Classic Rock Review

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Lou Reed Berlin (1973)


An overall rating of 10, I feel, is not going to satisfy anybody – there is really no middle ground. You will either deify this record, calling it one of the richest and most wonderful chef-d’ouevres that modern music has managed to produced, or trample it under your feet all the while spitting out curses and lamenting over the fact how you’d like to punch the fat ass of the guy who told you Lou Reed was the archetypical proto-punk.

One thing’s for certain, though – Berlin ain’t for everybody. It’s also quite unlike anything Lou Reed had ever done before or since, and I’d even go as far as to state with all certainty that the album has no analogs in rock music at all. On a basic level, this is a ‘rock opera’ about a romance between an American dealer and a German drugged-out courtisan – they meet, they fall in love, they marry, they make children, they quarrel, they part their ways, they leave the kids with the father, they rave nostalgic, and then the story ends – what a great subject for a neo-realistic film. Or, wait, didn’t we see the first part of this story in Cabaret? Why, as a matter of fact, we did – life goes on and on, you see!

What makes the album so special isn’t the storyline, of course, but the atmosphere of the album. Even though it is recorded with a cast of thousands (Jack Bruce of Cream and Tony Levin of the future King Crimson on bass, B. J. Wilson of Procol Harum on drums, Steve Winwood on organ, etc., etc.), the arrangements are again mostly stripped down, but this time it is not the stripped-down-ness of a New York S&M club or a ghetto bordello, as in Transformer; it is the stripped-down-ness of a psychological record, brimming with emotions, both sincere and fake, with a strong German flavour.

Sometimes it’s just Lou sitting all alone with his guitar (‘Oh Jim’) or piano (title track), but more often the atmosphere is created with eerie effects – a gloomy church organ in the background, a barrage of heavy, bass-emphasized piano chords, some echoey, leaden vocals, a distorted block chord now and then, you know, that kind of stuff. It all combines to make a record so depressed and tragic, so utterly pessimistic, almost apocalyptic, that even Quadrophenia sounds like ‘Ode To Joy’ in comparison. If you can’t stand slow, lethargic, gloomy records, don’t even think about buying this, no matter how much your friends praise it.

The big problem is that the actual songs seem to be a little neglected in favour of the mood and the lyrics – although, to be honest, the record does contain some of Lou’s most hard-hitting lyrics ever (‘Men Of Good Fortune’, ‘The Kids’). The tunes are very rarely memorable, their structures transparent and feeble, and the melodies often diluted in a sea of noises or disorganised piano chords. The title track, recycled from Lou Reed, is a perfect example: the formerly magnificent nostalgic ballad with a heart-breaking chorus is given a piano-only arrangement and a careless, almost off-key vocal treatment (not to mention that only a short snippet of the original actually made it to the re-recording). Same goes for such songs as ‘Lady Day’, the story of the protagonists’ meeting, that picks a little steam only during the choruses. If you’re looking for rockers, look elsewhere: ‘How Do You Think It Feels’, with its aggressive guitar part, is probably the closest to a rocker on here, but it’s also the song that fits in with the mood least of all.

So my best advice is to accept the album as it is – relax and try to give yourself in to the enchantment that Reed clumsily casts upon you. If you succeed, you’ll find quite a lot of pleasure and sometimes even catharsis in these songs. ‘Men Of Good Fortune’, for instance, evolves from a slow, typically Lou Reed-style humming into a raising scream of protest; ‘Caroline Says’ is tender, sad, and moving, with its lyrics about the breaking of relationship between the lovers; and the centerpiece of the whole ‘opera’ seems to be ‘The Kids’, a fascinating tale of the mother’s separation from her children complete with real kids weeping and crying ‘Mummy!’ – a tale that, when delivered in Lou Reed’s casual, but here very Bob Dylan-ish wheezing tone, assumes an almost universal meaning – classic!

Yeah, kids, this ain’t rock’n’roll in the faintest degree – slow song after slow song after lethargic song after hypnotic song, and not a real rock riff in sight. And I admit it’s hard, what the hell, at first listen it must be pure torture to sit through the melancholic ‘Caroline Says (part 2)’, then endure the pessimistic ‘Kids’, before being submitted to the nostalgic ‘The Bed’ (with an unbearable, angel-voiced coda that reminds me of the ‘Crucifixion’ scene in Jesus Christ Superstar) and the romantic, universalist ‘Sad Song’, all of which go off at the same tempo (super-slow) and apparently feature only rudiments of melody, all of them based either on a sloppy acoustic rhythm track or a falling apart set of piano chords. But real art isn’t always easy to endure, friends – and this is real art, no doubt about that. The question is whether the game’s worth it – will you be morally rewarded for trying to endure this?

