Sunday, October 27, 2013

LOU REED 1942-2013




Boston, Oct. 1984There's Lou on stage at the Orpheum Theater, a smoke-filled place with moth eaten seats that for years had been tacking on an extra five bucks for restoration charges that never saw fruition.  He's still youngish. He looks fit. It's a few years after my favorite album of his (Street Hassle) and a few years before    the New York album.  How strange it was that he would finally find something resembling mainstream success in that most revolting of decades, the 1980s. In the era of crack and AIDS and MTV, he became the poet of the dark, not because he made his best music in that period, but because the culture needed someone to balance out Boy George and Madonna. Lou was handy.  Who else would do it? John Mellencamp?

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. For now, it's 1984, and he's at The Orpheum.  I'm with my girlfriend of the time, and we're both wearing leather jackets. In most regards, it's a very fine night. That is, except for the show. The house is just about full, and the yokels are shouting "Looooooouuuuu," the way Springsteen fans might shout "Bruuuuuuuce." But the vibe isn't right. There had been so many Lou Reeds over the years. There was "transvestite Lou," and "druggie Lou,"  and Lou the hard rocker, and Lou the poet. Everybody had their own version of Lou. There was even a period of time where he told jokes onstage, like he was a standup comic. The audience wasn't sure which Lou had shown up tonight. He was just there, playing.

I'd spoken to an older friend who had seen Lou at The Paradise rock club a few years earlier, a night when Lou had given himself fits trying to play a  guitar solo. According to my friend, Lou grew so frustrated that he simply chucked his guitar to the floor and walked off the stage in a snit.
 

"It was incredible," my friend said. "He just threw it down, a brand new Fender guitar. It sat there on the floor of the Paradise, creating all sorts of feedback, like it was sizzling. The fans were booing the shit out of him and he never came back. He played two  songs, and that was it! I was ripped off, man..."
 
I was warned to not spend my money on Lou Reed, because his shows were always a crapshoot. But the Lou Reed I'm watching at the Orpheum doesn't seem energetic enough to get angry and walk off. He seems distracted from the beginning, opening the show with a dreary 'Sweet Jane.'  He played it like an accountant singing 'Happy Birthday' at an office party. He sounded like he wished he'd never written it. It's a strange night. He plays most of my favorite songs, and I'm enjoying them, but it's not the life changing night I had anticipated.

Then the band starts up the encore. I can't quite make it out, but when Lou starts singing I recognize the lyrics. He's singing about madness and shock therapy. He's closing the show with 'Kill Your Sons.' Maybe this would save the show. Maybe...

I don't know what Lou has done in recent years. I know he was very ill. I know that at various times in his life he was a drug user and an alcoholic, and he was aging hard.  I know he married his beloved Laurie Anderson. The most recent thing I saw him do was a performance of his Berlin album, surrounded by young musicians and singers trying to recreate the sound of that great old album, a rock opera that, in my mind, rivaled anything by The Who. Lou and the youngsters  made it sound strong and vital and intelligent. As the music swooped and soared, Lou stood at the center of the storm and seemed like a proud grandpapa. It almost made up for the time I found 'Metal Machine Music' in the two-dollar bargain bin at Strawberry's and raced home with what I thought was a two-record set of Lou's music, only to find it was nothing but horseshit feedback and noise.

Bangs had been right, you know. Lou was full of himself, never lived up to his potential, and for the most part was a colossal disappointment.  You bought his albums hoping for the best and being thankful for the odd gem that turned up. That was all you could do. Did you buy Rock and Roll Heart? Did you buy The Bells? Did you convince yourself they were under appreciated rock masterpieces? Good for you. Did you ever play that game where you tried to imagine an album like Sally Can't Dance with the musicians from Rock and Roll Animal?  Me, too. Did you ever wonder why Lou's albums didn't sound right? Did you grow tired of his talk about "bi-naural sound," and "atonal thrusts," and wonder why, despite all of his talk about production and technology, his albums always sounded messy and garbled? Me, too. Street Hassle worked for me. That's the one. For you it might be The Blue Mask, or the first Velvet Underground album. Maybe you liked him because you saw him on Farm Aid. For me, Street Hassle is the one that worked from top to bottom.

