Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Red States + Blue States = this video clip

Each year at this time I discuss what America means to me and point to this clip as pretty much summing up the country in the shortest time imaginable. Our president came to great notice telling us that there are no “red states” and “blue states,” there is “only the United States” (that has never been true, as has been illustrated by a thousand different events, actions, behaviors, and policies).

I would like to posit that the spirit that makes a bored volunteer at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade begin to mock a man (a celebrity, whom everyone once knew) reading the country’s constitution IS the American spirit. Not all of us might do this, but we live in a country where it is possible, and really, really, probable.

Please join me in saluting the spirit of America once again:

Friday, November 22, 2013

“Life’s good… but not fair at all”: Deceased Artiste Lou Reed (part 4 of four)

When I talk about Jerry Lewis on the Funhouse TV show, I’ve often noted that his comedy films (particularly the imaginative, charming ones he made with director Frank Tashlin) will be able to be more fully appreciated when Jerry has passed on. Even though he has been mellowing in recent years — and many members of the public who never liked him were saddened by him being booted from the telethon — Jerry’s abrasive attitude in public has served as the biggest obstacle to his comedy work being appreciated.

The same is true of Lou Reed. Now that he has left this mortal coil, he is no longer around to be rude to interviewers, so what is left is his truest legacy: his music (and yes, those pieces by Bangs I explored in the second part of this piece will live on forever, but those are also about Lester’s worship of Lou’s best music).

We can now explore the 22 studio albums he put out — plus the legally released live albums, which range from the best (Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal) to later experimental items with the “Metal Machine Trio” (not counting the literally hundreds of live bootlegs on the Net) to absolute crap (Take No Prisoners) — without having to think of Lou's abrasive interludes. 

Now onto the Reed solo-career discography, without “lettered” grades, since we know how much Lou hated Christgau’s rating system (wonder what he thought of Entertainment Weekly's appropriation thereof). 

First, I should suggest if you’re intrigued by any of this stuff, or just want to hear any one of *dozens* of Reed bootlegs, check out the YT accounts of a RABID Lou fan, who says he’s posting items given to him by a super-fan named “Lyoko.” His two accounts are here and here; his postings are comprised of 21 of the legally released albums and literally countless full concerts from the Seventies through the 2000s. 

Since the Net contains too many fucking Top 10 lists already, I will include one and only one in this piece. My top tier of Lou albums would be these 10 (ordered chronologically):

1-4.) The Velvet Underground albums (available together as the CD box set Peel Slowly and See)

5.) Transformer

6.) Berlin

7.) The Blue Mask (the harder, angst-ridden songs)

8.) New York

9.) Songs for Drella

10.) Magic and Loss 

And, to a lesser degree, his eponymous first solo LP from ’72, Sally Can't Dance and the tongue-in-cheek LP that is Coney Island Baby. Metal Machine Music is up near the top tier simply because it is aggressive and insane, thus worthy of a mind-fuck or two.

I’ll close out this obit with a discussion of the last three items on that list, but first I want to explore the “middle-period” Reed, which contains a handful of great songs and some LPs that are just heinously lame:

The “Arista Years”:

Rock and Roll Heart ('76): the title tune is all that you need to hear from this directionless “interim” album.

Street Hassle ('78): the title tune and “We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time” (which Patti Smith covered wonderfully in concert) are the sole standouts.

The Bells: not one good tune on the fucking disk. “Disco Mystic” is particularly abominable, time you won’t be getting back.

Growing Up in Public ('80): Lou confronts his alcoholism for the first time on this album, with a startlingly unflattering photo on the cover (he looked much worse for the wear at only 38 years of age). He complains about his parents, preaches that we should “Teach the Gifted Children,” and in one song rhymes “Escher” with “Measure for Measure.” The sole virtue is his tongue-in-cheek ode to booze, “Power of Positive Drinking.”