Well, I still am not: I can’t really get used to the atmosphere and the lack of melodies, and I guess I will never be, unless I find something in my life so that I could identify myself with one of the heroes (hope I won’t). But the album is still very good – those who are able to fit in the groove will never want to part with it. The lyrics are clever, the arrangements are perfectly suited for them, and the production is just what is needed for this kind of conception. Now… LET ME GO TO SLEEP before I write another idiotic word-combination!

January 4, 2014 Posted by | Lou Reed Berlin | | Leave a comment

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

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

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

Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners (1978)


Review Every two or three years I go back and listen to my collection of Lou Reed albums repeatedly for a month or two. During such stints, I seldom listen to anything else. After his latest release (The Raven) I decided to revisit his substantial catalog in order to, for my own sake, place his current work in a broader artistic context. There has always been a tremendous thematic continuity in his work that I appreciate.

After listening to his recent releases and then to “Take No Prisoners,” I was pretty shocked (in a good way, mind you) by how completely different Lou Reed was back in the late `70s.

Bold, brash, arrogant, desperate-Lou Reed was all these traits in addition to being one of the greatest singer/songwriter/performers of the `70s. “Take No Prisoners” is an incredible album that features a version of Lou Reed that is just as edgy and abrasive as the crowd to which he plays. The band is tight, but often they are not given much of a chance to develop the tracks into coherent musical constructions, due to Reed’s extensive monologues, which are occasionally compelling, sometimes banal, but often hilarious. When the band does find the room to break into the choruses of the songs, they charge into them with the strength and force of a runaway locomotive. This was a great band recorded on a very special night. The energy in the music is astounding.

Although the discs boast several classic Reed tracks that are all performed in a style that is somewhere between the Lou Reed we are normally used to hearing and something from the comedic repertoire of Lenny Bruce, for me the standout tracks are the versions of “Coney Island Baby” and the epic “Street Hassle” on Disc 2. Reed’s singing on these tracks is stellar-he passionately captures the speech mannerisms of the downtrodden, the hustlers, and of the humanly expendable in these songs. He so convincingly becomes the characters in these songs that you feel as though you are down in the gutter with him, looking for that crumb of salvation that someone may have left behind.

The only issue I have with this recording is the poor remastering that was done for the CD release. An original LP vinyl copy will sound much better than this CD, which contains far too much tape hiss to be a genuine remaster. The poor sound quality of the CD prevents me from giving this a 5 star review.

If you have any deep interest in Lou Reed, buy “Take No Prisoners.” Listening to this CD is like going to the circus, but not being able to enjoy it fully because all the clowns are just a little too dirty. It is like going to the zoo, only to walk by the Polar Bear exhibit to see that the animals have eaten the zookeepers. “Take No Prisoners” very well may be flawed in many people’s eyes due to Reed’s long orations, but it also brilliantly captures the punk aesthetic and a classic Lou Reed persona that we shall neither see nor hear ever again. This is essential equipment for living in a world that is clearly one big “Dirty Blvd.”

Review I have read dozens of reviews of this album and don’t really understand why so many (about half I’d say) are so damn critical of it! First, this is a LIVE album. If you were expecting exact renditions of his studio tracks, you are listening to the wrong musician. Lou never performs songs live as they appear on his albums.

Secondly, I hear complaints about the crappy band behind him or Lou’s tendency to completely ignore them. This criticism is way off the mark. This band (named The Everyman Band) was arguably the greatest band that ever played behind solo Lou. His live shows were jazz-inspired and his band was made up of jazz-influenced musicians. Listen to the band lie low, playing quietly behind a ranting Lou, and then suddenly explode as Lou hits the chorus. They don’t stumble, they don’t stutter…they know exactly when to play. Besides, this CD contains the best take of Street Hassle I have ever heard.

The remastering job is more of a “repackaging,” so don’t expect crystal clarity. You better hook up the old turntable for that to happen.

All in all, I gave this 4 outta 5. If you are looking for more of Lou’s 1978 stint at the Bottom Line, there are a number of bootlegs out there that will satisfy your thirst: “Small Club in NYC” and “The Compilation Tapes” are the best among them.

December 28, 2013 Posted by | Lou Reed Live: Take No Prisoners | | Leave a comment

Lou Reed New York (1989)

Lou-Reed-new-yorkFrom Rolling Stone

New York is Lou Reed’s rock & roll version of The Bonfire of the Vanities. But whereas Tom Wolfe maintains an ultimately cynical distance from the urban disintegration he depicts in his novel, Reed is raging. In Reed’s apocalyptic vision of the world’s capital as a Boschean inferno, the city’s inhabitants have been shocked into incomprehension by homelessness, poverty, AIDS, child abuse, official corruption, racial violence and drugs. At a time when the city’s own newspapers routinely evoke Calcutta and Bedlam to describe the Big Apple’s rotting condition, Reed’s message — powered by a ferocious four-piece band — slams home with the urgency of tomorrow morning’s headlines.

