Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Darker Velvet: Deceased Artiste Lou Reed (part 1 of four)

Lou Reed took himself very seriously. At times that made him a great artist. At others it made him a nasty son of a bitch. At still others it made him an imminently satirizable figure (who wound up not being satirized, mostly because he was a cult icon but never a massive mainstream success). Now that he has departed this mortal coil, we can deal with what mattered most, his music, the best and the worst, the songs that will hopefully remain around forever (“Sweet Jane,” "Satellite of Love," “Dirty Boulevard”) and those that should've never seen a legal release (that one where he bellows about his then-wife Sylvia, sounding like John in the worst throes of Yoko-worship). But before I get to the music, let's just review what we can call, for lack of a better term, the prickish side of Mr. Lou Reed.

Reed was certainly an NYC institution, but not a friendly one. That seemed to have changed after he and Laurie Anderson became “an old couple” together – they'd could constantly be run into attending events downtown, out in Brooklyn, or in Lincoln Center.

They performed regularly, either together or separately, at events produced by their good friend, the wonderfully talented Hal Willner. They even dressed up in silly outfits and served as “king and queen” of the Mermaid Parade at Coney Island. Through it all, Laurie remained a sort of smiling beacon; Lou, on the other hand, maintained a really good glower.

Even as his lifestyle mellowed, Lou maintained an adversarial – no, let's be honest, a hostile – relationship with the press. His standard line was that he loathed journalists. What was interesting about that (and very telling) was that it was journalists who created Lou Reed.

He was certainly a musician's musician (cue the Eno quote about the folks who bought VU albums), but he also was lionized and mythologized in the press. Rock critics treated him very seriously, and although they did pan his work – and a LOT of the criticism was merited, let's be honest (I'm a fan, folks) – they also helped him craft a public persona as a “poet of the streets” and “punk forefather.”

I remember reading an interview in a British mag just a few years back where Lou got pissy with a gent who was merely asking him about the various grades of guitars he'd used over the years. This after Lou had mellowed out and could've become the kind of genteel, classy “elder statesman” that various singer/songwriters have become (Leonard Cohen is the very ideal of this).

He felt a need, though, to tell off interviewers and maintain a hostile position to the press, even as the press kept throwing garlands at his feet (even when his work wildly missed the mark – but I'll talk about “The Raven” soon enough). Let's run through some history....


Although Lou hated it (or perhaps, precisely because Lou hated it), the Victor Bockris book Transformer offers us a look at the many guises of Mr. Reed throughout the years. Bockris' preceding book, written with “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” member Gerard Malanga, Up-tight: The Velvet Underground Story, sketches how Lou and the band were broken on the “scene” by Andy Warhol, and how, once they had moved away from the Warhol camp, Lou tossed out the immensely talented John Cale (his main rival for leadership of the group) and then estranged the other two members (especially Sterling Morrison) by mixing them “down” on the band's third, self-titled LP (you can hear the original mix on the VU box set).

Lou was a literary-minded guy who wanted to break into rock 'n' roll badly, so badly that he toiled for the amazing Pickwick Records, which just appropriated trends from the major labels and had their “house writers” come up with songs that sounded like the hits. Here is the best example of his work from that period, “Cycle Annie.” Notice the chuckle in his voice here – he knows this stuff is crap, but in fact it's really fun, solid rock 'n' roll:

The Pickwick Records are not the weirdest early Lou recordings you can hear. Those would have to be the 1965 demo tape (found on the VU CD box set) that the three piece Velvets did of songs in a funky folk vein (with a fucking harmonica!). Here is their bluesy, seemingly endless version of “I'm Waiting for the Man.” Lou's whiny voice is absolutely bizarre – you'd never believe that would be the same guy whose “pretty voice” would be found on the opening VU song “Sunday Morning”:

The four Velvet Underground albums are indeed perfection – although some fans prefer the first two because the clear tension between Reed and Cale was what “fueled” the band, the third and fourth LPs are perfect examples of Reed's young, acid-tinged genius. Here is an “interview” with Lou conducted by famed producer Tom Wilson in 1967 (this, of course, before his “rival” had left the band):

The Velvets' albums are easily available all over the Internet (and have been rhapsodized about by better souls than I), but a few of the artifacts have to be seen to be experienced. One is the Warhol film of the Velvets jamming with Nico (and her kid) in tow (which has been on and off YouTube for years, thanks to the furor of the Warhol estate). Here it is, from Italian TV, with the MoMA intro card left intact!

The other is the mini- “reunion” that occurred when Lou and John Cale played with Nico in Bataclan in '72; it was a magical musical occurrence that wouldn't happen again – Cale would work with Nico often, and Lou and Cale would collaborate on “Songs for Drella” and the VU reunion tour. You can see the TV broadcast of highlights from the '72 concert here.