In 1982, Lou returned to RCA and put out his first truly powerful album since Berlin, The Blue Mask. In relistening to it to write this piece, I realized that the record is half-masterpiece/half-Arista-level material. The worst item is definitely “Heavenly Arms” (the aforementioned Lou-bellowing-about-Sylvia song I referred to in the first paragraph of the first part of this entry). It's goddamned dreadful.
On the other hand, the album contains four songs that are back in the traumatic groove that Lou pioneered with the Velvet Underground. “Underneath the Bottle” and “The Gun” are disturbing numbers that sketch a man on the edge; “The Blue Mask” and “Waves of Fear” are on a level with the finest VU work.

The strength of these songs comes no doubt from the fact that Lou was in the midst of cleaning up after years of booze and drugs when he wrote them; they also benefit from a stripped-down approach – just Lou performing with Fernando Saunders (bass), Doane Perry (drums), and the amazing Robert Quine on guitar. One thing is certain: they are closest that rock has come to approximating the work of the brilliant novelist Hubert Selby.

Waves of Fear” is delirium tremens in musical form: “Crazy with sweat, spittle on my jaw/what's that funny noise, what's that on the floor/Waves of fear, pulsing with death/I curse my tremors, I jump at my own step/I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell/I know where I must be, I must be in hell.”

Blue Mask” is a masochistic anthem, a lyric that reeks of self-loathing and pain worship: “Make the sacrifice/mutilate my face/If you need someone to kill/I'm a man without a will/Wash the razor in the rain/let me luxuriate in pain/Please don't set me free/death means a lot to me.” (I'll take bets a young Mr. Reznor was listening.)

That was basically it for Lou's Selby-like trip. On his next LP he went full-throttle into the biker/tough-guy pose he kept up for most of the Eighties. Legendary Hearts ('83) is a mostly forgettable album, that includes one more fatalistic addiction ode (“The Last Shot”), and Lou putting us on notice that he's happy and doing well financially (“Rooftop Garden”).

New Sensations ('84) spawned the song “I Love You, Suzanne” that broke Lou on MTV (see part 3 of this blog entry). At this point he's still in transition (Lou's transition lasted more than a decade and a half), still trying to find the right vocal style for his lyrics.

The most-indulgent, yet enjoyably nostalgic, song on the record is “Doin' the Things That We Want to,” a “where-did-this-come-from?” tribute to the works of Sam Shepherd and Martin Scorsese, in which he considers both men colleagues (the song is lively and sounds like a plea from Lou for collaboration with either or both of them).

In 1987, Lou tried to inject a “danceable” note to his music in the album Mistrial. “Video Violence” and “The Original Wrapper” show Reed trying to be audience-friendly and retain his new MTV following. He also executed a sort of dry run for the New York album with the topical lyrics of “Video Violence.” The slower songs were still a drag, however.


It's impossible to call the 1989 New York album by Reed a “comeback,” since he had never gone away, but it most certainly was a return to form, and the first completely excellent album from start to finish since Berlin. Working at the height of his powers here, Lou turned out a “newspaper” album, the kind of thing that Phil Ochs did in '64 (All the News That's Fit to Sing) and Lennon took a stab at in '72 with Some in New York City.

What Lou wound up delivering was the rock equivalent of Bonfire of the Vanities, a time capsule that is filled with beautifully sketched portraits of big city life and political issues in the late Eighties, with the references unrepentantly dated and localized to New York City.

Some of the self-righteous anger (especially in “Good Morning Mr. Waldheim”) doesn't make for the best rock “poetry” – in fact, it's clunky as hell – but New York is the first album where Reed perfectly matched his limited vocal range to the melodies.

He also crafted a “character” that suited him, a cranky chronicler of a city (and civilization) in decline that is touted as being on the “upswing” (Guiliani is one of the many real-life figures who are namechecked and/or mocked on the album). The clear, pure sound of one of Reed's idols, Dion, counterpointed with Lou's own sardonic, nasal narration, make “Dirty Boulevard” unforgettable on both a musical and “storytelling” level.

