The main complaint leveled against The Essential Lou Reed has to do with the fact that the tracks are not presented in chronological order. Normally, I would bitch about that, too (which I have in reviews of various “greatest hit” collections).
The thing is, I don’t mind the track order on The Essential Lou Reed. His music really doesn’t follow a conventional developmental narrative like most artists. Lou Reed just wasn’t a linear kind of guy.
He was a dynamic concentration of opposites: the angry drunk who beat women and wrote insightfully and empathetically about domestic violence; the ROTC platoon leader and aspiring poet; the avant-garde icon who left The Velvet Underground and moved back home with his parents on Long Island, working as a typist in his father’s tax accounting firm. He fired Warhol, he loved Warhol; he collaborated with Bowie, he gave Bowie a good sock in the puss. He was jealous and resentful of other musical artists who achieved greater commercial success; he successfully collaborated with a diverse group of top-flight musicians and composers throughout his career.
Howard Sounes, author of the controversial but well-researched biography on Reed, Notes from the Velvet Underground, identified one consistent manifestation of his complex personality. “The word that kept coming up was prick,” he said. “Girlfriends called him a prick, people he was at school with called him a prick; people in his band called him a prick.” Paul Morrisey of the Andy Warhol contingency told Sounes, “You need a good title like The Hateful Bitch [or] The Worst Person Who Ever Lived. Something that says this isn’t a biography of a great human being, because he was not . . . He was a stupid, disgusting, awful human being.” Sounes notes that at least some of Reed’s anti-social behavior could be attributed to long-standing mental health issues (bipolar disorder and manic depression) and the trauma of undergoing electro-convulsive therapy in his teens.
While I can’t defend his misogynistic behavior or some of his racially-insensitive outbursts, let’s face it: there have been few artists in any field with the personality of Mister Rogers. I think the quote that ends The Daily Beast’s article on Sounes’ biography says it best: “Lou was an easy person to despise,” said Ritchie Fliegler, who worked with Reed on Street Hassle. “He was the biggest prick I ever met, or ever worked for, but he sure wrote some great songs.”
The sunnier aspect of Reed’s personality was his endless fascination with the new and novel. He spent his life following his creative instincts, chasing one butterfly after another, always happy to let one fly away because another had just landed on his shoulder. It says a lot about Lou Reed that much of his best work initially bombed with fans and critics alike. He was driven first and foremost by the self-expressive urge that drives the true artist, and that urge rarely leads to immediate validation. Human beings have been programmed to trust the familiar, the tried-and-true; it takes time for our essentially conservative, protective orientation to adjust to something new.
And if you’re wondering how a guy completely incapable of melody could have been nominated for a Best Male Rock Vocal Performance Grammy, I would suggest that the appeal of his vocal style is grounded in that sense of artistic integrity. There is an undeniable earnestness in his voice that somehow manages to overcome his technical incompetence. I’d also point out that Lou Reed was a first-rate lyricist, who fully embraced the teaching of his mentor, poet Delmore Schwartz, that “with the simplest language imaginable, and very short, you can accomplish the most astonishing heights.” Lou believed that his purpose as a writer was to “to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music.” What made that vision even more compelling was his boundariless definition of rock ‘n’ roll—in his mind, there were no limits to what defined rock and what you could do with rock. He believed that rock ‘n’ roll at its core represented freedom of self-expression.
Since Lou compiled the collection himself, he must have had his reasons for the apparent jumble of the track order. I’ve decided to assume good intentions and take in the presentation as he intended. As is often the case with collections, there will be arguments about which songs made the cut and which didn’t, but I’m going to nip that controversy in the bud. Lou obviously felt that these songs formed the essence of his work, a summation of what he was trying to achieve as an artist. Let’s try to look at the collection from his perspective and see how it all works out.
“Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song)” The Raven, 2003: It makes perfect sense that Reed chose this self-reflective song to launch the festivities.
The Raven incorporates Lou Reed songs both old and new with pieces from Reed’s collaboration with Robert Wilson, POEtry, a collection of liberal interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe’s work (“far more faithful to the spirit than to the letter of Poe’s work,” opined Rolling Stone). The last seven tracks form a suite based on Poe’s revenge story, “Hop-Frog: Or the Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs,” succinctly summarized on Wikipedia thusly: “The title character, a person with dwarfism taken from his homeland, becomes the jester of a king particularly fond of practical jokes. Taking revenge on the king and his cabinet for the king’s striking of his friend and fellow dwarf Trippetta, he dresses the king and his cabinet as orangutans for a masquerade. In front of the king’s guests, Hop-Frog murders them all by setting their costumes on fire before escaping with Trippetta.”
It’s interesting that Reed made a slight change to the name of the female character, from Trippetta to Tripitena, a near-match to one of the trade names of Amitriptyline, an antidepressant. Whether that was an inside joke or a clue to interpretation is a jump-ball. The piece that precedes “Who Am I?” is “Tripitena’s Speech,” a Reed invention (Trippetta makes no speech in the story; she just splits with her psychopathic friend). The differences between Tripitena’s speech and Tripitena’s song are quite stark in terms of both substance and tone. Try to imagine Bernie Sanders dressed like King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, railing against the enemy (in this case, businessmen, not the French or the Democratic Establishment) and you’ll get the gist of “Tripitena’s Speech” (though Amanda Plummer is far less histrionic than the American socialist). By contrast, “Who Am I? (Tripitena’s Song)” has absolutely nothing to do with the character or the story, but is obviously Lou Reed reflecting on his life from the perspective of an older man.
The opening passage is exceptionally well-executed, with the lead guitar establishing the melody over a majestic backing of power chords and Tony “Thunder” Smith’s breathtaking drum attack, mixing tempo support with exciting bits of punctuation. The closing power chord transforms into the sound of a cello playing three rising notes that fade along with the dying guitar, a marvelous lead-in for Lou’s half-spoken, semi-melodic, almost humble vocal:
Sometimes I wonder who am I
The world seeming to pass me by
A younger man now getting old
I have to wonder what the rest of life will hold
As the poem progresses, it becomes apparent that Lou is trying to deal with three basic issues: the meaning of identity; the conflict between the-world-as-imagined and cold reality; and the nature of time. The next verse addresses the issue of identity as he gathers his thoughts in a message to a lost love (who may be dead, or figuratively dead):
I hold a mirror to my face
There are some lines that I could trace
To memories of loving you
A passion that breaks reason in two
He seems to accept the truth that one’s identity is defined in relation to others, though later in the poem he seems to resist the pull of opposites (“You were always so negative/And never saw the positive”). At this point, he pulls back from that memory with the stuttering “I-I-I” which cues the band to enter in support of his rising tension. Lou’s thoughts then start to wander as he tries to grasp the meaning of his life and the meaning of life itself. True to his personality, he abandons linearity for impulse, later admitting “But thinking puts me in a daze/And thinking never helped me anyway.”