The best account of Lou's solo career can, as mentioned above, be found in the Bockris biography (also a debunking of his tales of a terrible childhood – probably the reason he hated the book so much).

Even when seemingly stoned (watch him slurp at his drink!) in interviews, as here (in Australia in '74), he did the Dylan-in-'65 thing of being sarcastic and acting as if the interviewers weren't worthy of his time (although it's obnoxious as hell, it clearly works – the folks can't wait to write about ya when you're a rude asshole to them). At this point he was still in his glam phase, replete with dyed hair and nail polish:

That is indeed a funny strategy when dealing with mainstream, “square” interviewers, but as time went on that became Lou's default mode. Here you see a British interviewer talking about how you could warm Lou up by talking about old rock singles:

And you can see a fledgling interviewer whose English isn't very good going through the traumatic experience of having Lou as one of his first interviews. Sure, the editors, knowing Lou's rep as a dick with interviewers, should've sent someone who actually knew something about Reed's music to talk to him, but Lou really seems to love playing cat-and-mouse with this young guy.

Friend Steve suggested that Lou “does a great imitation of Jerry Lewis” in the interview above, and there's a lot to be said about the similarities between the two performers – although I do think Jerry would've been kinder to a foreign interviewer than Lou was. I've been trying to verify a story I read once that said that Lou was kicked off his college radio station for doing a nasty impression of Jerry Lewis (has anyone got a tape of that?), but it is indeed true that the mannerisms of both men when pissed off at journalists are quite the same.

Let me close out this part of my tribute (yes, I actually really love a whole bunch of Lou's music!) with two interviews from very different periods in his life. First, let's start with the recent years – I will cite in the next part the album I think that was a watershed, in that he was finest personal statement and his last truly great album from start to finish. After that he involved himself in a bunch of projects that stretched him as an artist but were really misguided, uninteresting, or just plain awful on a musical level.
One of his most laid-back projects ever was a “quiet” album of mediation music called Hudson River Wind Meditations. So by the time that came out (2007) he was a “mellow” individual who had a perfect life mate, had won extreme honors in his profession, and had done whatever the fuck he had wanted in music and had it all released by major labels. So did that make him a nicer guy? Well, why don't you read David Marchese's interview in Spin from 2010?

Lou expects his interviewer by that point to know his work cold, does not want to be asked about whether he exposed listeners to the gay lifestyle (he answers snottily and then stares at Marchese when that topic is mentioned), and really gets riled when asked about the possibly commercial enterprises he did like that silly-ass Honda ad (when he was in his “muscle-Lou” phase), complaining that has “nothing to do with music.”

After barking at Marchese for asking him about tai chi (which supposedly became Lou's one major past time and fascination – some folks like to talk about that stuff; ever read David Lynch talking about TM?), he tells the interviewer he's “not interested in music” and declares “we're done talking.” This from the man who crafted Hudson River Wind Meditations....

But to really get the feel of Lou being a jerk to an interviewer you have to go back to primo Lou, back to when he was still writing great songs (albeit maybe two or three per album of 10 or 12 – I've got too many of 'em, kiddies). In 1978 the great writer Josh Alan Friedman (whose Tales of Times Square I count among the best books about our burg) was assigned by the Soho Weekly News to interview Lou and told to ask him about Brooklyn by his editors (talk about sending a kid into the lions' den!).

You can read Josh's interview in its entirely on his Black Cracker Online blog, but I'll note that Lou has nothing nice to say about either Brooklyn or Long Island, does get misty about old r&b records and Andy Warhol (side note: what was all the Andy worship about in interviews and Songs for Drella when Warhol's own diaries record the number of times that Lou snubbed him publicly?), and he tells Josh that only good-looking people should be rockstars (not “ugly” Tom Waits, “four-eyed” Elvis Costello, and “niggers like Donna Summer”).

So, go and read the interview – it gets to the point where Lou tells Josh how he would kill him. The most memorable pullquote? “You oughta fuckin’ kiss the ground that you’re walking on that I’m even talking to you. I’ll chew you up on any level you want to get to. You’re a fucking moron, and you oughta fuckin’ know it man, ’cause you don’t know what you’re talking to, or how you’re talking to it.”

Admittedly, Lou was, to put it plainly, a really nasty drunk at this point in his life (cue “The Power of Positive Drinking”). But, again, go back to the 2010 interview above, and you see that Lou has taken the death-threats out of his interviews and the “faggot”/“niggers”/“lowlife Jewish asshole” stuff out of his vocabulary, but he still was a petulant, pissed-off prima donna.