Reed followed the New York album with Songs for Drella ('90), a suite of songs he cowrote and performed with John Cale in tribute to Andy Warhol. This is the album that would've most likely made the best Lou Reed off-Broadway show, since (aside from Lou's fervent “I Believe,” about his wishes that they had killed Valerie Solanas for shooting his hero Andy) the songs are primarily written from the perspective of a single character (Andy) and the stripped-down sound created by Lou on guitar and Cale on piano and violin is both economical and powerful as hell.

In the album, Reed and Cale alternate vocals, with Cale assuming the quiet, public side of Warhol and Lou incarnating his professional and conceptual side (plus the anger that he never seemed to have expressed). The fact that the two were back together again, making music for the first time since 1967, was amazing, and the resulting show/album was nothing short of brilliant – Lou had to up his game when Cale was around (the Welsh one being a schooled musician who dwelt in the real avant-garde before the VU; Lou basically had to create his own little “wing” of the underground).
The back-and-forth between their instruments (as on the VU live reunion album) makes the music crackle, and the best songs – the sarcastic “Small Town” or the elegaic “Forever Changed” – are what the VU might've sounded like if either of these gents could've stood each other's company for a longer period of time.

And, although Cale was very generous to Lou in the program notes for the show (saying it was mostly Lou's show and he was only a singer/performer), it was essential that there be another voice in the project – Lou could not have carried off the song “The Trouble with Classicists” the way that Cale did.

I saw the live performance of the songs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was struck by the use of slides on a big screen behind Reed and Cale. The effect of augmenting the music with Warhol's paintings from the era and photographs of the people and locations was overwhelming. I remember being very disappointed upon purchasing the 1990 VHS version of the show (directed by the great Ed Lachman) to see that the images of Warhol's paintings weren't in the shots.

The VHS version can be seen in piecemeal fashion on YT, but still what you see are the two men playing and singing, not the stuff that was going on above them on the screen, as here in the song that best used the Warhol images, called (fittingly enough), “Images”:

Lou’s last great achievement was Magic and Loss, his '92 album about dealing with the death of a friend (Reed said in interviews that it was inspired by the deaths of two friends of his, one of whom was famed songwriter Doc Pomus). The album continues on from Songs for Drella, with Lou exploring the topic from several angles, from visiting the friend in the hospital to disposing of their ashes and, most touching, dreaming about the person after their death.

Too often Lou surrendered to his pet emotions — anger and angst — in his songwriting, but here he adopts an adult attitude throughout, balancing the sadness of loss with the joy of having loved a friend (and knowing how much they’d scoff at the somber nature of their memorial service). 

Magic and Loss is not as eminently re-listenable a record as his best rock albums because it so sad at points, but it does place Lou in the category of the great singer/songwriters, who crafted a musical identity for themselves while delivering sober truths in song. It’s also, needless to say, an incredibly “middle-aged” album, as it deals with one of the most common situations we encounter after age 40. And one of middle age’s most common emotions: regret. 

There are things we say we wish we knew and in fact we never do
but I'd wish I'd known that you were going to die
Then I wouldn't feel so stupid, such a fool that I didn't call
and I didn't get a chance to say goodbye
I didn't get a chance to say goodbye

No there's no logic to this - who's picked to stay or go
if you think too hard it only makes you mad

But your optimism made me think you really had it beat
so I didn't get a chance to say goodbye
I didn't get a chance to say goodbye
No - I didn't get a chance to say goodbye
I didn't get a chance to say goodbye

And if the beautifully elegiac tunes don’t do it for you, there’s also an extremely Selby-esque “short story” called “Harry’s Crucifixion” that finds Lou back in “Blue Mask” mode, although in a quiet, calmer fashion and with a Freudian “back story” this time….

The single best way to end this long-assed tribute to Lou Reed is to highlight the one song I’ve played more than ANY other Reed-related item (in fact I used it as the theme to the Funhouse for a very short while many years ago). It appears on the Velvet Underground rarities album Another View (’86), and I’ve found it’s one of those indisputably upbeat, hard-driving numbers that will jumpstart me in even the lowest of moods.