Meanwhile, back in 1984, Lou starts turning his back to the crowd. He's been indifferent to us all night. He was never a guy to pump his fist and say Hello Boston! Which was fine with me. But what is this? Why is he turning his back to us? He's fiddling with the knobs on his amp, and adjusting his guitar volume. The band is vamping along. Suddenly, the Orpheum feels like a giant wind tunnel, and the band is a rocket coming towards us. They haven't played too hard all night; they've been giving us the moody Lou treatment, providing just enough noise to compliment Lou's pose as the thinking man's rocker. Now, as if a switch had been tripped, they are raging monsters of rock. Lou, who has been quiet for a few bars, teases the first note of a guitar solo. It's piercing, and flies right into the balcony where I'm seated and parts my eyebrows. He once recorded a live album called 'Take No Prisoners.' He is about to live up to that album's overblown title...

I was happy to learn one summer afternoon that Lou was scheduled to perform 'Street Hassle' on NBC's Midnight Special. I actually took a nap that day so I could stay awake to watch him. Then, there he was being interviewed by some TV schmuck. He wasn't going to sing it because the network objected to the lyrics. Yes, the lyrics were indeed gross, something about a hooker getting killed, and something about gay sex, and other things that my teen mind didn't quite get. All I knew was that he wasn't going to sing as planned. I thought he could've sang something else, since I'd spent the afternoon napping.Would it have killed him to play something? Instead, he sat for an interview. I remember the interviewer asked him if he would perform a song like 'Street Hassle' for his mother. Lou said sure, I'd play it for my grandmother. In that vein, he should've told the network he was going to perform another ditty, a little something called 'I Want to be Black.' But no, he was stubborn, sitting there smoking a cig and looking blas√©. Maybe he thought he could get more publicity this way. He didn't. No one really cared about Lou and his dirty mouth. This was the era of DEVO and Blondie. Godfather of punk? He couldn't buy a headline in those days.

Lou never sold out, and wasn't going to let a network or a record label dictate to him, but he certainly rode his share of bandwagons.  In the 1970s he adopted the glam look so he could be like Bowie and Iggy and Alice, and whoever else was popular. He painted his nails black and minced around. He pulled it off fairly well. I liked those pics of him with the blond hair, and the S&M gear. For a while he acted like a dirty little gutter twink, giving reporters one word answers in the best Andy Warhol tradition. Later in the decade he wore  silk shirts and mirror shades, and frizzed his hair up like the dad on The Brady Bunch. He went Studio 54  on us. In the 1980s he wore a poodle mullet.  He talked a lot about not bowing to the silly demands of the industry,  but I remember him taking his turns on MTV, trying like hell to be where the money was. I remember him doing a motorcycle commercial, too.  Most recently, I heard one of his songs used to promote a very violent video game. I suppose he made a few bucks on that one. Maybe he had medical bills to pay. They were probably piling up on him at the end.

The worst Lou of all was when he'd befriended Bruce Springsteen. There'd been a mutual admiration thing going on, and Lou even brought Bruce in to do some backing vocals on 'Street Hassle.' Shortly after, Lou started appearing in a tight t-shirt and a leather vest. He'd become very Bruce-like in his appearance. Lou was even lifting weights in those days, trying to get big All-American muscles like Bruce. Also, Lou's band started resembling the E-Street Band. He found a gigantic black dude to play bass, and I swear somewhere in the back of Lou's ironic little mind he thought this dude would be his Clarence Clemons.  Thankfully, that phase didn't last long.
 
Lou's fans were patient as he tried on his many guises. In a way, he was like a character in one of his songs, a singer trying to fit in somewhere. We didn't care what he looked like. We didn't care who was overrating him, or underrating him. We just waited for the next album, and then the next, always hoping, hoping. 

The New York album seemed to blow away all of his various images. Having finally achieved a semblance of commercial success, Lou  settled into a sort of late adulthood. He became one of rock's elder statesmen, a more poetic Keith Richards. If Springsteen was Dylan for dumb people, Lou was Springsteen for miscreants and non-conformists. He was Paul Simon with more blood and horror. Lou Reed, at his best, allowed us to look behind the curtain at the freak show. He chronicled the streets, and championed the debased. He was the Hubert Selby of rock.

As Lou grew old and flinty, the tributes rolled in. Everyone who bought the first Velvets album started a band, blah blah blah. He took the praise with a grain of salt. When VH1 played a special tribute to the Transformer album, he merely shrugged. "I don't see what the big deal is," he said. "It's just a bunch of songs."

But the tributes rarely mentioned his guitar playing. Although he often used sidemen so he could focus on singing, he happened to be an interesting and underrated guitarist. I say this because I know. I saw it first hand. I heard it. And when I heard tonight that Lou Reed had died, my mind didn't turn immediately to his best albums or songs. Instead, it went back to 1984 and the Orpheum theater, a place so full of pot smoke that it looked like Lou was playing in the middle of a dirty cloud...