He first summarizes his life to date in the form of a simple truth: “One thinks of what one hoped to be/And then faces reality.” From there he begins to explore the larger question of existence in what serves as the chorus:
I wonder who started all this
Was God in love and gave a kiss
To someone who later betrayed
And God-less love sent us away?
Lou then admits, “Sometimes I wonder who I am” before asking a series of unanswered, probably unanswerable questions: “Who made the trees, who made the sky?/Who made the storms, who made heartbreak?” He ends that verse with the line, “I wonder how much life I can take,” then contradicts that sentiment in the next line: “I see at last a future self.” The contradiction and ambivalence continue; the struggle for understanding never ends. One verse reveals that his struggle is grounded in his own frustration with reality:
I know I like to dream a lot
And think of other worlds that are not
I hate that I need air to breathe
I’d like to leave this body – and be free
He echoes that yearning for freedom in the final verse, frustrated with time, frustrated with the limitations of the mind:
If it’s wrong to think on this
To hold the dead past, to hold the dead past in your fist
Why were we, why were we given memories?
Let’s lose our minds
Be set free!
I would have preferred the song ended there, but Lou decided to repeat the first verse and add two turns of the chorus (slightly modified). My second wish is that he had gone with a live version; as this 2011 video demonstrates, the live version really brings out the song’s emotional power. For an excellent review on The Raven from someone who actually listened to the 36-track album with an open mind, see Adrien Begrand’s review on Pop Matters.
“Sweet Jane” Loaded, 1970: We step into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and arrive during the waning days of The Velvet Underground for two back-to-back wannabe hits that never made a dent in the Billboard charts. Loaded was a deliberate attempt by the VU to increase radio play and bask in the glow of commercial success, but alas, ’twas not to be. As is true of many Lou Reed-related projects, the album is now considered a five-star masterpiece.
I don’t think I’d go that far, but “Sweet Jane” is a disarmingly brilliant piece of work. Though the Loaded version lacks the punch and power of the opening track on Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and the tightness of the Mott the Hoople cover, its value lies in Lou’s loose, conversational vocal and the strength of the poetry. By inserting himself into the narrative in the opening verse (“Me, honey, I’m in a rock ‘n’ roll band”) he gives himself license to serve as both observer and commentator in addition to storyteller. At this point, the line seems more cute than substantive, a perception strengthened by the content of the second verse:
I’ll tell you somethin’—that Jack, he is a banker,
And Jane . . . she is a . . . clerk.
And both of them save their monies
And when . . . when they come home from work
Oooh! Sittin’ down by the fire . . .
The radio does play a little classical music there, Jim
The March of the Wooden Soldiers . . . all you protest kids?
You can hear Jack say
Sweet Jane, Sweet Jane, Sweet Jane
Jack and Jane would obviously be considered squares in 1970, hardly worthy of anyone’s attention. What’s important here is what Lou doesn’t do—he doesn’t dis them, make fun of them or put them down. He presents their wooing ritual as something sweet, simple and perfectly harmless. The interjection “All you protest kids?” suggests that he thinks that protesters may want to chill out and get back in touch with life’s simpler pleasures. At this phase in his career, Lou was strictly apolitical, famously responding to an audience question about his politics on Take No Prisoners, “Political about what? You give me an issue, I’ll give you a tissue and you can wipe my ass with it.”
It all comes together in the third verse, where Lou drops all pretense, embraces his editorial role and gives us the moral of the story:
Some people they like to go out dancing
And other peoples they have to work . . . just watch me now
And there’s even some evil mothers
They’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt
You know that women never really faint,
And that villains always blink their eyes.
And that, you know, children are the only ones who blush
And that life is just to die
But anyone who had a heart
They wouldn’t turn around and break it
And anyone who ever played a part
They wouldn’t turn around and hate it
He may have been a prick in real life, but beneath that prickliness there was a ton of empathy for those subjected to cruel and unfair judgment.
One final note: Reed’s original composition included a bridge after the three verses that led to a two-chord version of the chorus. Though Lou was pissed off that “someone” cut the bridge from the final version on Loaded, I consider the person guilty of that unauthorized edit a true American hero. The bridge simply doesn’t fit.
“Rock & Roll” Loaded, 1970: As I noted in my review of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, “Rock & Roll” isn’t much of a rock song until it gets to the lead solo, and the story about transformation via rock ‘n’ roll radio has been told a gazillion times. Listening to the studio version included in this collection, I think there’s an energy imbalance at play, with Lou trying to pump up the energy and the band just sort of loping along. Lou said the song was about his experience in becoming an early devotee to rock ‘n’ roll, and I believe him. I just think he could have rocked a lot harder on this one.
“I’m Waiting for the Man” The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967: This is a song that dates back to 1965; a demo of that version turned up in the Peel Slowly and See collection. The original is a laid-back, acoustic, half-assed attempt at Delta blues with no edge whatsoever. The VU version is driven by rhythm guitar, drums and faint bass playing double time within a 4/4 time structure, giving the song strong forward movement and a sense of jumpiness that mirrors the state of mind of a desperate druggie. What blows my mind (she said, dropping into period-speak) is the realism of the song in the context of an era where drug use was glorified as a path to enlightenment. “Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive” is a long way from “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” Although it’s a better rocker than “Rock & Roll,” I find the cheesy counterpoint/lead guitar on the right channel quite irritating. Sounds like it was played by a junkie.
Revisiting the song, I felt myself having a flashback (no, not that kind of flashback; I only did acid once, as documented in my Psychedelic Series). It was one of those, “Hey, I’ve heard his before” kind of feeling. Then I remembered . . . the beat is identical to Oasis’ “Mucky Fingers,” where Zak Starkey banged away on a snare covered by a cereal box.