The VU with Cale in Dec. ’67 doing the instrumental version of “Guess I’m Falling in Love.”

Goodbye, Lou, you hard-rockin’ pain in the ass!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

“Not exactly the boy next door”: kitsch (and intentional humor) in the work of Deceased Artiste Lou Reed (part 3 of four)

Before I talk about Lou's recorded output, I want to take a little trip into the world of Reed kitsch — some of which was intentional, some not so much. Lou’s sense of humor was mostly sardonic, grim, and cruel (best illustrated by the remarks he inserted into the lyrics of New York, including “stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done.”)

Sometimes he was not as cutting or attitudinal; he could occasionally exhibit a goofy sense of humor. One thinks immediately of his first big MTV music-vid (that was quite an odd moment), “I Love You Suzanne” and that extremely silly dancing at the end (is that Lou all the way through? You make the call):

Add to that his rather startling video for “Modern Dance” from the album Ecstasy, in which he wears a chicken suit:

In the movies he acted in, he usually just played a version of himself (as in Wenders’ Faraway, So Close! ('93) and Wayne Wang and Paul Auster’s Blue in the Face ('95)). One of his best “thesping” efforts (gotta love Variety-speak) was as a petrified Dylanesque musician (called “Auden”) in Allan Arkush’s loving tribute to the Fillmore, the rock comedy Get Crazy ('83). The film has never been released on DVD, but can be seen in its entirety on YT here.

Then there were the instances of unintentionally funny kitsch that Lou was a part of. For starters, there’s that tough-guy Honda ad he did for their scooter line. It’s hard to reconcile this gig with the dead-serious pose Lou assumed in interviews (then again, Henry Rollins is now a regularly heard voice in car commercials, so extremely serious “punk godfathers” do have a tendency to bend their principles when it comes to promos for wheeled vehicles).

The resounding thing here for NYCers is that Lou is seen in front of another long-gone Manhattan institution, The Bottom Line.

Now we hit the hardcore silliness. Lou achieved major “respectability” in the Nineties. One of the many signs that his music was being allowed into the canon of “classic rock” — in the UK at least — was the 1997 BBC charity single version of his “Perfect Day” sung by Lou and a cast of major celebs (Bono, Bowie, Elton John, etc). Best single juxtaposition: Tammy Wynette followed by Shane MacGowan.

What I’ve found extremely weird about that song being embraced as a sort of “easy listening” mellow-rock classic is that Reed follows his description of a perfect day in the park with a lover (with the killer verse, “you made me forget myself/I thought I was someone else/someone good”) with a final lingering thought/caveat/threat: “You’re going to reap just what you sow.” This serves to make the song something entirely other: a distant memory, an evocation of a happy time before the shit hit the fan, a happy moment in which another’s pain is possibly being ignored.

But the song has gone on to be sung by mainstream pop vocalists and even wound up on a PlayStation TV commercial (minus that last line, of course). It got to the point where the song was enshrined in the world of high fuckin’ kitsch at one of the “Luciano Pavarotti and Friends” TV charity concerts when Lou was joined by the mighty Pavo for a lofty-soundin’ version of the song:

The height of Lou’s whorishness resulted in a blessedly awful music-video, the tie-in vid for his version of “Soul Man” with Sam Moore. Recorded for the soundtrack of the moron movie starring C. Thomas Howell, the song is just a lame cover. But the video is just startlingly stupid. To inject a “Ghostbusters”-like effect into the movie, celebs appear lip-synching lines of the song. Thus, Lou and Sam are “joined” by Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, Jamie Faar, Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd, Elvira, and Gumby!

I can segue quite easily into a discussion of Reed’s recorded work by sticking to the topic of kitsch for a few more paragraphs. That “Soul Man” video above is hokey as fuck, but at least it wasn’t touted as “high art,” which POEtry, Lou’s second stage production with theater director Robert Wilson, was. 

I will readily confess to being really bored with Wilson’s stagecraft. I saw his three collaborations with Tom Waits (The Black Rider, Alice, and Woyzeck); loved the first one, but found the second and third to simply be, for better and worse, copies of the first. A German theater troupe (Wilson's works have mostly been inaugurated in Germany, and thus American audiences see them performed by the German theater troupes) milling about in front of minimalist/Expressionist sets singing songs in English, with the cast members generally attired (and often made up) like Cesare the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

POEtry, which played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2001, went one step further — in it Reed and Wilson attempted something on the order of a Broadway musical, but one using the elements just mentioned. Lou decided that the short stories of Poe needed to be visualized, and thus “the Imp of the Perverse” was a grown man in a giant chair (he’s like a child, see…) singing about how he’s, well… [German accent] “sa Imp of sa Perverse.”

The show was clearly meant to entertain, but one got the feeling that Lou and Wilson were patting themselves on the back for having gotten to the “essence” of Poe’s work with this ragbag of cornball silliness. At one point the assembled cast turned to the audience to belt out the show’s theme song, and I realized I was watching a colorful but oddly sincere approximation of “the Time Warp” sequence from Rocky Horror intended as some sort of avant-garde art. (For the record I love TRHPS.) 

Except here the cast was singing this dreadful number about Poe. To wit (if I can use that word here): “These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe/not exactly the boy next door/He'll tell you tales of horror/then he'll play with your mind/if you haven't heard of him/you must be deaf or blind./These are the stories of Edgar Allan Poe/not exactly the boy next door.” Dig the segment from the song found in this Dutch news item (you’ll also see a bit of that fuckin’ Imp):

I don’t believe in life after death, but I would pay good money to big, blustering Lester Bangs grabbing Lou by the lapels and asking “What the fuck was that Poe thing about?”

I got “off the bus” of Reed fandom with POEtry (one good thing came from it – I wound up reading Poe's collected works to “cleanse” my brain of Lou's take on the stories and poems). Everything that followed confirmed I’d made the right decision. Soon after seeing the show at BAM, I was at a reading for charity at the St. Marks Poetry Project, where Lou read his rewritten version of “The Raven” by Poe. An astonishing act of hubris, Lou’s rewrite is nothing special — he just changed around some lines and added what he felt was harder, more contemporary language.

You can hear his rewrite of “The Raven” on the 2003 album of the same title, recited by the always up-for-a-challenge Willem Dafoe. The two-CD set is a bizarre creation that is half an album of new mediocre songs and half a spoken-word project by producer Hal Willner (whose work I dearly love). Willner had already covered this territory before with his album Closed on Account of Rabies (wherein Christopher Walken reads “The Raven” – and the world toppled from the mind-warping mixture of material and artist).

So the album works like this – you hear a quintet of actors led by Dafoe do radio-play-type recreations of scenes from Poe, then you hear a not-very-good song by Lou, then another bit of spoken-word (with Lou noodling around on guitar in the background), another song, etc. Appearing on the musical tracks are Laurie Anderson, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Ornette Coleman, the sublime Antony, and the indestructible David Bowie. But the songs are on this level (check out Lou's crazy-frog voice).

In interviews Reed talked about what he related to in Poe's work (the sense of self-destruction as a “life choice”), but he clearly felt he was a comradeship with old Eddie, so he decided to slide two of his own songs, “The Bed” (from Berlin) and “Perfect Day,” in amongst the supposedly Poe-influenced work, just to reinforce the connection.

The album's weirder moments – Steve Buscemi appearing as a lounge singer; Lou doing some “Metal Machine” feedback to approximate the fire in “Hopfrog” – make no goddamned sense, but then again Lou (who made sure to mock the Poe films starring Vincent Price in his lyrics) has the narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado” declare, “I will fuck him in the ass and piss in his face!” It's something Poe missed.

