LOU REED TRIBUTE
by Aaron Goldberg
"..There's only one great occupation that can change the world and that's real rock and roll.
I believe to the bottom of my heart, the last cell, that rock and roll can change everything..."
Lou Reed, 2013
Here I am, a 'fan,' writing some personal eulogy to a bloke I've never met, never had a beer with, nor smoked a joint with, while discussing how amazing Don Cherry's "Brown Rice" sounds under the influence, or even better, Reed himself jamming with Cherry on the live version of "Heroin" (on the Between Thought and Expression box set).
During the mid-'70's, I remember my mother driving me in her little red Corolla to this experimental Yiddish School in Elsternwick, Melbourne that I attended. The AM radio was playing all that MOR bullshit from the '70's that Tarantino made trendy, rubbish like Blue Swede and Stealers Wheel - 'one hit wonders' - and gently, seductively, some other song with the 'doo-do-doo's in it came through, Lou's own "Walk on the Wild Side." Ironic, since Lou would one day describe himself as 'a one hit wonder'!
Even though I didn't know it at the time, Lou was a big rock star in Australia. Lou's music was big with really rough, working class, drug-culture types. Heroin, the drug, had landed in Australia via the reflux of the Vietnam War, and Reed's opus, "Heroin," became the rallying call for a generation of Australian junkies and drug dealers. Then you had the nascent Gay Lib/Rights scene in Sydney. Reed was their Superstar, their Knight in peroxide blonde hair and studded black leather armour. Recently surfaced Australian TV interviews from the time are perfect testament to his rock 'legend': he was smarter, hipper, more tuned-in than the backwater Down-Under isolated squares who were interviewing him. He demolished them. Forever.
Lou Reed's music was always on the subconscious fringes of my pre-teen and teen life via trauma and dysfunction in my family life, and it would only be in my latter teen years that the music and words would become a kind of psychic shield against crap in the world, and incidentally, a source of great inspiration and joy! When I was 8 years old, my elder half-brother was deposited back in suburban Melbourne after a massive psychotic breakdown following a failed 'Aliyah' to Israel. Electro-shocked and medicated into a zombie state, the trauma was an irrevocable earthquake that forever changed the fabric of my Holocaust-survivor micro-family (on my Dad's side, pretty much all murdered by the Nazis). The fact that Reed suffered shock therapy, psychotherapy, sexual-alignment therapy, and numerous other forms of suburban repression would figure greatly in my pagan anti-10-Commandment idol worship of the man. It's not like the Tenach offered any such meaningful, intelligent nor contemporary counterpoints.
My mother would shlep me along to 'halfway houses' that '70's drug-casualties were placed in as part of their 'recovery' (that often never eventuated). She obviously wanted me to confront the 'realities' of life at an early age, since the 'Happy Little Vegemite' reality/delusion that every other fucking white-Aussie had, and that I envy/resent to this day, was not going to be part of my agenda. I would learn in no uncertain terms that I was not born with a golden spoon up my arse. And it was in these places that I would see Lou Reed albums like Transformer and Rock and roll Animal, and even the first Boys Next Door-Birthday Party record littered around small record-player hi-fi units, along with Fleetwood Mac and ABBA and other 'normal' (?), mainstream stuff.
Who was this meshigener? What was this 'extreme' stuff? The music itself would not enter my own consciousness proper until my mid-teens, via the Velvet Underground reissues of the mid-'80's. In the private, fiercely Zionistic and neo-conservative high-school I was plonked into, the more 'progressive' peers of mine who were involved in the Socialist-Zionist youth movement Habonim (wow, sounds really sinister to my ears today: the same youth movement that inadvertently helped to lead my two damaged half-brothers to their own mental-spiritual malaise!). My peers were already experimenting with marijuana and listening to soft counter-cultural icons like Bob Dylan and the Doors... but then there was the Velvet Underground. My best friend in high school (more like my mutant-brother) was curious about the legend of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. We went to our local art gallery and were impressed by a 'Pop Art' exhibition which included works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Johns and Rauschenberg, all embellished by a soundtrack from a mysterious rock group called the Velvet Underground. As a British colony, Australia was bombarded by English pop groups. The '80's figured as some sort of second 'English invasion' down here, with nascent post-punk and new wave synth groups dominating the mainstream and alternative airwaves, despite their watered-down rebelliousness and shitty gated-drum sounds. Through all this bouncy British techno pop, one band, the Jesus and Mary Chain, bucked the whole trend. With their guitars and drone of white-noise, they were constantly compared to the Velvet Underground. Hearing the VU for the first time (the song "Foggy Notion" on the VU compilation), they sounded just like any other '60's Paisley band. They were no heavier than the Doors, and Lou Reed was singing about 'Calamine lotion,' which I thought was pretty naff, since you only used that stuff to treat mosquito bites. Not until I heard the White Light/White Heat album did the whole paradigm of what Lou Reed's music meant (and more than likely WAS), and the whole puzzle and mystery of Lou Reed's lyrics, music, persona, shtick - make sense to my own sense of self.
