Perfect Sound Forever

I'm set free to find a new illusion

John Cale Lou Reed

Lou Reed and John Cale face down the '70's
by Brian James (January 2003)

By the time the Velvet Underground belatedly gained the recognition they had deserved for so long, a best-of collection suddenly appeared in 1989. The fact that this band that had flown so far from commercial recognition in their all-too-brief tenure as a working entity was being distilled down to their most marketable elements was strange enough. Yet more peculiar was the subtitle of this collection, which read: "Words and Music of Lou Reed." The cover of this compact disc featured all three of the other band members as well as Nico and Andy Warhol, so presumably the men and/or women behind this set couldn't plead ignorance of the fact that Lou Reed did not manufacture the sound that came out of Velvet Underground records all by his lonesome. Additionally, the fact that Reed's solo records rarely approached the sonic territory mapped out the Velvets speaks to the singular contribution of the other members, most notably John Cale.

To take up the gauntlet that the preceding paragraph seems itching to do would be pure foolishness on my part. It has been a matter of spattering debate between Reed and Cale as to who contributed what to their collaborations, and simply taking one side or another would simply place me in line behind the hordes of presumptuous outsiders who bray endlessly and mindlessly around beer-soaked coffee tables and on information superhighways. No, I'll leave that up to other people who consider the fight worth fighting and instead set up a different kind of cage match. Picture if you will Lou Reed and John Cale battling throughout the seventies (this being by far their most artistically meaty period) to see which one of them would better live up to the mountainous legacy that they had jointly erected in kinder, gentler times. Perhaps because that legacy was so preciously small, we find ourselves hungering for more, and in the absence of more, we may first turn to shoddy bootlegs and live recordings, but eventually, we will get down and face the inevitable-the solo careers. This is almost always a subtractive process which does nothing if not prove how interactive even the most dominated bands are, but good and even great moments pop up from time to time, so this is at least partly a comparative tally of those poppings. More than that, though, this is an attempt to determine who inherited the larger portion of the spirit of the Velvet Underground, a spirit important enough to overshadow the fact that the result of such an undertaking, no matter what the result, will not save lives, end world hunger, erase the deficit, etc..

Anyway, the place to begin is at the time of the divorce. Until then, Cale and Reed had looked like the perfect couple, with the latter giving a rock and roll drive to the former's arty adventurousness. The Velvet Underground's first two albums were as brilliant as fusions get, forever expanding the sonic vocabulary available to the rock medium. After White Light/White Heat, however, Reed put the ultimatum to the band that either they apply their collective boot to Cale's avant-garde backside or else Reed would split and leave the band to flounder. Though at least in retrospect, the other members of the band have said that they were uncomfortable with the decision, they have also admitted thinking to themselves that minus their primary songwriter, there was not much of a band to preserve. Hence, John Cale became suddenly unemployed and the Velvets' sound shifted dramatically. It was a curious move on Reed's part, and all signs point towards jealousy and insecurity. It was impossible to miss how much Cale's viola did to set the band apart from even the few others with the courage to venture into their field, and those with a driving interest in the band at the time were quick to notice that Cale was the same person who had studied with John Cage and been a member of the Dream Syndicate with minimalist hotshots like La Monte Young and Tony Conrad. Anyone looking to make a case for rock and roll as a respectable art form--and there was no shortage of them in 1967--found ready ammunition for their cause in Cale's credentials. His forcible removal then seems a natural outcome of sharing a stage with a man like Reed, but when Reed steered the band as far away from their signature sound as he could possibly muster (short of donning shiny silver vests and becoming Sha Na Na), it was as good a way as any to avoid comparisons to the earlier version of the band. If he tried to do what he had done with Cale, Reed would have set himself up for a fall. If he failed, either by going too far or not far enough, the importance of his erstwhile buddy would be revealed for all the world to gawk at. As it stood, he simply looked like a restless artist diving headlong into a new direction that sought to shock his audience more than the perpetually despised bourgeoisie. The result, their eponymous third LP, was both one of the great moments in rock history for its willingness to defy what few fans they had and one of the great albums in rock history for its raft of songs as stunning as they are stark.

Meanwhile, Cale was keeping busy on his own, doing such enviable things as producing the Stooges' first album (and later, producing other children of the Velvets like the Modern Lovers, Patti Smith, and Squeeze, the last of these taking their name from the band's long-deleted fifth album). He appeared to be less than critically concerned that his new nemesis had got the jump on him, sitting throughout 1969 without releasing a solo album that seemed more than called for. During that time, Velvets supporters were left to ponder the fact that White Light/White Heat era VU minus John Cale equals The Velvet Underground VU, an equation they were easily able to do despite whatever chemicals were coursing through their veins. Expectations for a mind-melting blast of pure feedback were running high in a small but bug-eyed cabal, a situation that makes the 1970 release of Vintage Violence all the more hilarious.

