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03 November 2013

Transformer

Well, well. The Economist got it right this time. The E's obits are almost always interesting, and this week, I am happy to report (about a very unhappy death) that the newspaper beautifully told of Lou Reed's passing.  They even managed to quote a verse from one of my favorite Lou tunes: "Romeo and Juliet."

Below is the obit, in it's entirety, but first I want to add my two cents.

I fell in love with Lou Reed in my early 20s, which would put us in the early 1980s.  My college buddy Beamer introduced us by spinning the Velvet Underground's Loaded (1970) one evening. I heard "Sweet Jane" and I was in love.  At least that's how I remember it.  Maybe it was Rock 'n Roll Animal that Beamer played for me. My recollections of college days have grown opaque. 

Then, a couple of years later, my wonderful law school classmate Rona Morrow (herself, like Lou, a musician and recovering heroin addict; and, like Lou, now deceased) gave me a tape of Lou's then-new CD New York and that was IT for me.  You know what I mean when I say "IT" right?  I mean that album -- every tune -- hit me like a ton of bricks.  You know how that happens, right? When you hear a tune or an album and you're at a crossroads in your life and the tune or album just tells you what decision to make, or that the decision you've already made was the right one. The latter was my situation. It's sort of what I think angels really are. Angels are messengers. It's how they operate.

The raw power of "Romeo and Juliet" and "Dirty Boulevard," both on New York, reminded me that I was about to become a lawyer so that I could work for the people Lou described in those songs and work against people like those he described in "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim." 

If I told Lou Reed that he was one of my angels I'm sure he'd slug me. I'll have to find out in a few years when we finally have a chance to meet.  I hope it will be at the Pearly Gates Bar and Grill and that he will be jamming.

Google New York and, if nothing else, read the tunes' lyrics.  Lou articulates important values and tells great stories with a biting wit. Then, turn up the volume.... all the way up... and blast "Dirty Boulevard" or "Busload of Faith." 

Here's "Dirty Boulevard" (note the audio edits...love that 1989 broadcast TV! Like I said... read the lyrics):




 And now, the obit:
 

Lou Reed

A walk on the wild side

Lou Reed, songwriter and musician, died on October 27th, aged 71

HE HAD to get there, wherever it was. Wade through seas of blood if necessary, like Macbeth. Or, in his case, wade through New York streets filled with rain-soaked mattresses, prostitutes, transvestites, exploding Uzis and men selling heroin at $26 a time. You had to push past the rage to get to the light, fight past the flames to get to the open door. And if you found a bit of magic in that “wonderful fire”, then some loss would even things out.

The world of Lou Reed was one of continuous contradictions, a good thing cancelled by a bad thing, and vice versa. His music heavily influenced the rock and punk bands that followed him, so much so that he was said to have revolutionised the scene; but he and the Velvet Underground, the band he formed and led from 1965 to 1970, never sold that many records. He stayed subversive, a dark force, a cult. Parents did not approve of him, if they even knew. His songs became the soundtrack of lives as raddled by drugs and sex as his was; but also, when smuggled by Vaclav Havel into Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, the underground anthems of liberty.
He sang of drug overdoses in lurid detail, “blood [shooting] up the dropper’s neck”. He mused dreamily on fellatio and random black girls, “doo de-doo de-doo”. When Havel wanted to take him as a guest to Bill Clinton’s White House at the height of the Monica Lewinski scandal, aides paled at the prospect. But he also produced in “Perfect Day”, his most popular song, an apparent hymn to sweet, simple, times:
Just a perfect day
Drink sangria in the park
And then later, when it gets dark
We go home
Lines so innocent could not mean what they said; and, sure enough, the kicker came:
You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
Someone good
The last line, many times repeated, was: “You’re going to reap/just what you sow”. Everything had its opposite, just as the euphoria of the spike in the vein, when he felt “like Jesus’s son”, was followed by the low. His style was often to mismatch melody and words, or sing flat, or comment as if he was on the sidelines, rather than in the song. Critics struggled to grasp what he was up to, but he couldn’t have cared about their “receptions, deceptions, hellos, goodbyes, huzzahs, hurrahs”. He wrote for himself, and if it was ugly to others, “you think what you’re making is beautiful”.

At his best, as on the “Transformer” album, his songs could be lyrical, as well as witty and sharp; at his worst, he was just dissonant and tedious. The first song that got him into trouble, “The Black Angel’s Death Song”, which the Velvet Underground performed once too often (having been told not to) at the Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village in 1965, was a long toneless lyric over screeching electric viola. (Happily, though, it caught Andy Warhol’s attention, and hanging out at Warhol’s Factory made the band famous.) His album “Metal Machine Music” (1975), forced out of him (it was said) by a recording contract, was four sides of feedback from an electric guitar. He said he knew no one who had listened to the whole thing.

The man could be just as perplexing, and played it up. Was he really a badass city boy? In fact he came from the New York suburbs, and for two years—between leaving the Velvet Underground in 1970 and making his first solo albums, helped by David Bowie, in 1972—he worked as a typist in his father’s accountancy firm. Did he really take so many drugs? No, he didn’t take them at all (he blurrily told a circle of reporters at Sydney airport in 1974), but he thought everyone else should, because they were “better than Monopoly”. Was he homosexual? He had a very public transvestite love affair once; in the mid-1970s he adopted leather jackets and short blonde curls; later he wore nail varnish and mascara. But there were heterosexual marriages too, paired with romantic songs.
 
The twisted stars

He was clever, and a poet; that was a fact he wanted everyone to know.
Caught between the twisted stars
The plotted lines the faulty map
That brought Columbus to New York
Betwixt between the East and West
At Syracuse University (briefly subdued by electric-shock treatment ordered by his parents) he had studied English; after that he went to Pickwick Records to write hit songs to order, which he found he couldn’t do. He approached his lyrics like a novelist, he said, or as Tennessee Williams might have done. Shakespearean echoes were everywhere (though “You can’t be Shakespeare and you can’t be Joyce/So what is left instead/You’re stuck with yourself,” he had concluded).

Tantalised by literary greatness, but labelled as a rock musician, he was crushingly rude to those who tried to analyse him. He preferred to leave them in confusion. Perhaps, as his songs said, he wanted to “nullify” life; or perhaps, contrariwise, he was high on it. The world he sang of was very often vicious, decadent and dirty. But, he said later, “My heart was pure and my soul was pure too,” as he passed through the fire to wherever he was going.
_________________________

Addendum...

One last thing. On the flip side of the tape Rona gave me in 1989 was an album from a new band called Cowboy Junkies.  It contained a cover of Lou's "Sweet Jane."  They killed it: