Classic Rock Review

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Lou Reed The Blue Mask (1982)

Lou_Reed_-_The_Blue_MaskFrom Rolling Stone

Lou Reed’s the Blue Mask is a great record, and its genius is at once so simple and unusual that the only appropriate reaction is wonder. Who expected anything like this from Reed at this late stage of the game?

Even though the Velvet Underground, as critic Lester Bangs once remarked, “invented the Seventies,” Reed had as much trouble as anyone else in trying to navigate the decade’s actuality. By its end, he seemed to have just about removed himself from rock & roll for good. Street Hassle, brave and brilliant as it was, had the melancholy and deadly feel of a testament.

Its sequel, The Bells, while musically challenging and emotionally acute, was nevertheless the first Lou Reed album that sounded more cerebral than autobiographical. The artist seemed content to become an old master, admirable without being vital.

Then Reed entered into a marriage that, by all appearances, has been a source of profound and genuine bliss — which, in his case, seems especially miraculous. Unfortunately, his first try at describing what that relationship means to him, Growing Up in Public, was a lackadaisical effort: not dishonest but slovenly. In retrospect, though, you can hear the beginnings of the move toward the seemingly artless directness of style and approach that pays off so richly on The Blue Mask.

Reed’s marriage and the new life it’s given him are absolutely central to the current LP, and here his happiness is transformed into renewed aesthetic inspiration. He cares about his work now because it has to do justice to that life, as fully as the Velvet Underground’s music did justice to Joseph Conrad’s “the horror, the horror.” Evocations of Reed’s present-day serenity frame The Blue Mask. “My House” movingly completes a cycle begun by the dedication of “European Son” to poet Delmore Schwartz (way back on the first Velvets record) by calling up Schwartz’ memory to bless a domestic calm that smolders into a quiet magnificence at song’s end.

The wonderfully unrestrained finale, “Heavenly Arms” — an unabashed love song to Reed’s wife, Sylvia — suggests that if the Velvet Underground emerged partly out of an adolescent rage that the world as promised by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons was a lie, Lou Reed, as much as any of us, still wanted nothing more than to be able to make a Four Seasons tune come true.

Instead of denying all of the other things he’s been, the peace of mind that makes a “My House” possible simultaneously allows each facet of Reed’s jangled art to fall into place at last, undistorted by irony. (The Blue Mask is the least ironic album Reed’s ever made, and maybe one of the least ironic anybody’s ever made.) Amazingly, the intimacy and warmth of “Women” — here conveyed by a play of casual jokes — can exist on the same LP with the chillingly quiet terror of “The Gun” in much the same way that things fit together for a man comfortably wandering among the bric-a-brac of his own attic.

Reed means to express plain truths and, with the unselfconsciousness that comes only when the mastery of craft is wedded to a surety of vision, has rediscovered the most straightforward and unadorned means of doing so. “Underneath the Bottle” is one of the funniest and truest numbers about drinking ever written. It turns tragedy into a pratfall, then makes that pratfall a real tragedy. Yet it’s constructed from the homeliest and most offhand materials possible.

For “The Heroine,” the artist reaches back to Victorian doggerel, because its archaic courtliness exactly evokes his sweetly grave sense of wonder that his statue of love actually jumped off a pedestal and moved to Jersey with him. The Sixties-folk echoes of “The Day John Kennedy Died,” so distant they sound overheard, mirror the irreconcilability of sentiment and truth that’s the song’s point — and the other side of the coin from “The Heroine.” Such moves may demand great formal daring, but they succeed because they come across as natural and necessary.

In terms of economy of language, unforced aptness of expression and seemingly stray rough colloquialism burnished into poetry, Lou Reed hasn’t written this well since “Some Kinda Love” or “Pale Blue Eyes.” Listen to how “shakes” and “shucks” play leapfrog in “Underneath the Bottle,” and note the mimetic lurch of the same tune’s “Things go from bad to weird.” In “The Day John Kennedy Died,” images of the killing get progressively uglier as Reed’s daydreaming grows more ethereal, until the final brutality of “I dreamed I could somehow comprehend that someone shot him in the face” slaps you back into the world as shockingly as a sick joke.

The Blue Mask’s structure is also functionally brilliant: the two sides mimic and reflect each other, and the compositions refract among themselves, the theme of one reverberating as an echo in another.

But the sound of the music is what’s most definitive. Reed put together a small, street-hungry combo, played half the guitar parts himself and cut the tracks fast. Grace has never sounded so tough-minded. The intuitive responsiveness between Lou Reed and Robert Quine is a quiet summit of guitarists’ interplay: the notes and noise soar and dive, scudding almost formlessly until they’re suddenly caught up in the focus of a rhythm. The astonishing empathy of Fernando Saunders’ bass either rocks the songs like a cradle or grounds them like a wire.

In the ferocious vortex of the title tune, the music attains its apotheosis. As Reed’s singing grows more brutally desperate, launching an unbelievably black attack on those who would play at the edge of a fake abyss even as he reaches down to the bottom of his real one, the guitars groan and sway all around him. Then they grind to a deadening screech while the drums stiffen into a blank lockstep — and Sister Ray herself, the grinning death’s-head of the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, slowly rises before your eyes. Nothing, really nothing, can convey the grandeur of that moment. But then nothing can convey the rapture of “Heavenly Arms,” either. “Heavenly Arms” rescues romance from the brink of the same nightmare, then celebrates the Reeds’ love all the more deliriously for it.

With The Blue Mask, Lou Reed has done what even John Lennon couldn’t do: he’s put his Plastic Ono Band and his Double Fantasy on the same record, and made us feel that, at long last, these two paths in him are joined.

