The Best of the Rest:
Notes on Neglected Lou Reed Recordings
By Thom RobinsonSure, the slaughter of sacred cows is healthy and good, but sometimes it goes too far. Take the case of Lou Reed. Maybe I spend too much time reading the mainstream press, but it seems scarcely anyone takes the man seriously these days. In recent years, I've seen him play unconditionally remarkable shows, bold and brave performances of unlimited compassion and commitment. But the largely negative live reviews that follow invariably leave me wondering whether the writers are insane or I am. Meanwhile, the argument in Lou's defence becomes increasingly reduced to a dim voice from the sidelines ("Aw people, come on! The Raven was good! Honestly! It had Steve Buscemi! Who doesn't like Steve Buscemi?!").
OK, so certainly Lou Reed has been subject to occasional/considerable dips in judgement/taste. Watch his mid-'80's Honda commercial on YouTube and it still looks kinda lame. And yes, the Velvets reunion could have gone better than it did. And that early '90's mullet was surpassed only by the Afro that mutated in its wake.
But perhaps most damning of all was the mid-90s publication of Victor Bockris's biography Lou Reed (Transformer in the USA), a compulsively readable and spectacularly mean-spirited work that wore its "unauthorised" label with pride. Bockris's book upholds Oscar Wilde's observation that, of all a man's disciples, Judas wields the biographer's pen, with Bockris's interviewees comprising a good twenty Iscariots for every Simon Peter. As a result, Reed is repeatedly presented not only as a joke but as a pantomime villain too, a paragon of po-faced pretension and an evil prick to boot.
The continuing effect is for Lou's solo work to be consistently overlooked beyond a few accepted peaks (say, Transformer, Berlin, The Blue Mask and New York). But as Reed has always dared egotism by maintaining that his albums as a whole form the equivalent of an ongoing novel, surely it is churlish to take only a few of its chapters into account when evaluating his work. John Cale's career seems comfortably secured as the most critically acclaimed legacy of any ex-Velvet, but let's take a moment to reassess the work of maligned man Lou via snapshots of a few of his more overlooked recordings.
To begin with, The Bells, released in 1979 after a decade of startling image makeovers and patchy album releases. It's generally regarded as a mixed bag, the quavering vibrato in which Lou sings taking some getting used to and the instrumental "Disco Mystic" remaining a bizarrely anomalous curio. But in its best moments, The Bells is superb. Side 1 tracks "Stupid Man" and "I Want to Boogie With You" convey an urgent intensity that borders on naked agony, while the unbridled emotions of Side 2 move into hitherto uncharted territory for Lou. It's specifically here that accusations of 'confessional writing' become levelled at his work, though Lou has steadfastly maintained that his songs deal with fictional creations. If these claims of role-playing tend to strike a hollow note, then it's arguably because of the consistent vision that runs through all of Lou's costume changes. More importantly, to apply 'the death of the author' to The Bells would all too sadly prohibit us from casting intrusive light into Lou Reed's private life at the end of the 1970's.
To summarise: in the years after this album's creation, Lou entered AA and got married. His switch into heterosexuality came after a series of interviews through 1978-79 (see the piece collected in Mikal Gilmore's Night Beat) where Lou bluntly asserted his homosexuality. Whatever any of this means I don't know, other than to make the obvious point that here lies a man who can't be second-guessed, and who bears a greater complexity of character than you'd guess from Sally Can't Dance.
Such complexity explodes on Side 2 of The Bells, with the last two songs as the harrowing finale: 'Families' and the epic title track (to coin a '70's phrase). The world of 'Families' isn't the cold and hostile street anymore, it's the suburban middle-class family home, and the pain proves as real there as it is anywhere else in Lou's work. There are shades of Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album over this, and it's telling that Lou should have listed that record's "Mother" as among his favourite songs, even performing it on a TV Lennon tribute a few years back (I mean, of all the songs to admit relating to ). The 'personal' themes dredged up by "Families" go into overload on the following year's Growing Up In Public, where somehow the previous album's sadness and fear is overtaken by neck-bulging anger and loses its appeal as a result (the shitty band doesn't help either). Meanwhile, "The Bells" can be compared to "Street Hassle" from the previous year, both in its length and in the ambiguity of its final hints of release. "The Bells" may find Reed adopting the role/soul of a man whose vision of transcendence is attained by a suicidal leap, but as ever with painful art the end result more than justifies the means as Don Cherry's trumpet echoes a funereal cry, the overwhelming impression is one of redemption rather than suffering, of magic rather than loss.
Rock-critic lore obliges me to suggest that, with its 1979 release date, The Bells marks a laying to rest of the ghosts of the 1970s, a funeral pyre of catharsis and angst made ready to combat the new years ahead. Which it kind of is, albeit not as a goodbye to a Forrest Gump-style 70s of Watergate and Vietnam, but instead to one of personal struggle from which Lou Reed emerges victorious (the fact that he's still alive being a not inconsiderable factor in this).