I didn't start taking notice of Lou Reed's solo career until he made his 'comeback' in the late '80's via New York. We used to laugh at the videos of Lou live in concert that appeared on the more left-field government TV networks like ABC and SBS. Ian 'Molly' Meldrum (writer/producer/TV presenter) never gave Lou any kudos in the '80's, and so Lou's legend in Australia would be relegated to intellectual, druggo, university types, or drug dealers who sold speed, referring it as 'Louie' (as in rhyming slang for speed/Lou Reed – a drug synonymous with the man). The videos of Lou live featured Robert Quine moping around, and a rhythm section featuring Fernando Saunders and Fred Maher. We would laugh at how 'inept' Lou was as a guitar player; shit, even we could play like that! But Lou didn't have to be a virtuoso guitar player, he'd already mastered rock 'n' roll back when it was real. By the '80's, his output was more of a homage to the notion of rock and innocence, via those cheesy songs like "I Love You Suzanne." Remember, '50's nostalgia was kinda trendy amongst hipsters in the early '80's (Raybans, pastels, Roy Orbison), in the same way '60's psychedelic nostalgia (Flamin' Groovies, Doors, Paisley shirts and moptops) became trendy in the mid-late '80's. In the later years of high-school, when I would start illegally sneaking into licensed venues under-aged to see local rebellious rock heroes like Ed Kuepper, the Died Pretty, Venom P Stinger, the Hard-ons and the Cosmic Psychos at the legendary Prince of Wales in the Melbourne bayside suburb of St. Kilda, then a typical dark and scungy underground rock venue that had merged with an even more notorious gay-transsexual bar, the staircase leading up to the band room proudly decorated with black and white movie star headshots of local transsexual 'celebrities.' But it was Lou Reed who made this subterranean, marginalized culture human, through his music, in every corner of the world.
The thing with Lou Reed's work is that it always felt real and genuine. His lyrics were simple to understand, often funny, often shocking, but in context of the great, lazy, dopey, semi-psychedelic but fevered music backing them, always seemed to work, except when he got sentimental and obvious and shmaltzy in songs like "My House." In any sense, at least that stuff displays sensitivity, in spite of itself, and even latter cheese like "Modern Dance" and "Hang on to Your Emotions" are still earnest enough to work ("Emotions" especially: a great duet with his wife Laurie Anderson that features a really nice Anderson-style -electro-synth wash right at the end of the tune). It was that realism, the fucked-up lyrics like 'all you two-bit psychiatrists giving me electric shock,' that related to the personal shit going on inside my own head and life, that made me feel, shit, HE went through and experienced that stuff, and could express it so well. And it shat me coz, because who the fuck was gonna listen to my unimportant bullshit?? The power in his work is that it gave people that didn't have a voice to express such modern, urban, everyday angst, a certain kind of possibility that such pain or ecstasy could be expressed and communicated via art, and that the void of existential loneliness could be filled with something ultimately more positive and transcendent than religion, dogma, drugs and self-destruction. And besides, the lyrics wouldn't carry if the music that they accompanied wasn't great. Not only did the Velvet Underground records sound like they were beamed from another planet, but the obscurity of the band created a whole mystique, that was fuelled by a sub-cult of bootleg collectors, who trade was as illicit and exciting as the sub-cultures and poetic worlds Reed sang about. The music always experimental, challenging and interesting, drifting you off into some psychedelic dreamland whilst the lyrics would smash you back down to earth dirty realism and dark humour.
Back to my mate who was mercurial in passing the Reed-virus onto me. He would soon suffer his own mental disintegration, another trauma that would feed back into my own sense of self, and have me question my faith, sexuality, identity - leading to another massive chasm of self-doubt – and to a large extent was tempered by one thing - the words and music of Lou Reed.
I don't wish this crap upon ANYONE, that's just my lot in life, and it has taken me years to just accept it all and not let it destroy me. In the end, it was all a gift of some sort, just like Lou Reed's work or life, which at the end of the day, wasn't that much different to my own, he just became celebrated because he's got more talent. Equality doesn't exist despite what the Marxists say, especially in art. Through all this meshigarse, I found solace in a rock n roll band of my own, and the experience acted as some sort of alchemic, remarkable tonic, that makes me stand proud in my middle age.
Not long after Lou died, my old-high school buddy texted me the following confession:
"...His death has affected me on an identity/artist/creativity level (?) Lou to me was always the ultimate in uncompromising artists, with non-creative middle class Jewish parents (ie: not born into a creative encouraging home). His death is heightening my constant questions I always have of myself – why am I not being the artist that I know is within me? Full time??? An ongoing internal battle for me that's really coming to a head now in my mid-40s..."
I replied: 'STOP WORRYING' and then: "If it's any consolation I am completely paralysed creatively, but Lou made an interesting comment in his eulogy on the ABC on Monday night, along the lines that it's the ability to work and always look to advance on the last thing that you have done."
That's all I could take away and pass on. The struggle continues. Victor Bockris, in his scathing biography of Reed, dedicated a portion to the notion of 'Jewish Love.' My mate and I could relate: the thing being, at least Lou Reed and Lenny Bruce became ICONS out of it. Que sera.
The first Velvets/Lou song I ever learnt how to play on guitar was "What Goes On." It was the first song I could sort of attempt to transcribe the only guitar scale – the Major Pentatonic Blues Scale or whatever it's called – and thus the first lead solo I could sort of play. It gave me the confidence to believe I could just do this rock n roll thing. I still have a video of me and my best-mate performing it for the first time. We performed it again at a crappy Purim concert at our final year in high-school. I would perform it again with the indie-shmindie band I was in during the '90's.
On the morning of the 28th October, 2013, just after being woken by my alarm clock, and then touching the iPad to see who Facebooked me, I read the news that Lou Reed died via some Internet-friends in Canada I've never met. After confirming that this was true, and posting my own unseen Facebook news bulletin, I reached over to the side of my bed, took out my Maton acoustic guitar, and played "What Goes On" out of tune. A communion beyond death. What else could I do?
Aaron Goldberg is a writer from Melbourne, Australia, his non-fiction book on Music and other Under-the-counter culture 'Whenever I feel like it' can be purchased from Amazon here: http://amzn.com/0987412256. His fictional homage to the work of Jean-Pierre Martinet, 'Foutre la merde, dans', can be purchase here: http://amzn.com/0987412264, thanks, I really need to shift some units.
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