December 30, 2013 Posted by | Lou Reed The Blue Mask | | Leave a comment

Lou Reed Live In Italy (1984)


Review Forget about ‘Lou Reed Live’, ‘Rock’n’Roll Animal’ and even ‘Perfect Night in London'(all great records, by the way), Lou Reed Live in Italy is the best Lou Reed live album, bar none.

Just look at the track list, for crying out loud. After a three seconds long introduction, you can hear Reed’s guitar tears into the classic opening chords of Sweet Jane, the best riff he’s ever written. This version of Sweet Jane is arguably the best version out there – Lou singing ‘You know they’re sayin’ Jane, oh Sweet Jane’ is Lou at his finest, and Robert Quine… we’ll talk about Robert Quine.

Oh, why not talk about him now. Robert Quine is the best guitar player to have ever worked with Lou Reed. He is as good as Mick Ronson who worked with Bowie and Lyle Workman who played lead for Frank Black. He’s quite possibly even better. Listen to the lead guitar in ‘Waves of Fear’, it’s incredible.

Lou’s new stuff here is great – Waves of Fear and Average Guy are the stand outs, but the older Reed is what truly shines through. Sally Can’t Dance No More is a vicious attack on fame. The Satellite of Love is Lou’s romance at it’s best, and Walk on the Wild Side is, well, a walk on the wild side.

Still, to me this will always be memorable because of the Velvet Songs. Before and after, Reed will attempt to make the Velvet stuff feel at home in his sets, and, with the exception of the Loaded songs, he will always fail. This is the exception. White Light/White Heat, Waiting for the Man and of course, Heroin, Reed’s finest song, shine through the able musicians.

I’m way too young to have been alive through that Lou Reed tour, and even through I’ve seen Reed live, I’m still in agony for not have seen him live at those 1984 shows. This is the closest I’ll ever get.

Review The tour which gave us this album recorded live in Italy in 1984 was the first opportunity for Lou to present live the new material that would fuel his rebirth in the ’80s.

Not only was the material new – it was a new drug-free and sober Lou, and a blistering new band with Robert Quine on guitar. Featured are standard rockers like ‘Sweet Jane,’ ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and ‘Satellite of Love.’ (Compare these versions to those included on Take No Prisoners!). Also here are new songs from the highly-acclaimed Blue Mask album and Legendary Hearts.

These shining albums brought Lou out of the late 70’s doldrums into which he had sunk, with the exception of classics such as Street Hassle, which unfortunately does not appear here. Highlights of the new material include Martial Law. For those interested in Lou’s former career with the Velvet Underground, there are excellent renditions of Sister Ray, Some Kinda Love and Rock n Roll. Lou plays straight on this album. He’s doing it right and the band are tight behind him.

Live in Italy is full of energy and lasts the test of time. It’s a worthwhile and rewarding addition to any rock collection, and serves as an excellent example of Lou Reed at his technical best.

December 30, 2013 Posted by | Lou Reed Live In Italy | | Leave a comment

King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)


I think we all, at one point or another, whether we knew what it was or not, have all seen the screaming face that adorns the cover of ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’. This face, in many facets, describes the innovation, sound and intensity of this album.

Crimson’s music is not to be taken lightly. Nearly all aspects of it are creative, whether it be the touches of mellotron added to the melody, or Robert Fripp’s blistering guitar solos. This sole album, as King Crimson’s very first, basically defined the genre of what we call ‘prog rock’. Ironically enough, the band has always denied allegations that they are slapped with the ‘prog’ label. But on the contrary to what the band may think, this stunning five song, forty-five minute album is by all means, the true definition of the progressive rock genre.

It’s not exactly easy to pinpoint their music with two words, as their lyrics tend to focus on darker, creepy subjects, but the combination of classical instrumentation, as well as 7-minute plus suites, and interesting percussion, make this one of the most interesting, and well-respected albums of all time.

From the moment that the very first song, the staple of Crimson’s catalogue, ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ hits you, you are in for a very intense and provocative listen. Between the heavy guitar riffs and eerie voice of Greg Lake (whom we all know to be the front man of later progressive icons, Emerson, Lake and Palmer), ‘Schizoid’ proves to be a very worthy intro tune. On the subject of dark lyrics, you’ll get the jist of it when you hear Lake’s voice combined with the words ‘Blood rack, barbed wire. Politician’s funeral pyre.

The combination of various woodwind instruments, mellotron, and distorted guitar carries the eerie ambience, but only before a 3 minute jam between the three. Lake, being a multi-talented musician, provides a creamy bassline, as well as an exotic staccato rhythm during the jam session. The waves of monstrous feedback from Fripp are just another benefiting factor, letting you know what is yet to be heard. As you may have noticed, Crimson is responsible for some very interesting sounds, as well as unique instrumentation and choice, for that matter.

Therefore, it should not come as any surprise to you when you hear a wistful flute play a piece that depicts memories of the film ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. For the entirety of ‘I Talk to the Wind’, you will feel relaxed. The mellotron tastefully plays a few stray notes between lyrical phrases, but it’s Greg Lake’s voice that welcomes me. As opposed to the previous song, where his voice was raspy, throaty with lots of attack, now his voice is soothing and subtle, taking you into a deep feeling of subconscious, as if you were floating. The most bombastic section is the flute solo, which is easy to connect to where Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull found his inspiration.