Noel Gallagher plagiarizing? Say it ain’t so, Joe!
“White Light/White Heat” Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, 1974, original on The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967: From my review of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal: “‘White Light White Heat’ moves us from heroin to speed, but from a lyrical standpoint this song is no match for ‘Heroin’ or ‘How Do You Think It Feels?’ From a musical standpoint, it’s a great rock ‘n roll song that sounds like it’s driven by a carload of amphetamines. Prakash John’s bass really keeps this song moving, and at this point in the festivities, Lou Reed has lost any sense of vocal self-consciousness, delivering a high-energy, cocky vocal. The lead guitar solo goes to Steve Hunter on this one, and he’s as amped up as the rest, finally hitting his peak on the blistering solo that ends the song. Whew!”
Yep, I’m good with that.
“Street Hassle” Street Hassle, 1978: Fast-forward eleven years . . . what the fuck, Lou? Think of the havoc you’re wreaking on our limited linear brains!
Well, it turns out that there was a method behind Lou’s madness: he considered Street Hassle “a continuation of his work with the Velvet Underground.” Much of that work involved tales of the alien cultural norms of life on the streets in what was then a dying New York City. The centerpiece of the album is the title track, a three-part suite unified by a distinctive musical figure in the key of E major in a cello-dominated string arrangement designed by Aram Schefrin. Modern music critics, who tend to pay more attention to the juicy gossip of a backstory than ACTUALLY LISTENING TO THE FUCKING RECORD, have claimed that the song was “largely motivated by and representative of the end of Reed’s three-year relationship with Rachel Humphreys, a trans woman who died in 1990, likely of AIDS, and was buried in NYC’s Potter’s Field.” (Wikipedia). That assessment applies only to the third segment of the suite, where, as he did in “Sweet Jane,” Lou gives us the moral of the story, connecting the so-called “moral decline” of the Big Apple to his personal experience.
The first two segments describe scenes familiar to anyone who watched NYPD Blue during its peak (seasons 1-5 plus the first five episodes of the sixth season). The first (I. Waltzing Matilda) features a horny well-heeled broad from the Upper East Side trolling the Lower East Side for a suitable male prostitute. Lou carefully narrates the story, highlighting the subliminal shame the woman gives away through her sha-la-la stutter and “this isn’t how I normally conduct myself” qualification:
Waltzing Matilda whipped out her wallet
The sexy boy smiled in dismay
She took out four twenties ’cause she liked round figures
Everybody’s a queen for a day
Oh, babe, I’m on fire and you know how I admire your
Body why don’t we slip away
Although I’m sure you’re certain, it’s a rarity me flirtin’
Sha-la-la-la, this way
Oh, sha-la-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la-la
Hey, baby, come on, let’s slip away
Note the use of the phrase “slip away,” a phrase that will morph into multiple meanings as the suite progresses.
Although she admires his “luscious and gorgeous” bod, it’s really the thrill of doing something secret and naughty that gets her off (“She creamed in her jeans as he picked up her means/From off of the Formica-topped bar”). Lou gives the dude high marks for attentive customer service (“And then sha-la-la-la-la, he made love to her gently/It was like she’d never ever come”) and ends the story with rich insight: “Neither one regretted a thing.” She found her thrill on Blueberry Hill; he earned a nice tax-free shot of income (adjusting for inflation, that $80 becomes $316.53); and both got their rocks off “despite people’s derision.” The first part of the suite presents an anomaly: the underbelly of society attaches no shame to the natural human urge for sex, while the supposedly morally superior majority (publicly, anyway) would condemn both jill and the prostitute for their aberrant, scandalous behavior. Which is the healthier culture?
The second section (II. Street Hassle) opens with the musical mourning cry of a woman before returning to the dominant figure. A chorus of four women then join voices to create a gorgeous harmonic overlay as the strings give way to stereo electric guitar. Lou now adopts the role of drug dealer with a female stiff in his flat; the song finds the dealer speaking to a companion of the deceased who has probably been searching for her in her usual places. The drug dealer proves to be the ultimate pragmatist, a man who knows how things operate in the real world of the underclass:
Hey, that cunt’s not breathing
I think she’s had too much
Of something or other, hey, man, you know what I mean
I don’t mean to scare you
But you’re the one who came here
And you’re the one who’s gotta take her when you leave
I’m not being smart
Or trying to be cold on my part
And I’m not gonna wear my heart on my sleeve
But you know people get all emotional
And sometimes, man, they just don’t act rational
They think they’re just on TV
Why don’t you just let her slip away
When death is just another hassle to deal with, grief becomes a nuisance—hence the encouragement to let her “slip away.” From the drug dealer’s perspective, this is just another bitch who’s lost her usefulness, sha la la:
And it’s not like we could help
But there’s nothing no one could do
And if there was, man, you know I would have been the first
Oh when someone turns that blue
Well, it’s a universal truth
Then you just know that bitch will never fuck again
The dealer has a problem; the dealer has a common-sense solution:
And I know this ain’t no way to treat a guest
But why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet
And just lay her out in the darkest street
And by morning, she’s just another hit and run
For the cops, it’s all about closing cases, and the question of which statistical column the stiff falls into hardly matters. The dealer ends his monologue with a shoulder shrug, attributing the woman’s death to a combination of choosing a risky path towards personal fulfillment and simple “bad luck.” The detachment is horrifying, the common sense even more so.
