelic records, like Crown of Creation, but these were songs about Sadomasochism, drugs, getting high and feeling confused and lonely by it, not in love with everything.   These were issues of youth, but instead of just the optimism of love conquers all, these were about what we were experiencing then. The alienation basically. All that Gnarly confusion that teenage hood instills. Nihilistic and real, which the 70s were; what a nightmare. My life was not After Bathing at Baxters or Europe 72.  Lou spoke to me in a way so much of the music I was listening to at the time never did.

Kesey, Rimbaud, Ginsberg – oh they were important – Lou introduced   Delmore Schwartz – European Son was on his first record, another tribute to Delmore was recorded on Blue Mask. Delmore was Lou’s creative writing teacher. Delmore was a troubled guy, brilliant writer but always broke, substance abuse problems. He is actually buried in a Jewish cemetery near the house I grew up in, we visited his tombstone and partied on his grave. Delmore was not counter cultural, we was a serious writer and a true intellect of modernism. An American existentialist who still is not truly recognized, except as a writer’s writer.

 Delmore basically has two books, his collected poems and his collected stories, the latter being titled, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. There’s some posthumous work of note as well.  Now, Delmore is a difficult read, and in the end, I prefer his short stories, which are perfect. But with Delmore I began to understand his peers, such as T. S. Elliot, and also Jewish writers like Saul Bellow, whose Humboldt’s gift is based on Delmore’s life.  He has some great essays, an interesting translation of Season in Hell (which my buddy Tony, Photostat and had bound for me to read way way back in the day, we’re both Delmore fans, thanks to Lou), and this fascinating Verse Play. Delmore often wrote about identity, one his poems compares his self to a bear that he carries within in – who is the real person, the image in the mirror, or the one we present to others. I have not read him in years, but his writing was challenging for my young mind – I had read enough to read him by the time I started listening to Lou – and his obsessions was stuff you think about in the late teens and early 20s. Delmore died at 45.

The thing with Lou, it was hard to find those Velvet Underground records, but except for Transformer and Rock & Roll Animal, his other RCA records were available as cut-outs. I paid 99 cents for Berlin and Sally Can’t Dance. Incredible to think about. At the Grandway. Lou was in the cutouts when every punk rocker was citing him as influence in every article on punk being printed.

Where and when I went to college, Punk had not quite happened yet – the Brits were just started to invade, bringing with them Reggae (deadheads like myself already were listening to Bob Marley) – but this one woman, Stephanie, loved Lou. She had graduate high school early. Now, I had a girlfriend and she was dating my roommate, neither of whom cared about Lou. Needless to say, Stephanie and I had a torrid affair and cementing our adultery was Sally Can’t Dance. The romance lasted a few more years after college, longer than the adultery. We did bad, bad things. We were lurid, erotic, secretive. I think of Lou as that soundtrack, of that period if youth when few temptations go unfulfilled. I remember reading to her Delmore Schwartz poems. I best resist the rest telling the rest of that memory here. Lou revealed to us new yet satiable appetites, but never avoided the psychological under-pinning of those same appetites.

Want to really enrich a torrid affair when you’re 20, get naked and listen to Kill Your Sons!


Later in the 80s, Lou was coming out with interesting records, like New Sensations, which had I Love You Suzanne, a fun song. I wasliving with Donna at the time, listening to Lou – being decadent, which basically meant sex and drugs and rock and roll. Lou was making some of the best Rock & Roll of the 1980s, which is not saying a whole hell of a lot because what a terrible decade for my favorite genre of song. We also dug Rock& Roll Animal, especially that version of Heroin where he bellows, you can all go take a f-ckin walk! Donna loved that. Rock & Roll Animal is intense, raw and loud.

The soundtrack to our lives.

Give me a song, I’ll give you a girl.

 Lou though, was particularly memorable, because nobody else listened to him. The Stephanie affair – she was a deep reader; so was Donna – seemed started by Lou. She grew up in rural South Jersey, Lou was a personal thing for her and she was surprised to find somebody who knew his music. In Jersey City, NYC is just next door, as safe and little different than all our urban settings. But back then, nothing was further than New Jersey than Lou Reed’s Manhattan. His reality was the stuff of our dreams, promising an intensity to living the suburbs denied.

Lou probably does not make what anybody would consider make out music, for moments on the edge, he’s the perfect accompaniment. Acting on urges, seeking experiences Rushing on your run, feeling just like Jesus’s Son.

I’ll be your mirror/reflect what you are/in case you don’t know.