It is always necessary to have a powerful, yet slow paced song on a progressive album. What that song is about is not relevant, whether it be love or death, happiness or depression, rich or poor. The next piece showcases the latter of the many subjects, touching up on darker matters. But there is no precedent saying which you must choose, and that is what sets ‘Epitaph’ apart from other ballads in the genre of rock music. Mellotron, as well as keys, and a rich orchestral string section, provide a tender foundation on which Lake’s voice soars above. His voice is easily one of the best in rock music.

The highlight for me is undoubtedly the string etude, which provides a classical spin on a jazzy song. Fripp’s acoustic work is utterly picture perfect, and everything just seems to be top notch before the song comes to a closing. Progressive music wouldn’t be progressive music if it didn’t have an ambient theme to it. ‘Moonchild’ fills that gap, being an electronic and synth jam session. One thing that grabbed my attention was the cymbal hits during the verses. As stupid as it may sound, a mere three taps on a hi-hat could never have sounded more appropriate and attentive. Clocking in at merely 2:30, ‘Moonchild’ is nothing more but a relaxing, ambient interlude, taking you toward a nine-minute suite that will prove to be the epitome of the word ‘epic’.

I’m guessing that a title track for this album would be quite a listen, and I was right. I’d expect a song that lasts nine-and-a-half minutes to have separate movements, and mood swings. Once again, that is the case for this title track. ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ is a medieval, epic movement that displays nothing more than sonic brilliance. Between the classical, finger-picked acoustic guitar, string arrangements, dark piano, choir etudes, flute solos, Greg Lake’s soaring voice, and without a doubt, the best drumming on the album, ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ sprawls a melodic, yet heroic sound.

The shift from lyrical verses to instrumental choruses is nothing short of uplifting, and the strings combined with the choir are brilliant and rich in sustain. The drumming is superb and rhythmically stunning. They really outdid themselves with this medieval suite. I’d like to ask yourself what you define as ‘epic’. Chances are, that your definition is totally crushed by this song.

Those wanting hard rock and great guitar work will take a liking to the music of King Crimson. Those who like progressive music and enjoy in-depth arrangements will like it even more. My point is, you don’t have to like only one aspect of a genre of music in order to enjoy King Crimson’s music. Whatever suits your tastes will probably find a home on this album. Every bit of this album was brilliant, intense, and epic. And who knew all of that could happen within 45 minutes?

December 30, 2013 Posted by | King Crimson In The Court Of The Crimson King | | Leave a comment

King Crimson In The Wake Of Poseidon (1970)


As an avid music enthusiast, I’ve often wondered what it must be like to compose a masterpiece.

It’s exhilarating enough to even be able to write your own music, but to have the rest of the world embrace your art? From aspiring musicians who praise your album as their sole reason for picking up an instrument, to ordinary fans who tell you that your music is what gets them through the day and makes their lives just a bit more tolerable- I can’t even imagine how overwhelming the ecstasy of such an accomplishment must be.

But I also surmise that it must be equally frightening to reach such an achievement at the very beginning of your career, because there’s the intimidating thought that the only direction you can go now is down. Then, the celebrated opus that you worked so hard to compose becomes your own personal curse. Casting a shadow on every attempt you hope will match it, and if you fail to top it, the shadow only grows larger and darker, eventually consuming everything else you do afterwards.

Of course, not everyone thought that In The Court Of The Crimson King was a masterpiece at the time of its release. But within the passage of time, many grew to admire its innovative nature. In fact, most critics today even hail it as not only King Crimson’s finest accomplishment, but also as one of the most definitive works in Progressive rock. So with such a reputation already established by its predecessor, the expectations for In The Wake Of Poseidon are rather daunting. And so the question on everyone’s mind is, is it as good as In The Court Of The Crimson King?

Well, normally one could argue that these are two different albums with two different agendas, but sadly, that isn’t the case here. In The Wake Of Poseidon could very well be considered as King Crimson’s attempt at recreating all of the experiences found in In The Court Of The Crimson King, but with some modest renovations so as to not appear like they’re selling us the same exact album. An invigorating opener, a gentle ballad, an experimental piece, and a lengthy title track, it’s all very familiar and even the instrumental aesthetics follow a rather synonymous intent and execution. But this is still nonetheless a very entertaining album that contains some of King Crimson’s most exquisite moments.

In The Wake Of Poseidon has a much more conceptual agenda within its architecture, as a lot of the central pieces are divided by brief interludes all sharing the theme of “Peace”, though the lyrics themselves have no real symbolic connection. The album opens with “Pictures Of A City”, and it is quite frankly one of the most exciting pieces in the whole King Crimson catalogue. Embellished in grandeur and intensity, the music erupts passionately with such prowess so as to establish a chaotic environment. But surprisingly, after the stunning coalescence of bombastic drum patterns and rupturing saxophone notes in its commencement, the music dissolves into a much more restrained jam. Saxophonist Mel Collins, who has now replaced Ian McDonald, does an exceptional job of leading the melody with some very provocative rhythms while still maintaining a rather restrained pace. We then arrive to the vocal sections of the song, which are actually pretty elaborate in their deliveries.

As Greg Lake illustrates an ambiguously gruesome lyrical image in our mind, Robert Fripp ornaments him with abrasive guitar arrangements that are drenched in static distortion to add a menacing impact. Though the most exciting aspect of the song lies in its instrumental section where we really get to see some of the band’s dynamic showmanship. Robert Fripp leads most of the instrumental passages while deploying several variations in style, such as going from frantic soloing to a similar stop-and-start technique like the one found in their debut’s opening piece, “21st Century Schizoid Man”. It’s rather interesting that the band chose to place “Pictures Of A City” as the album’s overture because with its suspenseful musical structure and utterly enthralling magnetism, we witness the peak of this performance too soon.