The third and final segment (III. Slipaway) opens with electric bass reproducing the bottom support for the dominant musical figure, which is nowhere to be heard. The pattern varies, incorporating notes from the blues scale as guitars enter to reinforce the blues touch. Eventually the strings reappear with the dominant figure but the guitars continue on their blues path, offering a contrasting E7 to the E major scale. The music fades, leaving only the sound of soft snare playing a truncated line that hints at a funeral march. Prevented from recording his own material due to the usual studio legal problems, Bruce Springsteen recites the first verse, borrowing and adjusting a few lyrics from “Born to Run” in the process. The verse seems to be one half of a conversation about a breakup—the attempt to make sense of the split. As the split in question involved a trans, the twin struggles for identity and simple acceptance tend to complicate matters:
Well hey man, that’s just a lie
It’s the lie she tells her friends
‘Cause a real song
The real song she won’t even admit to herself
The beating in her heart
It’s a song lots of people know
It’s a painful song
With a load of sad truth
But life’s full ofsad songs
Penny for a wish
But wishin’ won’t make it so, Joe
But a pretty kiss or a pretty face can’t have its way
Joe, tramps like us, we were born to pay
Lou then steps in for two verses that form direct appeals to his lover, both connected to the different meanings of “slip away.” The first expresses the wish to slip away and fuck their problems away (won’t work); the second is a heart-breaking plea to please, please stay:
Love has gone away
And there’s no one here now
And there’s nothing left to say
But oh how I miss him, baby
Oh baby, come on and slip away
Come on baby, why don’t you slip away
Love has gone away
Took the rings off my fingers
And there’s nothing left to say
But oh how, oh how I need it, baby
Come on baby, I need you baby
Oh, please don’t slip away
I need your loving so bad, babe
Please don’t slip away
“Street Hassle” may be dark and disturbing, but, as Lou pointed out in an interview with the Los Angeles Times shortly after its release, it feels darker and more disturbing because of the expectations attached to the art form: “If this was a novel or a movie, this stuff would be no big deal. But in rock and roll, the parameters you’re allowed to work in are so horrifyingly narrow. If you do anything other than pure, surface optimism, you seem to come off as intrigued with the dark, murky, kinky, downside of existence. It’s just a little realism. I think it’s fine and dandy that people enjoy themselves and they’re happy and everything, but to constantly paint that picture leads to a general dullness on the part of the listener. He’s just shocked when he finally gets to the reality of it all and finds out that he’s been lied to.” (Songfacts)
“Berlin” Berlin, 1973, also released on Lou Reed, 1972: Now we go back six years to an equally disturbing album that was universally condemned at the time but is now considered a masterpiece. The inspiration for the album came from none other than Bob Ezrin, whose work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall gave us the memorable children’s chorus. The song “Berlin” appeared on Reed’s first solo effort, and Ezrin wanted to know what happened to the couple depicted in the song. Lou obliged him with a complete rock opera that literally gave Enzin PTSD.
Here’s a plot summary from Songfacts: “On the album, we learn that the couple are drug addicts who are completely dysfunctional. They get names: Caroline and Jim. The songs reveal details of their lives: Caroline loves music but can’t get her life together; Jim beats her. They have kids, but are unfit parents and lose them to the state. Caroline kills herself by slitting her wrists. The album ends with ‘Sad Song,’ where Jim dispassionately reflects on his life. His conclusion: ‘I’m gonna stop wasting time/Somebody else would have broken both of her arms.'”
Charming pair! Love to have you over for dinner, dahlings.
The version of “Berlin” on this album was drastically reduced to fit with the now larger narrative. References to Bogie, Bacall and Casablanca have been supplanted by a chaotic cabaret scene ending with a sodden crowd singing “Happy Birthday.” The nightclub vibes fade into Bob Ezrin’s cabaret-influenced-with-a-hint-of-Rachmaninoff piano, eventually leading to Lou’s single verse, where he describes happier days in the divided city:
In Berlin, by the wall
You were five foot, ten inches tall
It was very nice
Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice
We were in a small cafe
You could hear the guitars play
It was very nice
Oh, honey it was paradise
Given the plot summary above, this is going to be as good as it gets for Jim and Caroline.
“Caroline Says II” Berlin, 1973: I’m not exactly sure why Lou chose to omit “Caroline Says I” from the collection . . . well, it’s a really crappy pop song, so there’s that. Anyway, it does provide important context for the domestic violence described in “Caroline Says II.” The long and short of it is that Jim viewed Caroline as a “Germanic queen,” and admits that she dominates the relationship through humiliation—telling him he’s not a man, making him aware that she’s still in the hunt for a harder dick and refusing to consider herself his possession in any sense of the word. Jim refers to her as “poison in a vial,” and says “People shouldn’t treat others that way” and that at first “I thought I could take it all.”
Diagnosis: Jim is a natural submissive who wants to worship at a woman’s feet but he hooked up with an immature sadist who believes in domination through cruelty. He feels guilty about his submissive streak and represses it rather than finding a healthier outlet.
Perhaps the omission of the “Caroline Says I” was deliberate—an attempt on Lou’s part to adjust the trajectory of his violent legacy. If you don’t know the backstory, Caroline comes across as a feminist hero, willing to stand up to Jim’s toxic masculinity:
As she gets up from the floor
You can hit me all you want to
But I don’t love you anymore
While biting her lip
Life is meant to be more than this
And this is a bum trip
Since Lou didn’t hide any of his other flaws on the album, I’m going to go with the crappy pop song theory as the reason behind the demise of “Caroline Says I.” In part two, we learn that Caroline is enough of a cold-hearted bitch that even her friends call her “Alaska,” and her addiction to speed isn’t likely to turn her into warm-and-cuddly. The key thing to remember is that Jim is the narrator, and given his fragile mental state, he should not be considered a reliable source. Caroline nails it on the head when she tells him (as she treats her black eye), “You ought to learn more about yourself—think more than just I.”
The music for the piece is a perfect fit for what is essentially a deeply sad story: acoustic guitar, piano, a few subdued string flourishes and Lou’s fragile voice.
“The Kids” Berlin, 1973: Also opening with acoustic guitar, this time in the form of slide chords in stereo, “The Kids” features a slight country touch that helps bring out the sadness of story—one with multiple layers of sadness.
Sadness #1: Although it seems incredible in the era of The Pill, these two misfits had children. My fucking god, people—are you nuts? After I started this blog and confessed openly and freely my sins of bisexuality and sado-masochism, I referred to those delightful perversions as one reason I would make a lousy mother. One of my followers dared to protest, saying I would make a great mother. I had one of those Ralph Kramden ba-da-ba-de-ba-ba moments—completely thunderstruck. Putting aside the simple truth that I don’t even like kids, imagine how hard it would be to explain why mommy sleeps with boys and girls and sometimes both at the same time, or answering the question, “What are those, mommy?” with “Oh, those are mommy’s whips and riding crops, sweetie.” I may be a pervert but I’m not stupid! I’m not saying that perverts can’t raise healthy children, but that I don’t see how I could pull it off (if I wanted to) without setting up a series of baffles and barriers that would make parenting a drag and compromise my erotic lifestyle. And shit, I only do cigarettes and alcohol—Caroline and Jim were doing speed and heroin. What the fuck?
Sadness #2: Though Caroline was clearly not fit to serve as anyone’s mother, it’s still damned sad when the state steps in and throws the kids into the system:
They’re taking her children away
Because they said she was not a good mother
They’re taking her children away
Because she was making it with sisters and brothers
And everyone else, all of the others
Like cheap officers who would stand there and flirt in front of me . . .
Because of the things that they heard she had done
The black Air Force sergeant was not the first one
And all of the drugs she took, every one, every one . . .
Sadness #3: This is sadness multiplied a thousandfold by outrage. Jim turned her in!
I am the Water Boy, the real game’s not over here
But my heart is overflowin’ anyway
I’m just a tired man, no words to say
But since she lost her daughter
It’s her eyes that fill with water
And I am much happier this way
They should have taken Jim away and let him rot in a cell for the rest of his miserable wimp-ass life. This sick display of schadenfreude makes the listener want to take Caroline’s side . . . then you read about her dangerous debauchery and the drugs and it’s . . . it’s completely hopeless. And as I know from my work with domestic violence victims where I sometimes get involved helping a woman through the absurdity of Child Protective Services, the deepest sadness comes from thinking about those kids.
And I think that’s what Lou Reed was trying to achieve here.
“Walk on the Wild Side” Transformer, 1972: Lou Reed’s most commercially successful album was initially dismissed by Rolling Stone contributor Nick Tosches as “”artsyfartsy kind of homo stuff.”
Fuck you, asshole.
There is no doubt that the success of the album owes much to David Bowie and Mick Ronson, who produced the album and served as backing musicians. That said, I want to honor the contributions of one Herbie Flowers, a U. K. session musician who specialized in the lower ends of the scale and played tuba and double bass as well as the smooth-and-sexy bass guitar on “Walk on the Wild Side.” The prominence of the bass gives the song a slick edge that is extraordinarily compelling. Bowie and Ronson further exploited the lows by having Bowie sax tutor Ronnie Ross deliver an outstanding performance on baritone sax, completed in a single take.
Despite its graphic descriptions of the gender-bending tendencies of four Warhol acolytes, “Walk on the Wild Side” was a surprise hit, reaching #16 on the Billboard charts. I still cringe at the “colored girls” reference but I am happy to report that Lou took the feedback and deleted the phrase in live performances. I’m still amazed that the song did as well as it did in the homophobic USA, but even more amazed that the BBC didn’t ban the song, largely because none of the censors understood the phrase “giving head.” While Lou called the song and “outright gay song”, he also confessed that it was “carefully worded so the straights can miss out on the implications and enjoy them without being offended.”
For future reference, the British terms for oral sex on a male are “gobble” and “gob job.” Fortunately, neither would have with the meter on “Walk on the Wild Side,” and might have seriously offended Americans who would have thought the song was celebrating bestiality with turkeys.
Lou followed up his most successful foray into the pop charts with the defiantly un-commercial Berlin. That is so Lou Reed.
“Kill Your Sons”: Live in Italy, 1984, original on Sally Can’t Dance, 1974: This one’s personal. Lou recounts his electric shock therapy, the humdrum life on the Island, drugs both prescribed and purchased. The problem is it’s too personal—the description of his troubles is so specific that it blurs his message . . . if he even had one. “I was seriously fucked by my parents and by mental health professionals, and oh, by the way, my sister married a nonfunctional automaton—whaddya think of that, huh?” That’s about all I get.
“Vicious” Transformer, 1972: Songwriters often find themselves the recipients of suggestions for new songs. In this case, the guy who dropped his idea in the suggestion box was Andy Warhol, who suggested Lou write a song with the title, “Vicious.” When Lou asked what kind of vicious, Andy responded with “Oh, you know, vicious like I hit you with a flower.” Lou wrote it down and later complied with Warhol’s suggestion, even incorporating the flower-as-weapon concept in the first verse, describing a woman who hits Lou with a flower every hour as a form of teasing (I suppose). In the next verse, she wants Lou to hit her with a stick, indicating curiosity about BDSM. Lou obviously thinks she’s a poser and tells her “When I see you walking down the street/I step on your hands and I mangle your feet.”
Cue Connie Francis, singing “Who’s Vicious Now?”
This song doesn’t work for me on many levels, from Lou’s over-the-top reaction to her advances to the thin production values that make Ronson’s guitar sound like it barely escaped from a five-watt amp. Sorry, Lou, but the award for Greatest Song to Be Derived from an Off-the-Wall Suggestion goes to Joe Strummer for his work in transforming a Montgomery Clift bio into the extraordinarily inventive “The Right Profile.”
“The Blue Mask” The Blue Mask, 1982: Now this song is vicious. Though the majority of songs on The Blue Mask are candidates for a Lou Reed retrospective, he chose the angriest of them all, a barely-controlled rant on the origins and impact of extreme toxic masculinity as manifested in the creation of a soldier/killing machine, offering a palpable contrast to the spongy sentiments in “Vicious”:
They tied his arms behind his back
To teach him how to swim
They put blood in his coffee
And milk in his gin
They stood over the soldier
In the midst of the squalor
There was war in his body
And it caused his brain to holler
Make the sacrifice
Mutilate my face
If you need someone to kill
I’m a man without a will
Wash the razor in the rain
Let me luxuriate in pain
Please don’t set me free
Death means a lot to me
Critics have attributed the artistic achievement of The Blue Mask to two factors—Lou settling into marriage and kicking his addictions, and his selection of bandmates. I don’t have enough information to comment on the first, but the strength of the band is undeniable. One of the virtues of this title track is it gives the listener a clear example of the inventive and wildly effective use of stereo guitars, with Lou on the right and the brilliant, multi-faceted guitarist Robert Quine on the left. Though there are vast stylistic differences between the two guitarists, Quine decided to further distinguish his output by using D major tuning and using fingerings a major second higher than Reed’s. The result is a strangely harmonious tension coming from the notes themselves, further intensified by the heavy distortion on both guitars. Add the diverse capabilities of future Tull member Doane Perry and the inventive yet rhythmically grounded Fernando Saunders on bass and you have one powerhouse of a band.