So skip ahead four years to Legendary Hearts this is the follow-up to 1982's The Blue Mask and features the same shit-hot band, with the Voidoids' Robert Quine on lead guitar. The bad news is that this follow-up record is let down by its mix as, weirdly, with two of the 20th century's most intensely inventive guitar players at the helm, Fernando Saunders' bass emerges as the lead instrument to detrimental effect. Another downside is the album's front cover, which depicts a futuristic motorcycle helmet held within sensual leather gloves. But if you can take a bad mix, crappy art, and a few uncomfortable truths about the darkness of the human soul, then Legendary Hearts can still be a really good listen. The Blue Mask's themes of struggling to sobriety are revived, but Legendary Hearts' bleakness runs even deeper than its own Side 1's "The Last Shot" (wherein Lou vomits blood and coughs up a Quaalude, thus concluding that it's time to quit). Issues of love loom large - in the title track, the singer questions how his relationship can survive in the face of the epic struggle which the weight of history all but demands that love should be. In "Make Up Mind," he confesses he can't even choose which colour to paint a room so how can he decide a thing about this?
However, as on The Bells, the album's two most affecting songs come towards the end of Side 2, with "Bottoming Out" and "Home of the Brave." The former follows an emotional motorbike ride as Lou contemplates the struggle of cleaning up and the conquering of inward rage. The latter song sinks even deeper, forming an elegy for the haunted dead and the haunted living - one lyrical couplet in the final verse ties together much of Lou's repertoire of love in the face of fear and of self-destructive desire. The nighttime stars are hidden behind the streetlights' glare, while a man kicks a woman who clutches tightly to his leg the stark presentation of a world where the possibility of hope shines sometimes brightly and sometimes not at all. Suffice to say this creates music as desolate and pained as Berlin and Street Hassle, and Legendary Hearts should be regarded as highly (even if none of the characters OD).
It's after Legendary Hearts that 'Bad '80's Records Syndrome' really kicks in, as Lou falls hapless victim to the production whims of the decade (Mistrial in particular really isn't good). Happily, there came the obligatory 1989 comeback album (see Dylan, Young, et al.) with New York, a work surpassed in focused intensity only by 1992's horrifying cancer concept album Magic and Loss. No doubt tarnished by the ill-fated Velvets reunion, the comeback wave was flagging by 1996's Set the Twilight Reeling, leaving it all but gone by the 2000 release of Ecstasy.
To my mind the latter is the most successful of all Lou's later albums. The '80's records' tortured studies of relationships are back in a big way witness "Turning Time Around," where a partner demands "What do you call love?" and the singer isn't sure of his answer. Elsewhere, the infidelities of "Mad" and the dissolutions of "Tatters" climax in the passion and pain of the relentless 18-minute monstrosity "Like a Possum," a visceral study of a wounded heart, shot through with Burroughsian images of urban decay, and cried over the same two chords that have powered Reed's work from "Heroin" onwards. This is all held fittingly together by the album's opening track, "Paranoia Key of E," and its mid-song litany of psychiatric disorders (new concept for a hits album ordering Lou's songs by medical diagnosis). Aside from the overt pain, "Modern Dance" and "Baton Rouge" mark a new melancholy contemplation for Lou, akin to ruminations from The Raven such as "Who Am I," in which Lou plays the wisdom-of-age card with the effective twist that he can't be sure he's learned anything at all.
Ecstasy closes with the defiant "Big Sky," perhaps the most euphoric song Reed has ever recorded, and the closest the album comes to the sensation of its name. That's because in the meantime, this being Lou Reed, Ecstasy's relationship studies mark the return of the rarely distant sense of sadomasochism. "White Prism" recalls the nipple-piercing hero of "The Blue Mask," only now in the context of love rather than torture, while "The Rock Minuet" has unlimited capacity to shock with its grab-bag assortment of Reed's most arresting (and arrestable) lyrical concerns: sadomasochistic sex check., patricide check, hard drugs check, sewn-up eyelids - check. While glib commentators reduce Reed's appropriation of S/M solely to the lyrical content of "Venus in Furs," it arguably runs deeper in his career than that song's shadowy images. Lou has continued to explore themes of submission and domination far beyond the dungeon, leading them into altogether more uncomfortable realms. From the underground to the marital bed, Lou has made a detailed study of the pain which people give and receive, and expressed those feelings through both words and music (see the sustaining of tension before eventual release which Lou's songs frequently employ, most notably in the dissonance and resolution of his lead guitar playing). Perhaps the greatest achievement of Lou Reed's solo career has been to pursue the darkness of human nature beyond the easy target areas of sex- and drug-fuelled degradation to show its nest and web in every avenue of human experience. Through this, he succeeds in exploring new areas of lyrical possibility while remaining faithful and true to his original obsessive drives, and the tapestry that has resulted can be startling in its detail.
Few comparisons bind Lou Reed's and John Cale's solo careers. Cale ultimately proves the European avant-gardist, and Reed the determined craftsman, the all-American pragmatist. A full Reed renaissance may arise in the future (these things have a habit of coming round), which could place him on the unimpeachable pedestal of a Dylan or Tom Waits. But in the meantime, he remains an assuredly, reassuringly cult artiste. Unshackled from the weight of expectation, brushing aside preconceptions about 'icon,' 'seminal inspiration' and 'legend,' Lou remains free to explore his legacy and back catalogue in any way he likes. His work and his steely dedication to his craft endure. And his neglected records are really worth checking out.
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