Is there any trace of that Lou on record? Well, I'm sure it exists in several bootlegs, but for some unknown reason, most likely fulfillment of a record contract (personally produced by Lou himself), one of the MOST RIDICULOUS-EVER live albums is Lou's two-record Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners, recorded in May 1978 at the Bottom Line in NYC. If you want to hear really *great* Lou Reed live, listen to Rock and Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live (the one to the right). But if you want to hear a NYC rock icon try desperately to sound like Lenny Bruce, and fail, big-time, then check out this atrocity. (It was indeed released on CD and now is available as a legal MP3 download Lou musta liked it!)

Lou is drunk or stoned (or both) and never stops fucking talking throughout certain songs – and he's less funny than Francis Albert was in his “comedy routine” in the middle of the Sinatra at the Sands LP. During “Sweet Jane”, he goes on about, among other things, Barbra Streisand being condescending at an awards ceremony, people from Wyoming (?), politics, and Henny Youngman. He affects a bitchy pose to those who talk in the audience, but also never stops doing Lenny's nasal voice.

The whole set is really Lou at his most indulgent and awful, but to experience him at his most drunk/stoned/indulgent/rambling/unfunniest, you must hear him doing “Walk on the Walk Side.” He starts the song, returns to the actual lyrics every so often, but mostly conducts an ongoing monologue consisting of short lines that mean nothing at all.

It's a 15-minute abomination that finds him running down Robert Christgau at some length, then moving on to mock the folks mentioned in “Walk,” Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, “the Sugar-Plum Fairy,” and Joe Dallessandro. At this point Lou clearly thinks he's Ondine in addition to Lenny – but unlike those two, again, Lou is just NOT FUNNY.

The band continues to play the melody, assuming he'll come back to speak-singing the song, but he's relentless in supplying quick quips. Eventually the band ends the tune because, well, he's just not gonna shut up.

The fact that he included one of his more embarrassing tunes, “I Wanna Be Black,” on this LP is entirely appropriate. During a really looooong version of “I'm Waiting for the Man,” he goes back to being Lenny, and even obliquely refers to Groucho's “Show Me a Rose (and I'll Show You a Girl Named Sam),” but at times seems to be talking to himself, not the audience.

In re-listening to the album to write this post, I should note that the only really great things about it are the cover illustration by Brent Bailer and the collage design on the gatefold (and the album sleeves) by Phenografix Inc. and Dennis Weeden.

In the next three parts of this post I'll discuss the one journalist who called Lou out on his bullshit and will finally praise the guy's music.

1 comment:


I enjoyed reading your knowledgeable take on Reed.

His taking of himself seriously seems largely a conscious decision: I believe (but can't prove)he borrowed from Warhol a deliberate policy of assuming everything he did was a work of genius. This harms an artist's quality control but gives them the certainty to push limits and find ways to be original. Much of Reed's work is about breaking rules on purpose on the assumption that something interesting will thereby happen: repeat something beyond all rational repetitions and something odd can occur; or use "I love you" as a chorus to see how much meaning is left in that phrase - and in fact a lot of Reed's writing and remarks refresh old phrases and give them life: on the radio with Hal Wilmer he says, "I was up til all hours," and makes it sound like a fresh expression; or use feedback for 4 sides of an album; or write the Hudson river work you mentioned; or "New York"; or play with the cliche that pre-rock and roll 1950s song lyrics were cliches about moon and June etc, while also refreshing the impact of that juxtaposition - as he does in "Power of the Heart" with the line "a 5am moon and sun start their swoon".

I think the other reason he behaved obnoxiously after he was sober was as a defense mechanism. My sense of him is that he again made a conscious decision, this time to protect his feelings even if it was at the expense of others. There are stories of kindness and warmth from his friends, and some of this shows in the interview Elvis Costello did with him and Julian Schnabel: Schnabel says Reed was the first person he called when his father died, and Reed starts to elaborate on the story, then stops and looks at Schnabel and says, "Is this OK?"

I was disappointed by Bockris's biography, I thought he did much better with Keith Richards. I prefer The Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground.

I kind of disagree about the Sylvia/Lennon stuff too. Not sure if I've listened to "Sylvia" or not, but part of what I like about "Power of the Heart" is that it feels too personal, like a letter as much as a song: I suppose I have to come back to Mailer and "The best move often lies next to the worst," - though Reed may've taken it farther by trusting that anything other composers avoided and regarded as a mistake would therefore yield magic or at least impact.

I enjoy the "Take No Prisoners" version of "Sweet Jane" - the band and the song hold together while Reed improvises his amphetamine monologue, and the rant becomes part of the rendition.

I look forward to reading your other 2 parts.