After The Raven, Lou concentrated on reworking his Berlin album for live performance (the album had been a complete flop upon its release, but musicians and those dreaded journalists Lou hated so much had made it a cult hit). He also put out the aforementioned album of “Hudson River Wind Meditations” and the Lulu project with Metallica, which was misbegotten from the start and is often just plain painful to listen to.
The last time I saw him perform in public, he was part of Hal Willner’s 2011 tribute to Shel Silverstein at Central Park’s Summerstage. Lou chose to “re-interpret” Shel’s classic country tune (a hit for Johnny Cash) “25 Minutes to Go” (Shel loved doing “countdown” songs with sudden ends). He performed the song with Canadian indie rocker Emily Haines as an extremely slow ballad, thus destroying the song entirely.

Haines sang the countdown, while Lou rambled on in what can only be deemed as a senior-citizen version of his Take No Prisoners persona, the social commentator who never gets around to singing the song. Let me state clearly that I agree politically with every notion that Lou was unskillfully inserting into Shel’s lyric (I loathe Mayor Miguelito), but with each rambling addition, Lou was effectively killing the fucking song and not building up anything new and interesting in its place.

Here is a well-shot, well-recorded shorter version of the song via the SummerStage folks, but one intrepid viewer caught the whole damned thing (only seven minutes, but it lasts an eternity, if you know the Cash original, or are just a Silverstein fan):

So any diehard follower of Reed’s work experienced some pretty bad stuff over the years, in between the handful of genuine masterpieces — in this regard he is close to Dylan and far from the folks who’ve put out a smaller number of albums that are all pretty damned good (I’d count Leonard Cohen, Waits, Randy Newman, and Joni among these — yes, her last few albums were forgettable, but there were thankfully so few of them….). 

In the fourth and final part of this entry, I will move through Lou's post-glam solo discography. And, yes, there WILL be praise!

Friday, November 15, 2013

A 'death dwarf' meets his ruthless slave: Lester Bangs vs. his hero, Deceased Artiste Lou Reed (Part 2 of four)

In the first part of this piece I focused on the public persona of Lou Reed — a talented performer, indelible songwriter, and “punk pioneer” who relished the notion of being nasty in interviews. In this part I will talk about the one journalist he couldn’t openly insult (at least not without getting some truth spat back in his face). In the next and last part, I'll be touching upon some of his odder kitsch moments, and, finally (yes, I’m a fucking fan!), my vote for most underappreciated Reed album, containing some of his most nuanced and emotional songwriting.

First let’s talk about Lester. Lester Bangs was an incredibly talented writer who wound up being a rock critic. His articles still shine with insight, brilliant turns of phrase, and wonderfully weird notions decades after he wrote them — and the records he was talking about have in many cases disappeared  (I know somebody’s gotta be out there listening to the Godz, but I’ve yet to meet them).

I mentioned in the first part of this piece that Lou Reed was a musician’s musician whose mythos was created by journalists. Inarguably, David Bowie was the most important friend Lou ever made in the music business. The Velvet Underground had a helluva solid critical reputation but never sold records; when Bowie produced Transformer for Lou (at the peak of his Ziggy fame), suddenly Lou Reed had a record on the charts, with “Walk on the Wild Side” instantly becoming his theme song.

Bowie was the most important fan that Lou ever had (he first professed his love for the music on Hunky Dory), but Lester Bangs was the most vociferous, the most dedicated — it’s noted in Jim DeRogatis’ Bangs-bio Let It Blurt that, even after Lester swore he wouldn’t ever write about Lou again, Cynthia Heimel (who dated Lester for a short time) noted, “He did not realize he could talk for sixteen hours about 'Lou Reed, Lou Reed, Lou Reed, Lou Reed!' “

Bangs (seen at right) proselytized about Reed, so when he had a problem with Lou’s music — mostly when his songwriting was getting too facile, or his public image was becoming that of a scrawny glam clown — it mattered and made sense, because Lester felt that Lou was an immense talent who should have become the singer-songwriter of the Seventies. (You must remember that one of Lester’s most memorable pieces is called “James Taylor Marked for Death.”)

Reading Bangs’ writing made me a diehard Lou fan. The incredibly vibrant and enthusiastic way that Lester wrote about the VU and solo Reed, the sheer intensity of it, has been unmatched in modern writing about rock — except, of course, for the way that Lester wrote about the Stooges, Van Morrison, and a few others.
Yes, reading Lester converted me to a Lou Reed fan (the two are seen at left with Patti Smith between them). I previously had two VU LPs and Transformer, but after reading Bangs’ raves and rants about Lou I wanted to hear the body of work, and so I did (comments on the “forgotten” solo albums in the last installment).

Lester served as Lou’s “conscience,” questioning him about topics relating to his music and his persona. As I noted in the first part of this piece, Lou never tolerated questions that didn’t directly relate to whatever he was flogging at the moment, so Lester’s interviews with him (or, more properly, mutual scream sessions) were indeed extraordinary.

Lou found it fun to “joust” with Lester, put him down verbally, and let him go to places that no other journalist was ever allowed. But Bangs got the final laugh, since the pieces he wrote were often better than the albums Lou was making at the time. 

The first full-length interview Lester had with Lou, titled “Lou Reed: Deaf Mute in a Phone Booth” (Nov. 1973) is up in its entirety on The Guardian website. In it we see Lou confronted by his hero at his worst: “His face has a nursing-home pallor, and the fat girdles his sides. He drinks double Johnnie Walker Blacks all afternoon, his hands shake constantly and when he lifts his glass to drink he has to bend his head as though he couldn't possibly get it to his mouth otherwise.” 

The conversation eventually degenerates into a very entertaining shouting match (wherein at one point Lester yells at Lou, “Why doncha write a song like ‘Sugar, Sugar’? That'd be something worthwhile!”). But before it does, Lou actually does get “the question” in about alternative lifestyles that the later, calmer, Tai-chi-practicing Lou refused to go near.

Namely, was Lou’s music and appearance touting the gay lifestyle? Sez Lou in the piece “…You can't fake being gay, because being gay means you're going to have to suck cock, or get fucked. I think there's a very basic thing in a guy if he's straight where he's just going to say no: 'I'll act gay, I'll do this and I'll do that, but I can't do that.'

"I could say something like if in any way my album helps people decide who or what they are, then I will feel I have accomplished something in my life. But I don't feel that way at all. I don't think an album's gonna do anything. You can't listen to a record and say, 'Oh that really turned me onto gay life, I'm gonna be gay.' … By the time a kid reaches puberty they've been determined. Guys walking around in makeup is just fun. Why shouldn't men be able to put on makeup and have fun like women have?"

Lester’s further meditations on Lou’s statement (again, read the article, for the full thing) are also fascinating and spot-on: If Lou Reed seems like rock's ultimate closet queen by virtue of the fact that he came out of the closet and then went back in, it must also be observed that lots of people, especially lots of gay people, think Lou Reed's just a heterosexual onlooker exploiting gay culture for his own ends.…

But let's just suppose that Lou Reed is gay. If he is, can you imagine what kind of homosexual would say something like that? Maybe that's what makes him such a master of pop song – he's got such a great sense of shame. Either that or the ultimate proof of his absolute normality is the total offensive triteness of his bannered Abnormality. Like there's no trip cornier'n S&M, every move is plotted in advance from a rigid rulebook centuries old, so every libertine ends up yawning his balls off.”

The “second round” between Lester and Lou can be found in the article “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” which is collected in the utterly essential book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung edited by Greil Marcus (Knopf, 1987). In that encounter, Lester and Lou once again turn the classic rock musician/fan-interviewer model on its head by at first sizing each other up and then hollering (spot-on) insults at each other.

At this point Lou was fully entrenched in his glam persona — the height of which saw him thin as a stick (from speed), sporting dyed blonde hair and nail polish, endlessly posing for a photographer who might or might not be there (the very vision of a faded Warhol superstar, but this was when Lou’s records were selling!).