Though that isn’t to say that the rest of the songs on the album are boring, quite the contrary, but just like in its predecessor, we never get to see another performance as dashing as the opening song. “Cadence and Cascade” is another highlight, but in an entirely different manner. It’s a serene and mellifluous piece, driven by a delicate orchestration. It’s a very beautiful folk ballad and what makes it so enchanting is the singing of Gordon Haskell, an old schoolfriend of Robert Fripp. The choice of having Gordon Haskell sing the piece rather than Greg Lake also foreshadows how he would eventually take his role as bass player after Greg Lake leaves to form yet another influential act, Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

And just as we’re succumb with a feeling of déja vu at this point in the album, we arrive at the title piece, “In The Wake Of Poseidon”. Much like in “The Court of the Crimson King” in the previous album, we are again treated with a haunting mellotron intro that has us descend into a long voyage of elegant musicianship and a melancholic tale of medieval fantasy. It isn’t until “Cat Food” begins to play that we get any glimpse of change.

The songs that comprise In The Wake Of Poseidon, for the most part, continue to induce the similar gloomy atmosphere of its predecessor. And that’s what makes “Cat Food” such a welcomed deviation in style. It has a rather upbeat sound to it. The music is lively and optimistic, even the lyrics prefer a much more whimsical approach rather than the serious tone of the other songs. It’s a highly accessible song and yet another to feature a prominent Jazz influence within its essence, a style that would be thoroughly explored in the upcoming Lizard.

And finally, we conclude with “The Devil’s Triangle”, which is the most conspicuous transition in style. Influenced by Gustav Holst’s “Mars: Bringer of War”, it is an avant-garde instrumental piece, and a malevolent one at that. Immediately it exudes a rather ominous atmosphere, as it takes the listener through a surrealistic nightmare of psychedelic ambiences and ghastly instrumental passages that overwhelm with suspense. Near the end of its climactic section, the band begins to bombard us with an anarchical collage of sounds that are orchestrated in a polyrhythmic fashion, a style very reminiscent to the content in Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. Needless to say,

“The Devil’s Triangle” is a very intriguing piece, and a progressive one in every sense of the word. By the end of In The Wake Of Poseidon, there’s a sense of disappointment that can overcome the listener. As entertaining as the album may be, it deludes us to think that King Crimson has chosen to resort to past tendencies rather than evolve as a group. But this is still a young band at the very beginning of their career, and have yet to explore the limits of their creativity.

So, is it as good as the triumphant In The Court Of The Crimson King? No. But it is a fantastic album. The shadow that In The Court Of The Crimson King casts on all of the group’s albums is a tough one to get out of. In The Wake Of Poseidon is occasionally dismissed as one of King Crimson’s lesser albums of the 1970’s, and it doesn’t really get the credit it truly deserves, especially when the band went off to write several remarkable albums after it. Often eclipsed behind its other popular siblings like Red and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, but there is fun to be had in this album. And it’s even more enjoyable when one isn’t constantly comparing it to In The Court Of The Crimson King. You really have to accept this album for what it is, to merely experience its music openly and let it get its point across.

Every song is well composed and inviting, each offering its own thematic voyage of musical splendor for us to enjoy. It may not be King Crimson’s best, but this is a host to some of the most impressive songs to ever be a part of Progressive rock.

December 30, 2013 Posted by | King Crimson In The Wake Of Poseidon | | Leave a comment

Lou Reed v Lester Bangs: a classic interview from the vaults (1973)

loureedFrom The Guardian

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Rock’s Backpages – the world’s leading collection of vintage music journalism – we bring you a classic interview-cum-confrontation between the late Lester Bangs and his hero Lou Reed. Originally titled Lou Reed: A Deaf Mute in a Telephone Booth, the piece first appeared in Let It Rock in November 1973
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You walk into the dining room of the Holiday Inn filled with expectation at finally getting to meet one of the musical and psychological frontiersmen of our time.

Lou Reed, who with his group the Velvet Underground was singing about drag queens and heroin at least five years before such obsessions reached the mass level.

Who began a comeback as a solo artist last summer in England, and under the wing of David Bowie produced Transformer, a classic of mondo bendo rock. Who then, having come out of the closet at last, returned to his New York home and ushered in 1973 by getting married to an actress cum cocktail waitress named Betty (stage name Krista) Kronstadt.

On top of all that, both Transformer and the single from it are enormous hits. Lou Reed is not only a legend: he’s a star. In one of the interviews he did last summer, Lou said: “I can create a vibe without saying anything, just by being in the room.”

He was right. You sit yourself down, and sure enough you become aware pretty fast that there’s this vaguely unpleasant fat man sitting over there with a table full of people including his blonde bride. Pretty soon he comes over to join you and the tic becomes focused too sharply for comfort. It’s not just that Lou Reed doesn’t look like a rock’n’roll star any more. His face has a nursing-home pallor, and the fat girdles his sides. He drinks double Johnnie Walker Blacks all afternoon, his hands shake constantly and when he lifts his glass to drink he has to bend his head as though he couldn’t possibly get it to his mouth otherwise. As he gets drunker, his left eyeball begins to slide out of sync.

In spite of all this, however, he managed to live up to his reputation for making interviewers uncomfortable. He fixes you with that rusty bug eye, he creaks and croaks and lies in your face and you’re helpless. He lies about his music and his album covers (“That was me in drag on the back of Transformer.”) Most of all, he lies about himself. But he qualifies it by saying, “I don’t especially tell the truth most of the time anyway.”