In fact, the fourteen songs on New York — which runs nearly an hour — are fierce, poetic journalism, a reportage of surreal horror in which the unyielding force of actual circumstances continually threatens to overwhelm the ordering power of art. Reed, of course, is no stranger to unhinging scenes of squalor. On his inestimably influential early albums with the Velvet Underground and through much of his solo work in the Seventies, Reed cast a cold eye on virtually every manner of human excess.

But times have changed, and Reed’s attitudes have changed with them. A walk on the sexually undifferentiated wild side is no longer simply an outrageous means of spitting in the face of the bourgeoisie but a potentially fatal journey. And it’s hard to muster the deranged, existential glee of drug-soaked scenarios like “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “White Light/White Heat” and “Sister Ray” as crack condemns a generation of inner-city youth to a dreadful night of the living dead. “The past keeps knock knock knocking on my door,” Reed sings on “Halloween Parade,” a moving, almost wistful update of “Walk on the Wild Side,” “and I don’t want to hear it anymore.”

Most tellingly, Reed, a veteran of the 1986 Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope Tour, has developed a political outlook that grounds his work and lessens his characteristic detachment. From that new vantage, Reed sees New York as a microcosm of the rest of the country, the hardest hit and therefore most devastated victim of eight years of Ronald Reagan.

Moreover, besides taking on such typical rock-star concerns as the environment, Native Americans and Vietnam vets, Reed tackles the last taboo of American political life: class. He realizes that even in the worst of times, people do not all suffer equally. On “Dirty Blvd.,” the story of a Hispanic child growing up in a welfare hotel, he sings, “Outside it’s a bright night, there’s an opera at Lincoln Center/Movie stars arrive by limousine/The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan/But the lights are out on the mean streets.”

To carry the weight of his words on New York, Reed assembled a killer band consisting of drummer and coproducer Fred Maher (a veteran Reed sideman), bassist Rob Wasserman and guitarist Mike Rathke. (Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker plays on two tracks, and Dion takes a splendid vocal turn on “Dirty Blvd.”) Throughout, Reed’s guitar tone is a miracle of inspired distortion, a sonic distillation of the streets. The sound Reed employs on this album perfectly complements his sense.

That sense is not without its complications; Reed is hardly an orthodox left-winger. His idiosyncratic stance is neatly summed up in the jazzy “Beginning of a Great Adventure,” an ironic fantasy about fathering “a little liberal army in the woods” in which Reed croons, “I’d try to be as progressive as I could possibly be/As long as I didn’t have to try too much.”

So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the promisingly titled “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” turns out primarily to be a lecture to Jesse Jackson about his “common ground” speech, which he delivered at the Democratic National Convention last summer. Placing himself to the right of even the Reagan administration’s current Middle East position, Reed chides Jackson with the question “Jesse you say Common Ground/Does that include the PLO?” He goes on to ask, hammering a rhyme worthy of a rapper, “If I ran for President and once was a member of the Klan/Wouldn’t you call me on it/The way I call you on Farrakhan?” The song doesn’t end hopefully; in the last lines, Reed snaps, “Oh is it true/There’s no Ground Common enough for me and you?”

The attack on Jackson — the one politician who embodies most of the values Reed espouses on New York — points up the album’s one significant flaw. Although his anger about social conditions is pure and righteous, Reed allows it to blind him to any solution.

“This is a time for Action/Because the future’s Within Reach,” he sings on the supercharged “There Is No Time,” but nowhere does he suggest either what that action might be or how that future might be seized. On “Busload of Faith” he veers perilously close to an easy knee-jerk nihilism (“You can depend on the worst always happening”). And on “Last Great American Whale” he confuses hatred of people’s actions with hatred of people, permitting his outrage to decay into a pointless misanthropy.

New York is indisputably the most ambitious album of Lou Reed’s solo career. If it’s not indisputably the best, that’s only because it’s so much of a piece that no songs leap out as classics, as so many of his songs have in the past. Also, the album is so compelling an expression of the historical moment that it’s hard to tell what it will sound like down the line. What’s clear is that in whatever future there is, whenever anyone wants to hear the sound of the Eighties collapsing into the Nineties in the city of dreams, New York is where they’ll have to go.