Lou never went into elaborate rhymes, There’s very little word play. He avoided metaphor. He’s not like Dylan. His lyrics are more direct, elliptical. Unadorned slices of life that cut to the core.

All your two bit friends, they shoot you up with pills. God. Berlin. By the wall, you feel six inches tall. Very nice, it was paradise, dubonet on ice.  Broken lives, a sordid tale of hopelessness. The honesty of the witnessing is itself haunting. They’ve taken her children away, because they said she was not a good mother. 

I was in a punk rock band – The Urgency, and later the Altered Boys – and we did Rock & Roll, Sweet Jane and I’ve Been Set Free. (I’ve been set free/and I’ve been bound/let me tell you people/what I found), which was their third, mainly overlooked album. Sweet Jane & Rock & Roll are so easy to play on guitar. I was lousy believe you me, although the other guys were really talented – the drummer actually made a living as a professional musician – but I had the punk records. I knew enough chords. Enough for Lou. Anybody can play Sweet Jane.

Lou was as great a songwriter as anybody, did for New York what Hank Williams did for the South, universalizing subjective experiences of place.

I grew out of him, he doesn’t appear on any recent playlists. But I have always thought of him fondly.

I just read the Clive Davis biography and the chapter on Lou is worth reading. Clive signed him to Arista, and he apologizes that his Arista records did not sell better. Punk was hot, and Lou was the godfather of Punk and the Arista records, well Street Hassle, The Bells, and Blue Mask are GREAT, yet Lou never could get close to the hit of Walk on the Wild Side. Besides that over-exposed anthem, he never got much airplay. He  rarely even shows up in film soundtracks.

As he aged, he ran out of ideas, seemed limited by his own convictions, unlike Bruce, Neil, Dylan, Leonard Cohen – even Patti Smith or Tom Waits – never could adapt to his aging voice. Never a great singer, always a limited range, the previously mentioned songwriters may not have put out music as good as their hey day sound, but their late career records are noteworthy and of merit. They still got it. They  write songs for their new voice that can stand alongside the re-interpreted classics in a set. Lou never could. He seemed to just stop… then he died… one wonders how ill and for how long he truly was.

I may have grown out of listening to Lou – and maybe Lou grew out of himself – but man oh man, back in the day, Lou and the Velvets made so much sense when so little did.  I can sing and quote his songs entirely from memory.

Families that Live out in the suburbs/often make each other cry (that’s from the Bells)

There was nothing happening at all/TV set and two Cadillac Cars, baby they are nothing at all/ but then one fine day, you turn on a new york station and you can’t believe what you heard at all/you started dancing to that fine, fine music/you’re life was saved by rock and roll

Lou was one of the last one to make Rock & Roll When you’re young – at least when I was –  danger is enticing, and romantic. Rock & Roll wasn’t everywhere yet, punk was still underground and the other counter culture,  hippies, hated punk.  Hated anything urban.

 By the end of college, Punk was morphing into New Wave – Elvis Costello everybody loved. The Clash and the Sex Pistol. Funny, people hated punk when it was New York, loved it when was London – and ignored it entirely when it was Los Angeles. When it became Seattle, it was suddenly Wal-Mart.  Lou  never crossed over. But he sung about truths, he sung about people on the outside, people who were otherwise ignored by pop culture and politics and society. They weren’t on TV or even many films. They were in books,  like Jean Rhys or William S. Burroughs or Hubert Selby or Breese J. Pancake or Charles Bukowski., but not that often.

They are in Lou songs. They are his songs.  They were you and me. Lou was always there for us when not much else was.

My buddy Kevin use to say, Lou Reed Rules. He got married on a cruise ship that circled Manhattan. There was a DJ. His wife planned the wedding, he was only allowed to choose one song. It was We’re Going to Have a Real Good Time Together. Patti Smith used to play the tune, it’s on the great live Velvet record, 1969. The couple pogoed. He is an insurance executive now and lives on Park Avenue.

Kevin used to scrawl Lou Reed Rules on the walls of public bathrooms. There was a time in my life this statement was true. Today it still is.



  1. "Well, it was a good show, even though Magic & Loss is a pretty lackluster effort"

    Whatever. Magic & Loss is a BEAUTIFUL collection of songs. "Set the Twilight Reeling" is even better. Too bad you got attached to what you thought Lou "should be."

  2. i guess i mean not lackluster, but over-rated. lame records were not unique to Lou, growing up in public is another, but maybe i should give M&L another listen. don't be so snarky, music is subjective, deal with it or least something more than "beautiful".