I wasn’t going to write about Lou Reed. Damn you, Rob Sheffield.
In full disclosure, Rob Sheffield seems like a sweetheart actually–read his books, especially the one about karaoke–but until I stumbled across his “Lou Reed: 20 Hidden Treasures” I didn’t see a way into Lou Reed’s story. Sheffield mentioned Lou Reed Live, which I’d never managed to pick up despite its origins in the that same show, just before Christmas, 1973, as that epochal Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal album.
How epochal, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal? Epochal enough that Cameron Crowe recommended it as surefire (suresire?) make-out music in his Fast Times At Ridgemont High book (replaced by Led Zeppelin IV in the movie, and then the movie doesn’t even give us a song from that album, but that’s okay because “Kashmir”‘s my favorite Zepp anyway). Only that’s not okay, because Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal at least, makes for not-terribly-fecund makeout music. The opening slither of “Sweet Jane”–well maybe, but can you imagine creatively contorting yourself to thirteen minutes of “Heroin” replete with Ray Colcord’s entirely-convincing church organ climaxes? Okay…could you imagine doing that contortion at fifteen? (Give yourself a hand, I guess.)
And epochal for me, for all the arguments I had with the album. Lou remarked once that “the most important part of my religion is to play guitar” and by that standard he’d fallen out of practice spiritually and otherwise around this show. Letting Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner’s guitars talk for him, carrying no instrument on stage, and (judging by the album photos) hanging onto that microphone stand like it was a lifeline thrown to that pancake-made-up gastropod which might otherwise slide to the floor and maybe (horrors) infest the front row.
But he didn’t, because this music in several crucial aspects is about distance. Lou doesn’t want to get personal. He hangs out in the pocket, center stage, and declaims, riding on top of band waves. His singing, as such, sounds less like somewhat getting personal with the mike (see the Velvets’ third album) and more like a hustler hussy hurtling insults from a streetcorner. I have the control, he says, and if I want to drag behind the beat, relishing in my putdowns, I’ll damn well do, you punks scatter from my spit. I’m scabby, in rags, and my putdowns sound much better inside my own soul, but I can still spit.
“Satellite Of Love” from Transformer finds Lou straightforward vocally, wry lyrically, the disappearing lover and the disappearing rocket neatly conflated. The words do the work and his singing lets them. He likes to watch disappearances on TV for a little while. More distance. The heartbreak lies in the gaps.
On Lou Reed Live you can hear him arguing with his own construction, invoking an imperious faux-stutter, flat-reciting, and when he gets really (relatively) excited, arms-in-the-air-rally-the-troops excited, it’s about the TV. We all scream for TV, which was probably true enough at the time and is truer of personal electronics in our time (at least one Facebook friend of mine insists that cell phones aren’t taking over our bodies and minds, our souls, if you believe in souls, but you couldn’t prove it from where I sit, in the library, on buses, on trains, in bars).
Of course, the toll on distance in human affairs goes at least so far back as Plato and his cave. And Lou didn’t have to worry in 1973; whatever he shirked, whatever he chose to leave out, his band would drive home, and indeed that shebang might have been predicated around those extremes.
On a personal level, I like Lou better, personal. But listening here to the hard-edges refusals in his singing, as opposed to tender, more vulnerable moments in the instruments (“Heroin” again, the softer parts this time, although listen to him laugh nervously at his own word, “blood”), I’m struck by an off-putting majesty. He left behind plenty to argue about, and that’s one way to what we simplify to “immortality.” Electricity. Arcing across distances.