Passing thoughts and notes on a recent passing
of note. Scratched out some 10-11 days ago; partial,
piecemeal, unpolished, unfinished.
Numerous friends & peers expressing shock or surprise at the news of Lou Reed's death. I shrug. Maybe I've become inured to such news in recent years, know to expect it at regular intervals.Maybe it barely rated as news. Maybe I had given the guy so little thought in recent years that...
Anyway. I did do the sort of thing of thing that I normally don't do on such occasions. Y'know -- that vulture thing of pulling out a bunch of records and basking in the achievements of the recently departed. Because hearing "Sweet Jane" turn up in the breaking news on Sunday made me realize that Loaded was an album I hadn't bothered to spin since roughly 1990. And even then, lifting the needle over about half the tunes. So I played it in full. Two things come to attention right away. One being that the politics of the label shoving Reed out of the band for the sake of front-staging (the hopefully more marketable and listener/audience-friendly) Doug Yule are deeply etched into the thing, since it sounds very much like some A&R-pressured departure from their abrasive, fringe-dwelling East Coast origins and far more like some West Coast country-rock outfit of the Moby Grape order, which I gather was really big at the time. Second thing I noticed that on those tunes wher Reed was allowed to lead ("Sweet Jane," "Rock & Roll," et al), his vocal delivery was uncharacteristically heated, exuberantly engaged -- possessing an energy and coiled intensity that otherwise was atypical in his long and often plodding career.
Related anecdote one: Seeing New Order play live in 1986. They were on supporting the Brotherhood album. I suppose they didn't feel too confident about said LP, because they defaulted on playing the bulk of Low-Life instead. And then for an encore came back onstage to play a long monotonously trudgey thing that went on for what seemed like 15 minutes, gradually building in density as it trudged along. Eventually some lyrics entered into the thing, something about doing the ostrich. Realized that I was hearing a tip of the topper to VU, tho' by way of an obscure route that involved a tune that had (at that point) existed mostly as an unheard footnote to the VU story. Or maybe it was meant as an echo of the "Sister Ray" cover that lurked in their earlier history via the Joy Division days. I didn't/wouldn't hear the original until I acquired of 45 of the tune some years later, and it still amuses me each time I hear it.
Related anecdote two: At some point in history, many of Reed's '70s solo LPS were actually considered essential, cultish listening. Item one on the "underground" cultural-credential credenza. Once a good friend friend of mine and a buncha friends of his from the school's radio station were hanging out drinking together at my friend's apartment, and the thing devolved into a music-geek pissing contest about "Name/Play The Most Depressing Song You've Ever Heard," illustrating their case inasmuch as one friend's record collection allowed. I'm can't recall what all got nominated, but apparently The Pogues'"And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda"crossed the turntable at one point. But then my friend cheated, and made everyone listen to the entire second side of Lou Reed's Berlin, which shouldn't been tantamount to a violation of the Geneva Convention or something of that magnitude, as far as the rules of the contest were concerned. At any rate, by the time the stylus eases into the lead-out groove, everyone sat around in silence for a moment. Then one participant (the station's format chief, and a moody guy by nature) stands up, flatly declares, "Yeah, I think that's got to be the most depressing thing I've ever heard", and without saying another word to anyone, leaves.
I'd heard many years ago that there was some kind of rivalry between Reed and Frank Zappa -- like some sorta East Coast/West Coast gangsta beef in which the Velvets and the Mothers of Invention had been pitted against each other in competition for who would be roundly embraced as Lords of the Freak Scene. And that the two had harbored nothing but loathing for one another for all the years thereafter. If true, it always struck me as daft. The two acts were in no way comparable. No chance of the Velvets ever being a contender for that title, anyway. Far too dark, too severe, too art-damaged, and far too NYC and attitudinally out-of-step with the zeitgeist. Proper recognition would have to wait for later, much more different times.
Recently watching a South Bank Show edition on VU circa 1986, and there's Sterling Morrison saying that "Venus in Furs" ranked as his all-time favorite achievement, explaining that "Were someone to ask me what you can do that nobody else can -- well, did anyone ever record anything that sounded like that?"
Which brings me to the reason I return to VU, why they stuck in my head for so many years long after I started seeking out the music sometime about 3 decades ago. It didn't take me long to realize that, as with "Venus in Furs" and plenty other tunes, everything about them that I liked -- everything that was so jarringly difficult, but which would later hold my ear, continue to fascinate no matter how many times I heard it -- had very little to do with Lou Reed and almost everything to do with John Cale's presence & input.
Metal Machine Music? As much noise as I've listened to over the years, I was never able to work up any enthusiasm over the thing. If anything, it ranks far higher as perhaps the most WTF befuddling curve ball that a recording artist has ever lobbed at his audience. The fact that the label agreed to put it out still defies comprehension.
The story had it that the young Jonathan Richman worshipped the Velvets, and aspired to be Boston's answer to Lou Reed when he formed the Modern Lovers. Which may have been why he agreed to let John Cale produce the band's debut demo. It turned out to to be a supreme mismatch, with Cale coaching Richman on his guitar solos, reputedly standing in the production booth shouting, "Okay, Jonathan -- attack! Attack!!" But attacking was the opposite of what Richman wanted in his songs. Small wonder that the sessions proved abortive.
Frankly, I haven't had the slightest inclination to revisit a post-VU Reed solo album in at least 20 years. But then again, I can't say I was smitten by much of Cale's subsequent efforts, either.
The Velvet Underground influence having been inescapably pervasive for a good stretch of the 1980s, the core influence behind a huge swath of the "college rock" of the time, extending to the other side of the Atlantic, as well. It's how I came to know them, having heard the band cited my so many musicians, how I sought out and acquired their debut album while still in high school. I remember that by the late '90s it'd been deemed exhausted and passe, with some critic (might've even been Simon) declaring it the most moribund influence in contemporary rock. Well, that was partially true. True of the Lou Reed side of the VU influence. Because at the time the John Cale aspect of it was being pretty heavily mined -- mostly by way of the burgeoning drone/tantric microtonalist end of the experimental music set, with all the Dream Syndicate/Theater of Eternal Music/Tony Conrad etc etc stuff coming out via the Table of Elements label. Soon followed by releases of the previously-unheard records of original, short-lived Velvets' drummer Angus MacLise. Which sparked a wave of new noise outfits, each of whom you could detect had been inspired by one specific MacLise composition or another. Likewise with a lot of open-form "freak folk" artists who appeared in the early years of the 'noughties.
Lou Reed could've never written or recorded something as disarmingly lovely and snappy as Mickey & Sylvia's "Love is Strange." But, in the less dark or caustic passages of his material, I often sensed that he wished he could've.