6a0120a7b5f86a970b01310ffaded2970c-800wiHe’s pretty cool about most of it, though, so you can’t really get too mad at him about that. Like Nick Kent, who is there for the New Musical Express, is right in the middle of asking him a question, when Lou interrupts: “Aren’t you hot with that scarf on?”

“No,” wheezes Nick nonplussedly, “I’ve got a cold.”

“Try Vicks Vapo Rub,” says Lou. “I came down with a very bad cold in Boston, and it works. You’ve gotta lie there for two or three days with that glop on your chest and a towel or something, and every once in a while somebody has to have the nerve to reach into the bowl of that shit and rub it in. Like I remember,” he free-associates, “when everybody was taking acid and we discovered Dippity Do, and everybody said, ‘It’s just like a cunt, it’s fantastic!’ And we all ran into the bathroom and jumped into the bathtub and started fingering the Dippity Do jar.”

Everything is jokes to this bibulous bozo; he really makes a point of havin’ some fun! Although it does disturb his friends and fans to see him in such failing health. But he can find a joke even there. At one point I asked him when he intended to die.

“I would like to live to a ripe old age and raise watermelons in Wyoming.” Then he takes another glug and machos: “I’m outdrinking you two to one, you know.”

“Are you proud of yourself?”

“Yeah. No, not actually; it’s just that a single shot of Scotch is so small that you’ve gotta nurse it like it’s a child or something. I drink constantly.”

“How does it treat your nervous system?” I probed.

“It destroys it,” he beamed.

“Then how do you intend to raise your watermelons?”

“Well, my time will come. By now I’m getting tired of liquor because there’s just nothing strong enough. Now if we were drinking 150-proof sake, or something like that, then I could get drunk…”

He is equally devastating in his frankness on drugs: “I take drugs just because in the 20th century in a technological age living in the city there are certain drugs you have to take just to keep yourself normal like a caveman. Just to bring yourself up or down, but to attain equilibrium you need to take certain drugs. They don’t getcha high even, they just getcha normal.”

Normal Lou Reed reached for a Marlboro. As he fumbled to tear a match out of the book and strike it, his hands trembled so fiercely that you wondered if he was going to be able to get that butt lit.

This interview was turning out so fabulous I knew it was now time to get our hooks right down in the nitty gritty, and talk about sex. What about the relationship of what you’re doing artistically to the gay scene in general and specific?

Wax eloquent, for once and finally, he did. Listen kids, you may think you’ve got your identity crises and sexual lateral squeeze plays touchdown cold just because you came out in rouge ‘n’ glitter for Dave Bowie’s latest show, but listen to your Papa Lou. He’s gotta nother think for you punk knowitalls: “The makeup thing is just a style thing now, like platform shoes. If people have homosexuality in them, it won’t necessarily involve makeup in the first place. You can’t fake being gay, because being gay means you’re going to have to suck cock, or get fucked. I think there’s a very basic thing in a guy if he’s straight where he’s just going to say no: ‘I’ll act gay, I’ll do this and I’ll do that, but I can’t do that.’ Just like a gay person if they wanted to act straight and everything, but if you said, ‘Okay, go ahead, go to bed with a girl,’ they’re going to have to get an erection first, and they can’t do that.

“The notion that everybody’s bisexual is a very popular line right now, but I think its validity is limited. I could say something like if in any way my album helps people decide who or what they are, then I will feel I have accomplished something in my life. But I don’t feel that way at all. I don’t think an album’s gonna do anything. You can’t listen to a record and say, ‘Oh that really turned me onto gay life, I’m gonna be gay.’ A lot of people will have one or two experiences, and that’ll be it. Things may not change one iota. It’s beyond the control of a straight person to turn gay at the age he’ll probably be listening to any of his stuff or reading about it; he’ll already be determined psychologically. It’s like Franco said: ‘Give me a child until he’s seven and he’s mine.’ By the time a kid reaches puberty they’ve been determined. Guys walking around in makeup is just fun. Why shouldn’t men be able to put on makeup and have fun like women have?”

Lou Reed just may have a better perspective on this supposed upheaval in sexual roles than any of these Gore Vidals and Jill Johnstons. Duds comin’ outa the closet in droves and finding out they’re heterosexual! Ha! Only trouble is that Lou’s thinking also makes him a product of the rigidly dualistic era when he grew up a hell of a Fifties cat for somebody who helped usher in the Seventies. He thinks you’re either some blissfully “normal” heterosuburbanite weekender on your own, or otherwise you gotta be some mungstreaked depravo wretch skulking through the gutter on all fours. Listening to him talk, you can’t help wondering how much of Lou Reed’s songs are about people he makes up, as he claims, and how much of them is about himself. In which case – if say, Perfect Day is autobiographical – he must be the most guilt-ridden person on the face of the earth. Which would make it hard for anybody to live up to their own legend.

If Lou Reed seems like rock’s ultimate closet queen by virtue of the fact that he came out of the closet and then went back in, it must also be observed that lots of people, especially lots of gay people, think Lou Reed’s just a heterosexual onlooker exploiting gay culture for his own ends. And who knows but that they may be right. When I asked him about his plans for his next album, he said: “I may come out with a hardhat album. Come out with an anti-gay song, saying ‘Get back in your closets, you fuckin’ queers!’ That’ll really do it!”

But let’s just suppose that Lou Reed is gay. If he is, can you imagine what kind of homosexual would say something like that? Maybe that’s what makes him such a master of pop song – he’s got such a great sense of shame. Either that or the ultimate proof of his absolute normality is the total offensive triteness of his bannered Abnormality. Like there’s no trip cornier’n S&M, every move is plotted in advance from a rigid rulebook centuries old, so every libertine ends up yawning his balls off. Just like Lou said earlier that day: “There’s really no interesting information to hold back. Everybody insists that there’s a story here, and there really isn’t. It’s like a clamshell that’s been eaten.”

The concert was okay. Reports on this tour have varied drastically – depending on expectations and how Lou happens to be feeling, I guess – and his band, a bunch of high school kids assembled by Steve Katz, is more than adequate.

But there’s probably more going on here than meets the eye. Katz must have had plenty of musicians to choose from – he could conceivably have assembled a high-charged ensemble a la Elephant’s Memory, he could certainly have gotten a crew of faceless high-tech sessionmen if they didn’t want anybody to detract from Lou. But what he got was a bunch of competent high school kids off anybody’s block, who also happen to be some of the ugliest cretins ever assembled on one stage!

These guys are the absolute apotheosis of the Flushing, N.Y. or Hoboken, N.J. schlub. They’re so nada that they become not faceless, you can’t ignore ’em because they contrast so sharply with Lou Reed’s leather trip.

For somebody who has based so much of his career on sex, Lou Reed has certainly surrounded himself with an asexual band. It would be easy to conclude that this is simply because he didn’t want anybody else stealing the show (in which case it backfired – his bassist is the ugliest person I have ever seen) or that he’s so dunced out he didn’t make such considerations (unlikely). So you end up with the possibility that Lou may have an intentionally asexual band as a reaction to glam-rock and his own image. Which, if you follow that logic to the terminal, reeks of self-destructive guilt. Just imagine if Lou Reed did to his lead guitarist what Bowie does to Mick Ronson – pretending to blow him – he’d look like the archetypal homosexual criminal. It would be the most repulsive (in a sense never dreamed of by people like Alice Cooper) spectacle in the history of rock.

The audiences, however, usually love the show, and it’s gratifying to see them flood down to the stage at last, giving Lou Reed the adulation he’s deserved for so long. It’s only when you start to think about the basic lameness of his band, the dirge-like tempo at which he sings most of the songs, the generally funereal atmosphere, and the speculations that all this leads you into, that you begin to get bugged. Because Lou Reed’s finally got a chance at real sustained stardom, and he is blowing it. He’s still riding on the legend now, but people are going to get tired damn fast of a legend who slunks out with a bunch of blobs behind him, sings his songs as if he’s falling asleep, forgets the words half the time, stands as still as if he’s embalmed except for remembering every five minutes or so to wiggle his ass or wave his hand whether it’s really the time to do it or not. His whole career at this point is like welching out on a bet.

My personal payoff with Lou came when we got back to the hotel after the gig. About a dozen people sat around a shadowy suite while the Original Phantom Purveyor of the New Rock got drunk on his ass and rambled on to the point of babble. I got totally blasted myself, my disappointment came through and I started baiting him: “Hey Lou, doncha think Judy Garland was a piece of shit and better off dead?”

“No! She was a great lady! A wonderfully wise and witty lady …”

“Hey Lou, then doncha think David Bowie’s a no-talent asshole?”

“No! He’s a genius! He’s brilliant!”

(It makes sense that Lou would say that, since he allegedly made an ass of himself by falling in love with Bowie when he went to England last summer.)

“Ahh, c’mon, what about all that outer Space Oddity shit? That’s just Paul Kantner garbage!”

“It is not! It’s a brilliant masterpiece! Oh, you are so full of shit!”

“It was dogshit. Why don’t you get off all this crap and just try being banal for a change? Why doncha write a song like Sugar, Sugar? That’d be something worthwhile!”

“I don’t know how. I would if I could… l wish I’d written it…” Jeez, the poor bastard was getting so pathetic even his overwhelming maudlin streak was beginning to get to me! Like all the last year every time his name comes up all you hear is “Poor Lou!” Poor Lou, poor Lou, poor poor poor Lou Reed! You wouldn’t wanna be in his shoes! The tortured artist! The poor hamstrung sensibility! But I was too drunk for brakes, so I got even more personal and abusive: “Hey Lou, why doncha start shooting speed again? Then you could come up with something good!”

“I still do shoot it… My doctor gives it to me… Well, no actually they’re just shots of meth mixed with vitamins… well, no actually, they’re just vitamin C… injections.”

It went on like that for a while; finally, the whole thing sort of flaked into silence, and a girl from his organisation had to come and carry him off to his room.

But I’ll always carry that last picture of him, plopped in his chair like a sack of spuds, sucking on his eternal Scotch with his head hanging off into shadow, looking like a deaf mute in a telephone booth. (He’s still pretty cool, though; I stole that last phrase from him.)

If all this makes you feel sorry for him, then you can compliment yourself on being a real Lou Reed fan.

Because that’s exactly what he wants.

Then again, maybe time is still on Lou Reed’s side. A few days later I was sitting in my room when the door flew back and in barged Josh, nine-year-old son of one of the people I live with. He’s one of these typical little prepube smartasses with long hair and a big mouth, and he immediately demanded: “Where ‘dja get alla records?”

“Cute kid,” thinks I. “Maybe I’ll give him a copy of the Electric Company soundtrack.”

“Hey!” he poots. “Yagotenny Vaaaan Morrison or Leeon Russell?”

Awright you little popsickle pecker, I’m getting pissed at all this blatant trashing of respect for elders. So I drag out a copy of Transformer: “Wanna hear this?”

