When I heard the news of Lou Reed’s death yesterday, I didn’t immediately reach for a record, but instead picked up my copy of Lester Bangs’ Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Re-reading Bangs classic Creem interviews with Reed, I was once again struck by their relationship, as it’s the same type of relation any music geek ends up eventually having with rock and roll: we worship at the alter of our heroes – the people who make cool and art look so effortless – and eventually we learn that they’re a bunch of flawed, pitiable rats just like the rest of us. And it makes us angry. We become flustered and super critical. How could someone who wrote “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “Who Loves the Sun” or “Venus in Furs” be anything less than a benevolent, thoughtful and magnanimous Prometheus? In a bit of Orwellian double-think, we hold those thoughts simultaneously – we revere and revile. Or more accurately, we revere and we realize – realize that these artists we’ve grown up worshiping are just as human as the rest of us. We do and we don’t accept that, and the collision of those truths leaves us wounded.
That’s how Bangs felt about Reed. It’s how and why he could write in a set of unpublished notes:
“Lou realized early on that all you need to do is touch the other’s cheek and just give them some small recognition and then let them be and maybe record it and thereby perhaps justify their tragedy through art. And all art is an act of love towards the whole human race. Aw, Lou, it’s the best music ever made, the instrumental intro to ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ is like watching dawn break over a bank of buildings through the windows of these elegantly hermetic cages…”
After having published in Creem in the March 1975 article “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, or, How I Slugged It Out with Lou Reed and Stayed Awake”:
“That’s why Lou Reed was necessary. And what may be even more important is that he had the good sense (or maybe just brain rot, hard to tell) to realize that the whole concept of sleaze, ‘decadence,’ degeneracy, was a joke, and turned himself into a clown, the Pit into a puddle. Any numbskull can be a degenerate, but not everybody realizes that even now, like Jim Morrison, Lou realized the implicit absurdity of the rock ‘n’ roll bête-noire badass pose and parodied, deglamorized it. Though that may be giving him too much credit. Most probably he had no idea what he was doing, which was half the mystique. Anyway, he made a great bozo, a sort of Eric Burdon of sleaze. The persistent conceit of Lou’s recent press releases — that he’s the ‘street poet of rock ‘n’ roll’ — just may be true in an unintended way. The street, after all, is not the most intellectual of place in the world. In fact, it’s littered with dopey jerkoffs and putzes of every stripe. Dunceville. Rubbery befuddlement. And Lou is the king of ‘em all, y’all.”
After the pretty much flawless quartet of Velvet Underground albums, one could be forgiven for not always knowing exactly what to do with Reed’s solo work. Where the Velvets had the good sense/luck to implode when the timing was right (if only someone had informed poor Doug Yule), solo careers often don’t work that way. And while he was out of the gate pretty quickly with his second album, Transformer, both the critical and fan reactions to it and the rest of his catalog are as varied as they are heated. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone argue that any particular Velvets record is no good, but I’ve definitely heard people argue both ways over a wide swath of Reed’s solo career. We tend to feel cheated or misled, or a combination of the two, whenever an album fails to live-up to our built-in expectations. It’s why critics are so anxious to declare albums a “return to form” for so many older artists, as if to say – all is forgiven now that you’ve come out of the hinterlands. It’s also the soft bigotry of low expectations, but whatever. They’re back, baby!
Art is, in the end, just an expression of the inexpressible. And the commercialization of it casts another layer of gauze to peer through in trying to discern its truths. It, undoubtedly, casts the same gauze over the artist’s muse and makes it that much harder for them to express themselves clearly. It’s how Reed ended up with something like Sally Can’t Dance – a cynical, insulting brass ring-grab of an album. At least it was honest, I suppose. Bangs, in his review of Reed’s Metal Machine Music said that Sally Can’t Dance “is one of his best albums, precisely because it’s so cold.” I wouldn’t go that far – at all – but Bangs was prone to thoughtful hyperbole in one direction then another, especially when it came to Reed, and I appreciate that kind of honesty, too.
Lou Reed’s death is not sad because of lost work – for my money, the last great thing he did was 23 years ago via his collaboration with John Cale, Songs for Drella. I don’t think we’re missing out on any life changing art, though I could be wrong. Lou Reed’s death is sad for any number of reasons. In our modern age, he wasn’t that old – 71 is pretty young to go, all things considered. I feel for his wife, Laurie Anderson, and for his close friends, family and former compatriots. When we idolize people, we are purposefully holding them at a distance, at a remove that keeps us from ever really knowing them – maybe even keeps us from even wanting to know them. If we did, it would spoil everything. So we don’t know the Lou Reed that Laurie Anderson or John Cale or Mo Tucker or Andy Warhol knew. Our relationship is with Lou Reed the myth, the character, the performer. Theirs was with Lou Reed the man. They’ll remember their days and times with him. I’ll probably put on The Blue Mask, listen to the work he created with another departed hero of mine, Robert Quine, and try to remember the differences between myth and humanity, between thought and expression – and why all are important. words/ j neas