He's jamming with the band. He's doing it slowly, picking his spots, like he doesn't want to barge in on what they're doing until it feels absolutely right.  He plays a solo like he's trying on shirts; he'll try one, then another, checks himself out, doesn't like it, tries it again. Then he finds what he wants, and the mad whistling from his guitar starts ringing even louder, and even from our shitty seats we can see his arm moving, spasming. He doesn't look at the band, or at the audience. He looks only at his guitar, as if there is a mystery there. Whatever he was looking for, he has found it, and he's going to chase it down until it dies.

How to describe it?  He's playing faster than anyone thinks Lou can play, and it's accurate, he's not blurring anything, and anyone who thinks Lou couldn't play more than a few chords can think again, for he is turning this solo into a masterpiece, and 'Kill Your Sons' is suddenly taking on new freight. It's now his greatest song, and I'm hearing some long buried version of it, a song written in flames. Why wasn't it this way on the album? It's fine on the album, but here, at the Orpheum, it's as if demons are being unleashed into the night.

The guitar is screaming like a child in pain. It's the voice Lou has never had, taking the place of his cynical mumble and providing us with the shear anguish of his characters, all of those dead druggies and losers to whom he gave a voice, they are rising from the dead and shrieking. The screaming of the guitar continues until I am convinced that not only are the walls of the Orpheum shaking, but that the entire building is levitating. Yes, we are levitating. Lou's guitar is doing this. The roof of the building is about to split open, and we sweat drenched souls in the stuffy balcony are going to be sucked right out into the stratosphere, and it will be fine because we were sent there on the wings of a Lou Reed guitar solo that has never been captured on tape.

Then it ends. I think it ended partly because Lou simply grew tired. He had turned in something that might have sounded at home on Skynyrd's One More From The Road album, a full eight minutes of melodic guitar playing that any wannabe guitar wizard at your local Guitar Center would give both his eyeballs to play. But a man can only scream for a certain amount of time before he dries  out. And that's how the solo ends, like a man who has screamed himself into exhaustion.  I never heard him play that way again. I've never heard anyone play that way again. When he stops, he mutters a weak thank you and departs. His amplifier is still hissing and crackling, as if it wants to fight a little more. As a member of the road crew approaches the amp to turn it off, I wouldn't be surprised if the thing bites him...

I've met people who couldn't stand Lou Reed. They'd call him a pompous ass. I knew what they meant. Sometimes I'd say that I liked him, or I'd defend some of his albums. Sometimes I'd let the topic fly away like a gnat. Arguments about music, like flies, have short, meaningless lifespans. I knew how Lou looked to certain people. Furthermore, I knew how his detractors looked to him. It was a battle to avoid. Running interference for Lou Reed could get a fellow hurt.

Still, I liked him quite a bit when I was very young. I thought he was everything a sleazy rock poet should be. If I didn't quite carry a torch for him throughout my adult years, that doesn't matter. He was there when I needed him. If he spent his later years as a crabby old man, so be it. He was cool once, and set the bar for everyone else to match. So far, none have come close. As Captain Lou Albano might have said, Lou Reed was often imitated but never duplicated.

I'm sure bands around the country are paying tributes to him tonight. They'll play 'Walk on the Wild Side.' They'll play 'Sweet Jane.' I'm pretty sure they won't play 'Kill Your Sons.'

And in the coming weeks you'll seek out those old clips on YouTube, and you'll see how he was in interviews, a prick sometimes, mischievous at others, and you'll hear him say that the British shouldn't play rock & roll, and that he never liked The Beatles, yet  you'll see him play a damned fine version of 'Jealous Guy' at a tribute to John Lennon, and you'll wonder where he really stands.

And you'll hear those songs about domestic violence and blood on the dishes, and you'll see the Charlie Rose interview where Lou appeared with Laurie, and you'll see that he adores her, and you'll think he finally found someone worthy of his legendary heart.


And you'll wonder what was real about Lou Reed and what was false, and you'll wonder if he would've been nice to you, or if he would've dismissed you with a lash of his tongue, and you'll wonder, because you can't help but wonder, because there is absolutely no bottom to Lou Reed, and you'll never get there, and you'll wish you bought more of his stuff, and you'll wonder why it was difficult to be a fan of his, and then you'll stop thinking, because a person can only think so much before he's wiped out. You'll see the little tributes here and there, and think shit, it wasn't supposed to end this way, and the songs will seem wistful now that he's gone.

One more thing.  I later found that guy who saw Lou lose his temper and walk off the stage.

"Hey," I said. "Remember that solo Lou was trying to play and couldn't? Well, I think he played it last night. And it was great. So fuck you."

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