Influenced more by the Band than by Steve Reich, Vintage Violence misled listeners starting with the title and didn't stop misleading them until the album was over. Though many could simply not get past their frustrated anticipations, the few remaining among the general populace who had bothered with the Velvet Underground who had bothered with solo Cale who could actually accept what he was doing for what it was found that it was a nifty album, full of assured playing and great songs. Cale, in his own words, wanted to see if he could simply write tunes, and no one would have any reason to doubt his talents after hearing Vintage Violence. Of course, it wasn't on par with The Velvet Underground, and neither did it match that year's Loaded despite its superior consistency. But such a comparison isn't really fair since Reed still had the band behind him. The one-on-one showdown would have to wait for 1972, when Reed released his self-titled solo debut, a record so bored and listless it practically evaporated on the turntable. After wonderful shots of deathless rock like "Sweet Jane" and "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'," Reed seemed more charged than ever before. His dismantling of the Velvet Underground looked at the time more like a man breaking free than running out of steam. Still, you couldn't argue with the puttering results, a platter full of reheated Velvets leftovers and alternately modest and empty new entries, played in part by members of Yes. For a while, Reed dropped out of music entirely, living with his parents in their Long Island home (prompting the question: Lou Reed has parents?). But as the rudder was falling off his ship, one of his ardent fans was just beginning to acquire a great deal of fame and, more importantly for Reed, power. Later that year, with the invaluable assistance of David Bowie, Reed released Transformer.

As Reed steered his signature course throughout the seventies, Cale was zigzagging around like a Beck prototype. After a couple of "classical" albums like The Academy In Peril (never mind that they had about as little to do with classical music as Abba), he returned to the pop fold with Paris 1919 in 1973. Procul Harum producer Chris Thomas was called in to assist, and many noted the influence. Rolling Stone trumpeted that it was as ambitious a record as the word "pop" had yet been applied to, and if that seems like an overstatement, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Many albums were more ambitious before and since, and many of those albums were unrelentingly pretentious tripe. Paris 1919 was welcomed into the prog-rock canon at the time, but it remains undimmed by the sinking of that ship, parading a set of songs grand in scope without ever sounding inaccessible, dated, or self-indulgent. There are no side-long suites about organized religion separating man from God, no wanky viola solos, no feathered hair on the cover photo. It is an unmistakably literary piece of work, with high-flown references flying out fast, and Cale retains a certain eggheadishness, but if Brian Eno can sing "I'll Come Running," then Cale can certainly sing "Child's Christmas in Wales" and sound damn fine doing it, too.

He sounded so nice on Paris 1919, in fact, that it was yet another jolt to hear him on 1974's Fear. Coming seven years after his departure from the Velvet Underground and just one year after the comparatively relaxed Paris 1919, Fear was the first time Cale addressed the same set of concerns that his former group was known for. Though his palate was different enough that no one would mistake "Fear is a Man's Best Friend" for a lost Velvets track, Cale was beginning to paint the same sort of picture again. Though the aforementioned pseudo-title track and "Gun" were the only real bruisers on board, the sense of discomfort throughout was strong enough to render the picture of the cowering artiste on the back of the album superfluous. Even taken on the most modest terms, Fear is an excellent album, but considering that it came on the heels of an equally impressive but radically different record, it is an extremely rare breed of accomplishment.

From there, Cale would continue to pursue the dark end of the rock spectrum through two more albums on Island, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy, a live album (Sabotage), and another studio effort, Honi Soit. If we were to suddenly return to our side-by-side comparison, Reed and Cale would like as if they wound up in the same dive bar. Despite the trick photography, the cover of Sabotage makes Cale look rather similar to Reed on his Street Hassle from the previous year. And though Cale was going about his self-immolation in more energetic fashion than the increasingly lethargic Reed, neither one of them would be a surprise addition to the obituary page of the New York Times. If Vegas was taking odds on which one would be wheeled out of the Chelsea Hotel first, Reed's would have been the better bet if for no other reason than that his profile was much higher. That difference in profile might seem like an insignificant detail, but therein lies the key to Reed's fate.

Though Lou Reed's music is sometimes filed alongside that of the Velvets in music stores and in the minds of many of his fans, his big break was also the big break from his past. In 1972, Reed was still a man without much of an audience, and though he has continually shown no interest in reciprocating the love thrown at him from below, I suspect he craves mass adulation as much as any other unrecognized genius. He deserves it, and he knows it. Hence, a crowd was a great lure for Reed in these lean years before punk sprang from his loins, and Bowie had one in his pocket that he knew would eat up anything Reed offered them. What neither Bowie nor Reed knew was that Reed would eventually offer up himself for consumption. His audience would eventually demand it, and their disappointment at Reed's failure to overdose gloriously was as palpable of that of the captain of the football team getting turned down in his back seat on prom night by the easiest girl in school. The glam audience that Bowie introduced to Reed eagerly welcomed him into their arms, but the sadomasochistic relationship that played itself out over the next decade was as perverse and unpleasant as anything Reed wrote about in a career filled with attempts at sensationalism.

