Perfect Sound Forever


by Ryan Settee
(December 2013)

I, like many, was saddened to hear of Lou Reed's passing, recently. Rock n' roll always seems to shorten the lives of those who lived the music that they played, and Lou was no exception.

My impression of Lou was that he'd never really achieved the respect that he should have been afforded. For a musician with very limited skills, he'd managed to craft an amazingly diverse catalogue that was appreciated by many people. However, he'd never really managed to appeal to many people outside of his core audience. Perhaps the out of tune singing, ragged guitar playing and overall nonchalant demeanor contributed to that. To some, its always sounded to them like Lou was sort of half singing things or not really into it. But it is important to realize that Lou had helped to prove that you didn't need to be a virtuoso to play music. Technical prowess is one thing, but if you study the scales and the chord chords and everything like that, something often gets lost in the translation.

In the 70's, he'd helped to keep the specter of simplistic music alive--neither proto punk nor punk, he had resided somewhere off in his own musical domain. No one was quite like Lou. Rock, rockabilly, cabaret, lounge, noise, pop and anything and everything else somehow made it in there. For anyone that wanted to copy what he was doing, it was nearly impossible, because Lou was always burning his own template behind him. Just when people thought that they were onto what he was doing, he'd throw a curveball--especially by the time of the live Rock n' Roll Animal album, many had expected some of the shambolicness of Transformer, but no, Lou had the best band that he'd ever had (and in my mind the best since--though some of the jams get a little on the long side for me, considering Lou's simplistic approach). Essentially re-inventing some of his earlier classics ("Heroin", "White Light/ White Heat"), he had a killer band, giving them a fresh new take as if they were almost completely new songs.

Bowie managed to capture some of Lou's influence (especially in the heavily Velvet Underground influenced "Heroes"), and had managed to reconfigure that influence in a more commercial way. But nobody had really truly captured the grit and "I don't give a shit" attitude that Lou did best, because many of those that had taken the influence seemed to have a much more technical take on things than Lou. Somehow, he always managed to distill things down to their most absolute essentials.

I do have to admit that Id lost a bit of respect for Lou after reading the book Please Kill Me, in which Id gone into it idolizing everyone in it and ended up disliking many of the people afterwards. Plus, the 80's weren't kind to Lou, but that could also be said of basically all of my idols that needed to find some way to be relevant in the corporately ruthless 80's, when there was no classic rock circuit yet and where "nostalgia" was a dirty term that basically meant that you were washed up and irrelevant.

As far as the Velvet Underground's stuff, Id actually got into them more so through Spacemen 3. The VU didn't connect with me, at first, but neither did Spacemen 3. For the longest time, I think that the Warhol connection had created a pretense that had made it a bit difficult for me to get into the material. As a kid, when growing up, I grew up with the traditional polished radio rock stuff, and it took some adjustment to the VU's sound, as Id never heard anything like it before. Still haven't, as a matter of fact, and many have tried in vain.

For me, what really won me over was "Venus In Furs"--that exotic, middle eastern sitar via guitar type of dirgey, droney thing that Id felt had taken all the nihilism of Lou's stories about fetish sex and connected it to a really appropriately disturbing and exotic musical vibe. For all of the Beatles versus Stones rivalries, "Venus In Furs" managed to encapsulate all of the bad voodoo psychedelic Indian raga that the Stones mercilessly tried to capture on Their Satanic Majesties Request in their usual take on the Beatles' optimistic approach. And as a result, it was a very Americanized take on things--Cale's harrowing electric viola in "Venus In Furs" for example, could be considered somewhere between classical and almost how a fiddle is used in bluegrass and country music. Lou's vocal style had none of the British affectations that many bands had of the time--no accent, only delivered in a speak/sing type of way that may have had some comparisons to Bob Dylan, but that's about it. As a result, it was very much a product of the dirtiness and the jadedness that you have when you live in urban NYC; an audio equivalent to the movie Mean Streets. The characters that Lou sings about are authentic--it's unclear how much of it is fact and fiction, but it's safe to say that if Lou didn't personally base some of his lyrics on people that he'd met, that it was quite probable that those fictional characters had existed somewhere within NYC's claustrophobic urban sprawl, when you're living or existing in close proximity to millions of others that are all fighting for the same territory.

The band that Id felt, in the mid-ish 60's that was the closest in spirit to the VU was Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd. Neither sounded particularly alike, though both were doing exceptionally different things with pop music and incorporating noise and texture into music, not to mention wild light shows. The parallels to the UFO club and Warhol's cadre at the Factory of upper class art was quite similar, too--both bands had a movement of people around them that were into the overall vibe, as well as to be seen being seen at the shows. Acid and drugs helped, for sure, but unlike much of the late 60's music fans, both Floyd and the VU tended to attract the upper class art school and college students that were hip to what was new and cutting edge. Unfortunately, for Lou and the VU (and Pink Floyd), the term "hipster" likely emanated from this sort of thing. And in some capacity, I have to wonder who really liked the band for the music, and who just liked their entourage and the spoils that it provided.

But the boldest part of my tribute article here is probably this: Id say that Id want him to rest in peace, but given Lou's spirit--I kind of hope that wherever he is, that he's as ornery and unique as he was when he was here.

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