Again, Lester gets some interesting quotes out of Lou, and the two wind up yelling (incredibly accurate) insults at each other. Lester’s remarks about Lou having become a “self-parody” who delivers “pasteurized decadence” are true (but then again, the band he was traveling with was great at that time — the Hunter-Wagner group of Berlin and Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal fame, so the music he was making onstage was his best-ever, in the minds of many diehard fans).
Only a true fan of an artist could sum up his hero in such a laser-sharp manner: (pp. 170-171) “Lou is the guy who gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide, and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke with himself as the woozily insistent Henny Youngman in the center ring, mumbling punch lines that kept losing their punch.”

(p. 172) “… Lou realized the implicit absurdity of the rock ‘n’ roll bĂȘte-noire badass pose and parodied, deglamorized it. Thought that may be giving him too much credit. Most probably he had no idea what he was doing, which was half the mystique. Anyway, he made a great bozo, a sort of Eric Burdon of sleaze.”

Bangs continued to write about Lou — until he finally felt he’d overdone his Lou-worship in print and swore never to write him again (but still did, more below). The most amusing writing he ever did about Mr. Reed was most certainly his slew of articles about Metal Machine Music, the 1975 feedback-noise album that was either Lou’s giant “fuck you” to his record company, or a complicated, dense piece of experimental work.

Lester wrote not one but two articles that were nothing but lists of things he had thought about the record (the finisher, the K.O., was him declaring “It is the greatest record ever made in the history of the human eardrum. Number Two: KISS Alive!”). These articles can be found in Psychotic Reactions, and its follow-up Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste (Anchor Books, 2003); the first piece is also available online here (for some reason lacking the numbers Lester employed in his original; the article is intended as a numerical list). At one point, he rejoices in the fact that, whatever its starting point,  MMM is an emotional work:

(p. 196) “… Besides which, any record that sends listeners fleeing the room screaming for surcease of aural flagellation or, alternately, getting physical and disturbing your medication to the point of breaking the damn thing, can hardly be accused, at least in results if not original creative man-hours, of lacking emotional content.”

If you want to read what Lou said about the album in recent years — he definitely was sticking to the “dense piece of experimental work” explanation — you can find an interesting interview with him here.

But, once again, Lester hit the mark by recounting in Creem (Feb. '76) a remark Lou made to Funhouse interview subject and favorite Howard Kaylan: “Well, anybody who gets to side four is dumber than I am.” While it’s entirely still possible to enjoy MMM as Lester did and I have, as a sonic “cleanser” — the feedback noises Lou created do do much to play with your mind, if heard on headphones— and it is a damned rebellious move by a guy whose previous LP (Sally Can’t Dance) had been Bowie-less but still sold very well, it’s interesting to know what he said about it behind closed doors….

One thing’s for sure: like any devoted fan, Lester dreamed of being able to influence his hero to do his best, and in his writing it often seemed like he was having a conversation with Lou. This is nowhere more apparent than in two previously unseen fragments from 1980 that were first published in Psychotic Reactions. Lester was a marvelously talented writer whose style was copied by most every music critic that followed (whether they knew it or not). But what did he write about when he was writing for himself?

(p. 168) “Aw, Lou, it’s the best music ever made, the instrumental intro to ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is like watching dawn break over a bank of buildings through the windows of those elegantly hermetic cages, which feels too well spoken, which I suspect is the other knife that cuts through your guts, the continents that divide literature and music and don’t care about either.”

(p. 201) “The real question is what to live for. And I can’t answer it. Except another one of your records. And another chance for me to write. Art for art’s sake, corny as that. And I bet Andy believes it too. Otherwise he woulda killed himself a long time ago.” 

In the next two parts of this tribute, I will finally tackle Lou's music, spotlighting the worst and the very best of his (legal) output. If you want to see a great collection of Lou posin' for the camera, visit the "Fuck Yeah Lou Reed" Tumblr.