Neither the glam audience nor glam itself was inherently flawed or destructive-it's hard to listen to "20th Century Boy" and think it's anything other than a godsend-but the relationship between those on stage and those in the crowd proved exceedingly difficult to manage. Marc Bolan and David Bowie's ego meltdowns were proof enough of that, but Reed topped them all in fine style. The glam audience was trained not to receive a performer's message too seriously. They merely skimmed along on the surface, not because they were shallow or stupid but because under the camp aesthetic, the style is equally if not more important than the substance. Bolan and Bowie understood this, at least getting in. Reed did not. It's a particularly American problem, this pathological inability to grasp camp the way most Brits naturally do, but for most people, it causes no more damage than a baffled reaction to Rocky Horror Picture Show. It nearly killed Lou Reed. What once seemed like a fine match between performer and audience turned into an increasingly dangerous game in which the former didn't know the rules. He would offer up tales of the dark side as he had always done, and now, instead of the horrified response he had come to expect from his Velvet days, he was greeted with shrieks of glee. Reed may have been a notorious manipulator, but he used no one like his audience used him. They demanded an ever more shocking embodiment of decadence, and had Reed been able to separate persona from reality, he could have weekends at the country club and gotten away with it. His audience, to the degree to which they remained true to the principles of camp, merely wanted a convincing show. They would have expected Reed to be a real-life junkie no more than anyone else expects Anthony Hopkins to be a serial killer. But Reed didn't know how to step off the stage, how to be anyone else but this thing he had created, this "Lou Reed" that had little to do with the man who had written "Heroin."

The great shame in all of this, other than the damage done to Reed and those around him through years of unspeakable drug abuse, is that Reed's art slid tragically downhill even more profoundly than one would expect from a solo career that offshoots from a great band. Despite the endless ink that has been spilled on how Reed expanded the vocabulary of rock and roll to include tales of junkies and whores and murderers, the Velvet Underground wasn't about junkies and whores and murderers. It was about people. What's so stunning about Reed's lyrical content is that no matter how much sex 'n' drugs he might pile on, the humanity of his subjects is always there. It's often very faint, often strained against by cynical and self-preserving impulses, but when Reed reduced Factory regulars to their most shocking elements on the song that made his solo career, "Walk on the Wild Side," it made a regrettable break with his Velvets output. White Light/White Heat may have been shocking, but at least it wasn't cheap like so much of what Reed did in the seventies was. That's not to say that it was all bad, and the best moments, scattered throughout his albums and featured most dazzlingly on "Street Hassle," are worthy of the author's talents, but the deeper dimensions were lost on his adoptive audience. This was simply not the way the Lou Reed game worked, and as long as his fans tolerated or even rewarded such embarrassments as Take No Prisoners and Metal Machine Music (and please, spare me the arguments about how it's a revolutionary record that has yet to be truly appreciated), Reed had no real motivation to strive for great art of the type he formerly made. He wasn't infected with quite the same disease that struck once-vital, now-bloated arena rockers throughout the seventies because his audience wasn't content with just anything. They wanted shock, and this left Reed with only the options of forsaking the audience that was finally giving him the recognition he deserved or shock himself to death.

John Cale's blessing in disguise was that he never received the kind of press that hovered around Reed. Perhaps he didn't contribute as much to the Velvet Underground as did Reed, and maybe he didn't even contribute as much as he says he did, but it doesn't really matter. He has his body of work ensconced in the world. If his lyrics are sometimes too opaque for their own good and fall short of the considerable achievements Reed was capable of, he never stumbled into self-parody or, worse still, self-betrayal. From a musical standpoint (and after all, that is what we're talking about, "street poet" nonsense aside), Cale easily showed himself the equal of Reed, displaying the magnificent elusiveness once seen in the sixties version of that man before he sunk into an enervating and all-too-predictable horror show. And no matter how far afield Cale wandered from his point of origin, he retained his sense of adventure and invention long after Reed was too stoned to remember those things. Ultimately, it is because Cale evidently spent little to no time worrying about what it meant to be a graduate of Velvet University that he was able to live up to what that faultless institution stands for. By avoiding the self-consciousness that did in much of Reed's work, he was able to carry that torch despite the fact that he was never recognized for it. Then again, maybe it's not "despite" at all. Maybe it's "because."

Also see a 2005 interview with Cale, an overview of Cale's solo career, and an overview of Cale's wild late 70s years
And also see our Lou Reed tribute

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