“Naaah,” he snorts. “I awready got a copy.”

“Oh yeah. What’s your favourite song on it?”

“New York Telephone Conversation. But my brother likes the one that goes ‘shaved ‘er legs an’ then he was a she’.” His brother is eight.

“Well, then, whattaya think of it?” I was a broken man.

“I think it’s great! We play it all the time.” So there you are. A bit later I tried to put on an America album and the brat called me a “health food eater”. He’s obviously a prodigal snot, but you can’t ignore the evidence: Lou Reed may be leagues from the peak of his creative powers, he may be a deteriorating silhouette of a star…

But give him a child from the time he’s nine.

December 30, 2013 Posted by | Lou Reed v Lester Bangs: a classic interview from the vaults | | Leave a comment

Bob Marley Exodus (1977)


Time Magazine once voted this record the “album of the century” – they’re pretty nutty there in Time Magazine. Which doesn’t mean that Exodus isn’t exactly, er, eligible for the position. Without a doubt, it is the most serious album Marley ever recorded, actually, the one recorded from high atop Bob’s unreachable position as Grand Speaker for Jah.

The title here is ambiguous: on one hand, the “exodus” as described in the title track symbolizes the propagation of Rastafarian ideas all over the world, on the other hand, it is also personal – after an unsuccessful attempt to take Marley’s life at the end of 1976 when a group of people attacked him and Rita at his house in Jamaica, Bob decided to leave the Rasta homeland for some time, and Exodus was written and recorded in London. Not from within the reggae ambience, thus – from an “outside” position, which only adds further solemnity to the project.

Therefore, even if you don’t like Exodus as compared to Marley’s earlier efforts, it is still hard not to respect this “monumental” statement of faith and purpose. I, for instance, don’t consider it to be among his strongest albums; even more, it contains the first Marley song that I truly cannot stand, and that is the stupid proto-adult contemporary soft ballad ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’, which does boast the usual Marley atmosphere, but offers you absolutely nothing worthwhile – here, the standard reggae beat isn’t complemented by anything interesting.

Likewise, I find songs like ‘Guiltiness’ overreaching, and songs like ‘Jamming’ overrated. But don’t let that bother you! Most of the songs are still cool, and there’s such a strong religious vibe running through most of the tracks that the whole of this album is definitely huger than the sum of its parts. It’s kinda like Marley’s All Things Must Pass, only not so strong on the melodies.

The centerpiece of the album, of course, is the title track – arguably the lengthiest reggae track ever recorded, but worth every minute of it. The pulsating, inspired drive of the track easily rivals any of the angriest funk anthems you’ll find on this planet, and the song would have been convincing enough even if it only had the band chanting ‘Exodus! Movement of Jah people!’ for all of these seven minutes. But no, then again, maybe not – it’s the way these chants alternate with Marley’s wails, grizzly-grumbly wah-wah lead lines and occasional ‘Move! Move! Move!’ screams, all culminating in a jam that was certainly the most anthemic and majestic thing Marley had created to date. You can almost see bunches of dedicated Rastafarians gathering round the fire to chant this ominous thing…

Of course, ‘Exodus’ is not the only thing of interest on this record. The entire first side, apart from maybe ‘Guiltiness’ which is one of those few Marley songs I don’t quite “get”, qualifies as a ‘serious listen’. ‘Natural Mystic’ fades in with a chuckin’ reggae rhythm that’s instantly recognizable, yet there’s something about it that sounds more wisened up, more professional than before. I guess it’s just a clever production trick, with a deeper echo than usual, but it’s a clever production trick.

The lyrics are more philosophical and religious than usual – evading Marley’s standard social critiques and lamentations and concentrating on the entirely spiritual side of the problem. Then, ‘So Much Things To Say’ lightens up the atmosphere with the addition of I-Threes backing vocals and a simpler message of praise and gratification; ‘Guiltiness’, on the other hand, crashing out of the previous song without any break, turns the praise to Jah into a threatening prophecy addressed to those who :”live their lives on false pretence everyday” and are “the big fish who always try to eat down the small fish”. Beware! “They’ll eat the bread of sorrow”. What a shame that, like on ‘War’ before it, Marley gets so entangled in the Biblical imagery and social meditation that he forgets to insert a musical hook.

Which he doesn’t forget to do on ‘The Heathen’ – it’s short and concise, and makes a perfect introduction to ‘Exodus’ as a simpler, “cruder”, but hardly less effective Rastafarian chant. A chant of war! For the glory of Jah, no less. Note the magnificent lead guitar work throughout, probably courtesy of Aston Barrett.

The second side of the album is significantly ‘milder’ and softer – which does culminate in the particular low point of ‘Turn Your Lights Down Low’, but which also gives Marley a chance to praise Jah in a more relaxing and humble mood on the world-famous ‘Jamming’, which might be overrated but is still pretty catchy, and which also allows him to grace the world with another magnificent ballad, ‘Waiting In Vain’. Surprisingly many people choose the song as their favourite on the album, and that’s understandable – Marley doesn’t come up with simple, unpretentious love ballads that often, but when he does, a simple, effective hook (here – the chorus) coupled with unmatched sincerity and warm feeling creates wonders.

One might complain that the last two songs of the album let down its Messianistic imagery, but personally, I think that starting the album on the most serious of notes and letting it end with a couple of lightweight, funny chants of consolation and optimism was a true stroke of genius. ‘Three Little Birds’ has an unforgettable synth riff, and ‘One Love/People Get Ready’ is one of the few “let’s gather round and sing a unifying song of happiness” tracks in the world that I can stomach, much as I usually detest the genre (just look what a horror a band like Queen made out of it). But when Marley and company chant ‘let’s get together and feel all right’, there’s no denying the genuine emotions of this simple, totally non-hypocritic, open call for friendship.

Exodus is a mythical album – one of those few records reviews for which tend to seriously baffle those who haven’t actually heard the record in question, because instead of direct descriptions and categorizations all we get is a vague subjective “evaluation” of the album and a few metaphysical metastatements that the review’s authors are hardly able to explain the meaning of themselves. But in this particular case, while I’m hardly qualified to try and explain all the sides of the Exodus myth, there’s one thing I can say for sure: you may like or dislike Exodus, but it truly deserves its mythical status.

It’s probably not the best choice for your first Marley album, but if you liked the earlier classics, I dare say you’ll find yourself agreeing with me over this one in no time.

December 30, 2013 Posted by | Bob Marley Exodus | | Leave a comment

Lou Reed Transformer (1972)


Lou Reed’s glam rock album? It’s not me who made that up – that’s an opinion widely shared by critics, and they do bring up vital arguments in favour of it. However, most of the ‘glam’ here turns out to be superficial at close look. Of course, it is no small coincidence that the album was produced by Lou in close collaboration with David Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson (the latter also contributes a fair share of guitarwork and is even responsible for the strings arrangements).

And the fact that the album is filled to the brim with themes of homosexualism, perversion, sexual bitches, etc., etc., etc., not to mention the album title and the album cover, also contributes to the general delusion. One must not forget, though, that most of these lyrical topics were essential to Lou’s creativity long before Bowie started getting draggy and the term ‘glam rock’ was even coined. And even if Bowie did leave a slight imprint of his personality on some of the songs, he was in no way such a patron and creative godfather to Reed as he was for, say, Mott The Hoople. This is a real Lou Reed album – and it has as much to do with glam rock as, for instance, Peter Gabriel and Genesis: you could argue that Genesis were a glam band, but apart from certain theater elements in their show, there was not much of a glam influence in the band.

Musically, the album is a little less interesting than the unjustly underrated debut – which might be due to the fact that Lou had nearly emptied the barrel of Velvet Underground outtakes (only ‘Andy’s Chest’ and ‘Satellite Of Love’ got recycled) and finally got around to the necessity of composing a complete record by himself and on his own. Basically, it’s just a little underarranged and devoid of hooks: I just don’t see as many interesting melodies as on the previous one.

This is, however, mostly compensated by the weird, dark atmosphere that Lou weaves around his compositions, transferring a potentially perfectly normal pop album into a gloomy tale of half-legal night clubs and the down side of New York’s night life. His voice is in perfect form, and bad and wheezy as it might be, it’s certainly the ideal instrument for conveying these dark feelings – and providing them with enough sincerity and conviction to forever ban this record from the glam category.

The moderate rockers here are ‘Vicious’ (my personal favourite, though for no obvious reason, it seems) and ‘Hangin’ ‘Round’, groovy but not very memorable foot-stompers: the best thing about them are again lyrics, incredibly smutty and almost sacrilegious on the latter and incredibly funny and almost stupid on the former (‘Vicious/You hit me with a stick/But all I’ve got is a guitar pick’ is my fav line there). There’s also the anthemic, rambling ‘I’m So Free’ – the loudest and clunkiest on here, but not very entertaining.

Anyway, it isn’t the rockers that make the record – the most important stuff is usually stripped down, peppered with tubas and harmonicas to get that lounge jazz/German cabaret sound again, and combined with Lou’s voice, becomes almost magical. This includes the hit ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ (although I’m still baffled as to how could a song that mentions giving head become a hit), with its horrible dirty imagery set to a quiet little shuffle and Lou’s gentle ‘doo doo doo’s that almost suggest that there’s nothing bad going on.

I’m also a big fan of ‘Make Up’, the one where Lou proudly announces that ‘we’re coming out of our closets’: it’s probably the closest he got to imitating that German sound (except for ‘Berlin’, of course), and it sounds so generic that it’s almost ingenious. And, of course, in order to appreciate the ‘concept’, one has to take some close listens to ‘Andy’s Chest’ and the ridiculous piano groove of ‘New York Telephone Conversation’ – a song where Lou plays the jerk so convincingly that you can’t help being totally sucked in by the very fact!

Still, in between the ‘conceptual’ songs are sandwiched some beautiful ballads that continue developing Lou’s romantic side along the unforgettable lines of ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Love Makes You Feel’. ‘Perfect Day’, with its ‘Berlin’-style atmosphere, quiet, Dylan-ish singing, and gentle piano chords moves me to tears, and ‘Satellite Of Love’, while some might call it a trifle cheesy, actually features a magnificent arrangement – the vocal harmonies on the choruses are superb, the jazzy bits are tasty, and the melody is right there – it’s just that you have to wait for it.

And what a better way to end the record than to sign it with such a flourish as ‘Goodnight Ladies’ – one more cabaret send-up with perfectly innocent, yet fascinating lyrics about lonely Saturday nights and sucking lemon peels? Even if you hate this loungy type of music, you could still be enthralled by Lou’s style on this one – the melody is as generic and ripped-off as possible, but it’s the combination of the melody with the lyrics and the vocal tone that makes this listening experience unforgettable (actually, this applies to the record as a whole).

And don’t forget that this sounds nothing like the classic Velvet Underground – punk lovers, please do not bother! This is lounge music, not your standard three-chord rock!

December 30, 2013 Posted by | Lou Reed Transformer | | Leave a comment