It’s really too bad that Reed and Quine were such touchy individualists. Asked about his on-and-off four-year relationship with Lou, Quine said, “The first week and a half was great.” Sigh. This lineup was probably the most powerful band of the wimp-ass ’80s, and their inability to make nice with each other left a huge power vacuum that wouldn’t be filled until Nirvana and Fugazi hit the scene.
“I’ll Be Your Mirror” Perfect Night: Live in London, 1998, original on The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967: Needing something gentle to counteract any radioactivity still lingering from “The Blue Mask,” Lou inserted this live version of the VU song he’d written especially for Nico. I appreciate the intent, but neither Lou’s melodically-challenged vocal cords nor the Lurch-like voice of Nico are appropriate for this flowery song. Suggestions: Bjork. Early Françoise Hardy. Mary Hopkin.
“Magic and Loss: The Summation,” Magic and Loss, 1992: Uh oh. When a musician tells you that his latest release is “my dream album,” they’re saying that they are unusually attached to a sub-par effort and you should avoid it like the Coronavirus. This “summation” is Hallmark-card-quality advice from someone who was allegedly able to “pass through the fire to the light” and assumes that his personal journey is everybody’s personal journey. The music is bo-ring; by the third go-round, I found myself nodding off to the faintly beating tempo of a dying song.
“Ecstasy” Ecstasy, 2000: Boy, it sure seems like Lou wanted the audience to take a little nap at the end of Disc One! This lazy bossa nova lacks excitement and distinction; there isn’t a single phrase that awakens my senses. The album is supposed to be a concept album centered on the themes of love and kinky sex, so you’d think that this leather-lovin’ lady would have lapped it up in spine-tingling delight.
Nah. You can’t fuck when you’re snoring.
Well! While Disc One ends with a soft thud, it still contains some of Lou’s greatest work, so overall I consider the listening experience a definite plus. Maybe things will liven up a bit on Disc Two . . . let me check . . .
Welcome to a new world, guys.
I direct my welcome to men specifically because men have set the rules for almost all of human history. Being born male comes with a sense of entitlement in nearly every culture on earth. This gift from history has convinced many men that they have everything to lose and much to fear by giving up control of the rule-making system. Women who have learned to play the game and have become experts in manipulating male insecurities to secure a comfortable life also fear such a change.
Héloïse Adelaide Letissier aka Christine, Chris, Christine and the Queens, etc. is a French singer-songwriter who represents a threat to the status quo. This is in part because Letissier is pansexual, attracted to personalities as opposed to genders. Even in the countries without draconian punishments for woman-to-woman sex, such a person is likely perceived by half the population as a threat to social stability, a woman living in sin, or both. But it is her willingness and ability to challenge feminine norms and ideals that amplifies the threat she represents to traditional gender roles. In an interview with The Guardian, she remarked, “A huge taboo now is still a woman’s desire. We are forgotten – it’s like we are supposed to sustain other people’s desire because we are desirable objects. What if we desire ourselves? So I feel like what could be shocking is not even me being naked, but me wanting to fuck someone and talking about it really simply – ‘I just want to fuck your bones.’”
She complements her instincts to challenge taboos with genuine musical talent. Her music is heavily electronic, and on Chaleur Humaine, beautifully melodic and both soothing and intense at the same time. Her chord structures fit well within the boundaries of classic pop music, with an occasional nod to hip-hop and rap. Chaleur Humaine is not a loud album, and there’s very little in the way of unpleasant noises or rough patches. Letissier’s voice takes center stage, a highly captivating voice capable of impressive range movement and tonal variation. If you’re looking for something more obviously energetic, I refer you to her latest release, Chris. Personally, I find the relative stillness of Chaleur Humaine more engaging.
I use the word “engaging” deliberately, as Letissier’s music and personality are strongly oriented towards engaging other people and forming connections. You feel this desire to engage in her live performances, and it is something she claims to practice in daily life. From the Guardian interview:
I have no charisma, so people never come over to me,” she says. As an experiment she recently walked home through the neighbourhood with her “chakras open”, attempting to engage strangers. “I thought I should try to be awake and make loads of eye contact,” she says, splaying her fingers either side of her eyes. “It worked!”
Having grown up in San Francisco with its openness to non-standard sexual variations and New Age philosophies, I view Letissier as completely non-threatening and would be delighted to have her over to my place for dinner and conversation (putting aside for a moment that I would never agree to meet an artist I’ve reviewed or might review). I too qualify as pansexual, and though I’m not all that interested in spiritual philosophies, I understand the theory surrounding chakras and can follow someone’s drift when they go there. The statement above concerning female desire could have come from my mouth, and in reading her back story, I learned that we both had a traumatic experience in our twenties. All things considered, I feel simpatico with her personal choices, history, lifestyle and beliefs.
Still, admiring someone as a person doesn’t automatically mean that I care for their music. I think Bruce Springsteen is musically talented and a pretty cool guy but his music is not my cup of tea. Translation: I’m not going to give her a pass simply because we share fuck habits.
Letissier sings in both French and English, sometimes mingling the languages in the same song. Letissier’s lyrical style when using her native French is poetic, with strong metaphors, concrete language and memorable imagery; when she writes in English, the lyrics are comparatively simple and meanings are easier to grasp. Letissier shared her approach with the folks at Hello Giggles:
The language is actually a weird part of the process from the beginning, even with my French album. Some songs have an English chorus and a French verse. In the beginning, in France, people were like, “Why don’t you write the whole song in French or a whole song in English?” I like to play with the two languages because for me, it’s a different way of writing. Of course, when I’m writing in English, I don’t have the same tools as when I write in French, because I’m not bilingual. It’s quite naive and direct. With French, I’m more at ease, I can play more with images and rhythm.
In both languages she displays an impressive grasp of the importance of strong hooks—she nearly always goes for the home run somewhere in her songs. Her arrangements are well thought-out and feature marvelous builds. Given her talent, the intrigue attached to her sexual orientation and her multilingual presentation, it’s no surprise that this album entered the Top 10 in every nearly every country in the Western world save one: the United States.
Knock me over with a feather.
Letissier’s live performances are disciplined and heavily choreographed, with supporting musicians and dancers who straddle the line between modern ballet and hip-hop. She sings as beautifully on stage as she does in the studio, and holds the crowd in the palm of her hand with her voice and disarming presence. When I saw her live, I noticed one quirk above all—one that is decidedly un-French. She smiles spontaneously, and her smile is as pure and beautiful as any smile I’ve ever seen.
There are multiple versions of this album under different titles. It was released in most countries as Chaleur Humaine, but in the damn-them-furinners-and-their-furrin-languages USA you’ll find it under the title Christine and the Queens. I have the original French version; the English-speaking edition features different tracks and translations, most notably involving the song “Christine,” which was renamed “Titled.” For this review, I’m sticking with the original French version because the lyrics are more to my liking.
Or, to put in another way, screw American xenophobia.
Chaleur Humaine begins with a dramatic combination of piano and synth that give way quickly to the beats that form the lean accompaniment for most of Letissier’s vocal on the opening track, “iT.” Letissier wrote the song after she was expelled from a Lyon drama school because she had the nerve to produce her own play, something only male students were allowed to do. She describes it as a song “about wanting to have a dick just in order to have an easier life,” an offhand way of saying she’d like to have the privileges automatically granted to penis holders. The opening line refers to Emily Dickinson (“With it, I become the death Dickinson feared”), though I’m not sure if the reference is to “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “Because I could not stop for death,” or “I felt a funeral in my brain.” What’s important is the empathetic reference to a great woman poet who was virtually unknown in her lifetime: if Emily had been cursed with a penis, people would have taken her more seriously. The phallus-wish expressed in the chorus shouldn’t be taken literally, as I doubt Letissier really wants one of those peculiar protuberances that men are so proud of, but the words can also be heard as the triumphant cry of a trans person with the wherewithal to afford the operation:
Cause I’ve got it
I’m a man now
I’ve got it
I’m a man now
And I won’t let you steal iT
I bought it for myself
I’m a man now
Her voice on the piece is clear, strong and unashamed; the tone is one of the defiant pride reflected in a line she later delivers in “Christine”—“j’ai le menton haut pour un rien“—for which the best English equivalent is “I hold my head up high . . . just because.” The result is both beautiful and moving.
“Saint Claude” features French verses and an English chorus, but the key to understanding the song is that the title refers to a train station, that enduring symbol of life’s arrivals, departures and missed connections. The story describes an incident where Letissier witnessed the harassment of an “extravagant” boy on public transport—extravagant because he wore some makeup and had a partially-visible tattoo. In real life, Letissier did not intervene on behalf of the boy (probably a smart thing from the standpoint of personal safety), and wrote the song as an apology for not standing up against the bullies on his behalf. In the song, her reimagined self sits with the boy, noticing his “souffle façade” (uneven, jerky breathing) and describing the details of his appearance that set him apart from the crowd. She ends the first verse reflecting on an image of tension and distress:
J’emporte un portrait dévoré
Douleur, destin bord à bord
As we’re dealing with poetry here, a direct translation results in nonsense, but what she’s saying in colloquial English is “I take away a portrait of a person devoured, in pain, his destiny (in the sense that manifesting true self leaves him open to attack) engulfing his soul.” Letissier then switches to English to express what she wishes she would have expressed in that moment, an offer of support that he can choose to accept or reject:
Here’s my station
Here’s my station
But if you say just one word I’ll stay with you
Her voice on that chorus is achingly beautiful, and it’s very clear from her tone that she wants the boy to accept the offer. The second verse features some clever wordplay as Letissier uses the orthographic similarities of the verb respire (to breathe) and the adverb pire (worse) to encourage him to pay attention to the “violence” of his breathing and the fight-flight syndrome it represents; it ends with her empathizing with the hard reality of his situation, describing the city they inhabit as “dead” (in the sense of backwards, stuck in the past) and reminding him of the courage it takes to survive in such a place. In the fade, she adds the phrase, “We are so lonely in this part of town,” a break from the pattern than powerfully captures the isolation that often follows the refusal to conform. Even if you don’t understand a word of French and have no desire to learn, the power of her performance in “Saint Claude” is truly remarkable and certainly worth a few minutes of your time:
“Christine” continues the theme of the challenges inherent in different-ness by focusing on the difficulty of finding one’s balance in an unsupportive environment; it is also the name of the persona she wanted to project on this album (the second album Chris reflects a different aspect of her personality). Letissier had some difficulty with this song, unfortunately titled “Cripple” in the original English version, a slip that says more about the problems inherent in translation than her intent. In the French version, it’s clear she’s talking about the challenge of what we call “having your feet firmly planted on the ground,” but the line she uses in French to express that feeling forms a double entendre which was lost in the translation to English. The usual phrase for “I can’t stand up” in French is formed with the verb se lever, but Letissier used the more colloquial se tener, resulting in je ne tiens pas debout. “Je ne tiens pas” is a polite way of saying “I don’t give a shit,” so when Latissier sang the translated line in English—“I actually do enjoy being a cripple”—she was attempting to embrace her perceived disability as a non-conformist and that she didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. By the time she re-released the song in English, she had learned her lesson and used the safer word “Tilted” for the song title. Despite all the twists and turns involved in linguistic communication, “Christine” is generally a nicely-flowing piece integrating flute sounds with a seriously compressed, gated and squished synth that sounds like the comfort of a warm pillow. I don’t care much for the rap passage, as I don’t care for rap in any language, but she executes it with competence.
