It’s the day after I heard that Lou Reed died, and even though I haven’t paid much attention to anything he’s been doing for several decades, his music was important to me, bandmates, and friends, so I thought I’d write something down here. We used to refer to him as “Uncle Lou”—meaning, I guess, both a blood relative reverence and also irreverence, as in the perverted uncle disowned by the family that no one talks about. I vaguely recall “meeting” him once, when we—I don’t recall who, Keith Busch?—drove up to a record store on Coventry where he played a live radio show and then you could wait in line to have him sign a record or something. (He was very small and wearing a blue hoodie.) I felt embarrassed but went through with it and asked him to sign something ODD—can’t remember what now! Maybe it was a copy of Dharma Scum, a “garage novel” by Sean Hill and myself, or maybe this was before we wrote that, so maybe I asked him to sign my ass with a quill pen. It probably wasn’t THAT, but it was in that spirit. He smiled and gave me a funny look.
Like rock’n’roll, Lou has died countless times already, though I don’t want to get into the negatives here. But neither do I want to write a “tribute.” By the time they built that Clown Factory in Cleveland, rock’n’roll had been buried too deep for anyone to ever pretend to know it, but it does persist like an annoying friend (the kind where you don’t need enemies). I guess it died just about the first time anyone decided that they had this burning urge to write about it, and seeing how there’s not even room in the coffin for another nail, I’m just going to kind of blow my nose over my record collection here.
Now, in the last six years I’ve moved five times, and each time I’ve left a lot of shit behind, including my record collection, except for a handful. I’ve picked up a few at yard sales here and there, but since records are back “in” now it’s too expensive to go out and buy back what I once owned. So here in this small hotel room I’m living in now I’ve got—I just counted them—60 odd records (some odder than others: Dory Previn! The Rockin’ R’s?) I just went through them to see which Lou Reed records I have, and the grand total is two! Most shockingly in absence is my all time favorite, STREET HASSLE (1978) – where is it? There is NO WAY I don’t have that record! Yet, it’s not here. I have been robbed! Just that cover, one of the best album covers ever (what the hell is that red ball?) A great, weird record. It sounds like no other. Oh well, I can’t take it to my grave (maybe Lou did).
Now, this is going to make me really UNPOPULAR but I don’t give a rat’s ass about the Velvet Underground. Sure, I like them, but then I like the ARCHIES, too, but Lou Reed’s second career, as “Lou Reed” is where it really connects for me. And I take that back, Street Hassle isn’t my favorite record, that would be METAL MACHINE MUSIC (1975) which contrary to what people seem to think IS music and you CAN listen to it. It’s not a fuck you to the record company or the fans, it’s a LOVE LETTER. I, however, gave my copy to Jeff Curtis, because he has a radio show and has actually played it on his radio show. In fact, a great tribute to Lou Reed would be to play the entire four sides on the radio (maybe toward the end of the show, then, barricade yourself in all night while the final lock groove goes on and on and on—just an idea). Sadly, I’m also missing LOU REED (1972) with the druggie art cover, I really love that album, but my copy was trashed, and every copy you find looks like someone threw up on it after OD-ing. I also don’t have TRANSFORMER (1972), which is sad because I LOVE that record, but what’s even sadder is that about half the songs have been used in commercials for heinous products and corporations (who I guess didn’t listen to the lyrics?) because it’s about the catchiest set of jingles you’re ever going to hear. I also don’t have SALLY CAN’T DANCE (1974) and CONEY ISLAND BABY (1975) both of which I really love, and shouldn’t have too hard a time picking up somewhere since no one seems to like them. Some of his records after 1978 I enjoyed at the time but don’t really care to listen to anymore.
What do I have, then? Two records I managed to save because they’re like two books of the Holy Bible to me. LOU REED LIVE: TAKE NO PRISONERS (1978) has a way too long title, a hideous cover (though a ballsack is prominently featured) and it’s LIVE. The live rock record is really one of the most dismal mistakes in rock’s portfolio of bad ideas, but THIS record! It’s the one live record you should listen to, and well, just one of my favorite records to put on when I’m in a Scotch and cigarettes kind of mood (but without the Scotch and cigarettes). It’s a double record, folds out, and the inside is a hilarious giant photo of Lou with a cigarette, obviously taken at the same time as the Street Hassle cover (there’s that red ball again), his aviator sunglasses look like they’re covered with perm grease. It’s somewhere between a comedy record, a lounge act, and “live rock” as well as it can be played. It starts out with a pretty formidable version of “Sweet Jane” which he almost immediately interrupts to go into really funny stream-of-consciousness improvisations and complaining: “I never said I was tasteful. I’m not tasteful.” During an extended version of “Walk On The Wild Side” he sets out to tell the story of the origin of the song but keeps interrupting himself, talking about critics, particularly Christgau: “Can you imagine working for a fucking year and you get a B+ from some asshole in the Village Voice?” But also other people like Warhol superstars and celebrities like Norman Mailer: “I met Mailer at a party, he tries to punch you in the stomach to see how tough you are… he’s pathetic… ‘Come on man…’ What? You’ve got to be kidding? Somebody step on him, man. Go write a bible.” Because of the Stereo Binaural Sound recording process, this is a weird listening experience, especially with headphones (not only can you hear Lou brutally addressing members of the audience, you can hear individual members of the audience). “I sing when you shut up.” Causing feedback: “Isn’t that annoying? I can drown you out. Leave if you don’t like it.” But it’s actually all very loving, believe it or not, he loves this audience, and what he’s doing, that’s the sense I get.
I lied when I said those other records were my favorite all-time Lou Reed records because my favorite actually is the other one I have, BERLIN, which is from 1973, the year I believe is the pinnacle of American culture (that’s right, it’s been downhill for the last 40 years). I suppose I’ve listened to this record more than all of his others combined, so I don’t put it on that much anymore—but I still do once in awhile when I need something to cheer me up. People often say it’s depressing, meaning the music, the lyrics, the content, but I don’t understand that, really… I mean, isn’t a lot of art about sad subjects? The songs are all very beautiful, all of them on this record, and I find that uplifting. I think people constantly confuse depressing with sad. I find bad art depressing, maybe, but mostly I try to ignore it. What I love about this record is that it’s so over the top, it’s extreme, melodramatic, emotional. I love to think about these people in the studio, how they must have felt recording it. I hope they felt like they were doing something great. I don’t mean to criticize people who find this record too sad to listen to, I guess, I mean the story it contains IS pretty heartbreaking! But I take it as a story, that’s all. Maybe it’s the ultimate compliment, ironically, if you’re making sad art, when it’s too sad for people to even want to experience. By the way, I sure have quoted Lou Reed a lot over the years, to the extent where it’s like his lyrics have become part of my personality. I think my favorite one of all comes from the last song on this record: “Just goes to show how wrong you can be.”
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