December 26, 2013 Posted by | Lou Reed New York | | Leave a comment

Lou Reed Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal (1974)


Isn’t it ironic that Lou Reed’s best-selling album was a live one? And not just a live one – an album packed to the brink with live versions of old VU standarts. Apparently, this was the public’s muffled expression of what it really felt about Lou disbanding VU. Of course, it’s soothing to see that Lou wasn’t going to discard his past and saw no problem in taking his VU legacy on board. But the funny thing is, this doesn’t sound like the VU at all! Oh, how the clever nostalgic public was probably disappointed (and how the not so clever contemporary public was probably filled with awe).

Instead, Lou goes for a gimmicky, loud and dazzling sound – most of the entertainment is provided by constant guitar duels courtesy of hired-guns Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. It isn’t even mentioned in the liner notes if Lou plays guitar himself – I highly doubt it, seeing as he rarely played anything on his previous solo records. And on both the front and back covers he is pictured as a show-off-ey, highly maked up, well, ‘rock’n’roll animal’. This is definitely a glam show, and a glam rock record – the guitar sound is heavy but not thoroughly sincere, and from the very ‘Intro’ where Hunter and Wagner enter the stage playing dazzling (and highly professional) guitar licks off each other, you’re in for a true show – the songs take on an almost ‘monumental’ feel, most of them being sped up, cranked up, puffed up and blown up. Yeah, that’s right. All of this is just spectacle, of course, but, as with the best examples of glam rock, it’s high-quality and extremely entertaining spectacle.

A metallized, arena-rock-adjusted version of ‘Lady Day’ is the only Lou Reed solo tune that made it to the album (more of his solo numbers cropped up on the later Lou Reed Live, though), and it’s easy to see why: the general mood of the ‘brilliant show’ is in no way compatible with the quiet, stripped-down, modest moods on his solo records. ‘Lady Day’ is, in fact, the worst cut on the album, especially if compared with the far superior studio version on Berlin. On the other hand, the VU tunes have suddenly proved to be much more adaptable – the two short and the two long numbers on here rock mercilessly and are thoroughly enjoyable even in their lengthiness.

Of the short numbers, the speedy, raving, punkish version of ‘White Light/White Heat’ is the best, with enough kick-butt energy to equal and probably surpass the studio version – I mean, instead of the Velvets’ intentionally sloppy, dirty approach, you witness a tightened up, crunchy rocker, with an almost AC/DC-like riff holding up the song; but ‘Sweet Jane’ is quite decent as well, once you’ve gotten past the lengthy intro featuring the guitarists’ talents. The main emphasis, however, is placed on the two lengthy cuts – ‘Heroin’ and ‘Rock’n’Roll’. While I can’t admit to liking this version of the latter too much, and the repetitive jam at the end gets way, way too long, I certainly lift my thumbs up in favour of ‘Heroin’ – the version here is much more thought out, inspired and professional than the sloppy original.

The multiple sections of the song are quite diverse, the famous speeding up on the refrain is exercised in a series of different ways, and the song’s twelve-minute length is almost perfectly justified in that you never know what is going to happen next. Crisp, hard-hitting guitar parties abound, the occasional organ solo (Ray Colcord is on keyboards) is cute, and Lou’s vocals are sharp and distinctive as well. If anything, the song receives a real ‘rock-out’ treatment – a thing that was sorely lacking on the original; I know VU purists might crucify me for this statement, but unless you’re a VU purist (and most VU purists I’ve had the chance of meeting on the Web were absolute freaks, so I’m not speaking on their behalf), you’re bound to agree with me.

As for ‘Rock’n’Roll’, it kicks just as much ass as everything else on here; I’m not too sure if there was any real point in extending the song so drastically – Hunter’s repetitive wah-wah riff, for instance,
simply has no reason to stick in your ears for so long without any other instruments backing it – but on the whole, it forms a dazzling and highly suitable ending to the show that’s supposed to highlight Mr Reed as the Rocker to outrock everybody else. Who could have thought that this highly commercial, so straightforwardly crowd-pleasing record would be followed by Metal Machine Music just a few years later?

So, even if the album is by no means essential, it’s probably a must for all Lou Reed studiosos – turns out that the man’s live edge and studio edge around 1973-74 were two different things. And if you’re dissatisfied with Reed’s German-style ditties or pretentious conceptual musings, this is the album to own – flashy and kick-ass. Rock’n’roll, dude, rock’n’roll to the core. Plus, the production is near-excellent (funnily, it might even be better than on his contemporary studio records), and the coolest thing – which often goes unnoticed – is that Lou never even says a ‘thank you’ to the audience. Snubby son of a bitch, ain’t he?

December 22, 2013 Posted by | Lou Reed Rock 'N' Roll Animal | | Leave a comment