The English version of “Science Fiction” is so radically different from the original French that they’re really two different songs with two different messages. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this one as I don’t care at all for the disco feel or the annoyingly spacey sounds that accompany the arrangement, but I’ll give Latissier credit for throwing a line of Italian into the mix, spiced with male harmony. The arrangement and her performance on the hybrid song “Paradis Perdus” are much stronger but I’d rather listen to Letissier’s own compositions than an integration of an old Christophe-Jarre song with Kanye West’s “Heartless.” That said, I can’t deny the stunning immediacy and excellent delivery in her performance:
Letissier describes “Half Ladies” as a song “about being a different type of girl, an awkward girl, but being beautiful in that way.” The French version is rich in imagery and metaphor, capturing the competing pressures attached to a woman’s desire to expand the definition of “femininity” beyond cultural boundaries. The first verse cleverly describes how the simple act of choosing what to wear—a daily struggle for many women given the heavier expectations attached to our appearance—is a form of communication that can be easily misinterpreted:
Cheveux en arrière
Col boutonné haut
C’est moins pour l’allure
Que pour cacher l’éraflure
Translation and breakdown: The woman here has chosen to pin her hair up rather than allowing it to fall seductively on her shoulders; she also chooses a high-button collar to finish the look. While that image calls up “prim-and-proper,” she feels it necessary to explain that “it’s less about the allure” because “prim-and-proper” often represents the ultimate challenge to the male of the species—the desire to “break that cold bitch.” While that gives the woman pause, an overriding consideration leads her to dress in that manner: “Que pour cacher l’éraflure,” meaning “to hide the scratch.” While that could refer to damage arising from rough sex (hinted at in the second verse), it could have also resulted from a simple accident—but heaven help the woman who fails to hide such an obvious flaw! While I was writing this review, an American friend sent me a picture of Bernie Sanders campaigning in public with a gauze bandage on his head, asking the obvious question, “Could a woman candidate do the same thing and get away with it?” The answer is equally obvious—fuck no! The beauty industry spends billions on advertising to reinforce this culturally-induced sensitivity of ours, and we fall for the pitch while simultaneously savoring and resenting the compliments we get when we “look beautiful.” What Letissier is asking us to do in “Half-Ladies” is expand our definition of beauty, an act that requires a cultural shift concerning what constitutes a “beautiful woman,” which puts the entire notion of “woman” up for debate. Given her obvious commitment to manifest the true self, Letissier ends the song in proud defiance of gender norms:
Si je ne veux pas être une grande fille
Je serai un petit garçon
Pour chaque insulte lancé
Il pousse un grain de beauté
The translation is tricky because of the multi-layered nature of the poetry, but essentially she’s saying “I don’t want to be a big girl, so I’ll be a little boy, and each insult flung my way will make me more beautiful.” The last line actually describes a chemical reaction where the insults create “beauty marks,” but the context indicates that Letissier was using “grain de beauté” more metaphorically than literally. Musically, “Half Ladies” begins quietly, Letissier’s gentle voice supported by keyboard, low-volume beats and soft hand-clapping. The music builds ever-so-subtly to one of those home-run choruses that sticks in your head for days.
The title track sits nicely at the halfway point in the album, serving as the thematic centerpiece of the work. Most English-speaking commentators translate “Chaleur Humaine” as “human warmth,” a Disney-esque interpretation if there ever was one. While the word can refer to the warmth of cordiality, chaleur is more commonly associated with heat, and the sexual connotations of the word are similar to the English connotations. It’s pretty clear from the opening verses that Letissier favors the sexual interpretation:
Je suis contre les chastetés
Toutes celles que glissent sous l’oreiller
Des Cupidons aux lèvres abîmées
Sur le sexe les jambes repliées
Essentially this is a position statement in which she comes out against chastity, vanilla sex, Cupids with “damaged lips” and legs crossed to hide the crotch. In the second verse, she adds the closed mouth, completing the list of symbols of sexual denial. The first two verses reminded me of the contrasting images from Histoire d’O where the women in the château were trained to communicate constant availability through parted lips, open crotches and easily accessible ass cracks. Letissier falls short of advocating that particular lifestyle, and while she does refer to what can be translated as “gratitude for bleeding,” she prefaces that phrase by referring to the healing power of a caress, so the gratitude could simply mean she’s thankful that her heart is pumping away. In essence, Letissier is questioning the cultural division of love into “nice, cuddly, socially acceptable love” and “naughty, socially-repressed love marked by passion and lust,” and argues that both deserve appreciation as expressions of human warmth. The music has the steadiness of a march with little chordal variation, suitable for a statement of one’s core beliefs.
The most musically erotic song on Chaleur Humaine describes a narcissist making love, which would leave one to believe that the song deals with masturbation. What complicates the interpretation of “Narcissus Is Back” is the heavy use of mirrors, so the song could deal with the act of self-satisfaction (though there is no mention of a dildo), an intimate relationship with a narcissist or an exposé of one’s own narcissistic self-consciousness during a fuck. The ambiguity could be attributed to Letissier writing in English, but whatever the cause, I like the ambiguity and the edgy, sexy arrangement so much that this is the only song on Chaleur Humaine to make my fuck playlists—the greatest endorsement I have to offer.
“Ugly-Pretty” is even more narcissistic in the sense that it deals with the “excessive interest in one’s personal appearance.” Written in English with a spoken-word passage in French, I appreciate Letissier continuing the conversation about the culturally-induced female obsession with beauty, but I think the topic was covered more effectively in Imogen Heap’s “Bad Body Double” on her Ellipse album.
“Nuit 17 à 52” is a vignette covering the development of what turns out to be a dysfunctional romance where the participants struggle with identity and image as they pass the stage of superficial getting-to-know-you into a transitional stage covering nights 17 to 52. During this period the narrator experiences an eventually overwhelming urge to tear down the façade and reveal the true self. This happens on the fiftieth night, where she “cuts it open” so the partner is able to see through the façade. The narrator recognizes that this choice is likely to be a relationship-ending decision, as captured in the line “Et je hais déjà la triste nuit 53” (“I already hate the sad night 53”). This is one instance where the storyline—or, more accurately, the essential meaning of the song—is best captured in the video, where Letissier portrays multiple layers of self in a performance that exposes the falsity inherent in traditional gender definitions:
Chaleur Humaine closes with the half-English, half-French song “Here,” an appropriate choice of language for a song about her temporary exile in England where she connected with the drag queen musicians who would later perform with her as The Queens. She likens the experience to the phoenix—“Et mon curieux visage est né/Des débris du grand incendie” (“And my curious face is born/From the debris of the great fire”)—with the curieux visage underscoring that the new life also represents a new identity. The music here is more about mood, rather like an electronic Phillip Glass piece that serves as a tribute to one of the composers Latissier has identified as an influence. What really holds your attention is one of the strongest vocals on the album, conveying the overwhelming appreciation of the trauma survivor who has been given the opportunity to move forward.
Chaleur Humaine reveals Letissier as an artist of unusual courage and clear intent. While that intent sometimes gets lost in translation, the voice you hear is the voice of a human being asserting her right to be respected for her choices in manifesting her true self. It is a beautiful voice, an expressive voice, a voice that reflects the best tendencies and talents of the human race. If her message feels threatening to some, whether due to religious dogma or male entitlement, well, that’s what an artist is supposed to do—attempt to open hearts and minds by challenging our worst tendencies so that the best parts of ourselves can come out of hiding.