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 . . .
One of the most ludicrous claims in the history of popular music criticism has to be Pitchfork’s assertion that David Bowie’s Low album was the best album of the ’70s.
I don’t know what the best album of the ’70s was because I think all “best of all time” arguments are pointless exercises designed to stir up controversy, lure readers and increase ad revenue while giving people who have no lives a way to fill the empty spaces by arguing about nothing of consequence. I may think Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player of all-time; you might argue for Babe Ruth. Who gives a shit? What does it prove? Who decides who’s right?
One thing I do know is that Low was certainly not the best album of the ’70s. I can’t prove my assertion scientifically, but Low certainly doesn’t consistently engage me like London Calling, Who’s Next, Aqualung, Wish You Were Here . . . or Hunky Dory . . . or side two of Ziggy Stardust . . . or Heroes. I could fill this post with oodles of ’70’s albums that are far more compelling than this first leg of the so-called Berlin Trilogy (mostly recorded in France).
So if Low isn’t the greatest invention since the hand-held vibrator, what is it?
Low is an album that chronicles a very low period (hence the title) in David Bowie’s life when he was trying to recover from La-La-Land and a nasty cocaine habit. The most engaging aspect of the album is the presence of David Bowie stripped of the various persona he had adopted over the preceding years. Though the lyrics are sparse in the extreme, Bowie comes across as more human than at any time since Hunky Dory, displaying a healthy humility that he had lost during his theatrical period. Low feels like a healing experience, a necessary break from the past that gave him permission to seek a way out of the artistic cul-de-sac of the alt-persona era. He immersed himself in the German electronic-progressive scene by reaching out to bands like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, then formed a collaborative partnership with Brian Eno, who had already invented the term “ambient music” to describe his experimental work with electronica. The result of the internal and external influences is an introverted album dominated by song fragments and instrumental musings that range from yawners to keepers.
Some find the dominance of instrumental music on Low frustrating, while millennials who approach Low often feel puzzled and somewhat dismayed by what seems to be incredibly poor production. That impression comes from the fact that the electronic instruments of the ’70s and the techniques used to record them were primitive in comparison to today’s more advanced and sophisticated ways and means. If you approach the instrumentals expecting to hear the recording quality and instrumental clarity of works by Radiohead or Imogen Heap, you are going to be sorely disappointed. The experience of listening to Low is somewhat like the results that come from tinkering around with the various “voices” on an early 21st Century Yamaha keyboard—the oboe kinda sorta sounds like an oboe, the flute has the breathiness but lacks the overtones and the entire string section sounds like shit. I would suggest ignoring the instrumentation (when you can), adopting a forgiving attitude towards the production and focusing your attention on the compositional structure, for there are indeed a couple of pieces worth the effort. Another way to evaluate the quality of the compositions is to find a copy of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 1, “Low,” where the master of film music takes the instrumentals “Subterraneans” and “Warszawa” from the original album and the vocal mood piece “Some Are” (not included in the original Low release) to create a stunningly beautiful, cinematic music experience. The cinematic aspect of the music should not be overlooked, as Bowie had written several of the pieces for the film The Man Who Fell to Earth only to have the producer reject his work. While this brings up another obstacle to appreciating Low, (cinematic music is nearly always better in the context of a film), Glass has consistently and successfully overcome that obstacle, and I encourage listeners to find a copy of the symphony to better appreciate the fundamentally solid foundations of those two instrumental pieces.
Low opens with an instrumental, one for which Bowie originally intended to write lyrics but he was hampered by a still-recovering brain and couldn’t find the right words. Too bad, because “Speed of Life” really doesn’t work all that well as an instrumental, and the overlay of synthesizer and Chamberlin over traditional instruments makes for a very messy sound. The natural instruments generally outshine the electronics, with Carlos Alomar and George Murray making tasty contributions . . . but the drums . . . well, that’s a story in itself. Producer Tony Visconti applied a harmonizer to Dennis Davis’ drums, creating a cavernous sound that became all the rage with producers, much in the same way the gated drum sound created by Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel caused similar excitement. To my ears, they sound terribly sloppy, bleeding all over the track . . . but I’m a dinosaur when it comes to drums, strongly preferring the natural sounds of unfiltered skins to electronically-enhanced percussion. The song isn’t half bad and has a solid, sexy, boozy feel to it, but I find the drums and electronics annoying and the lack of lyrics a missed opportunity.
There are many missed lyrical opportunities on Low, as Bowie was going through a phase where he was “intolerably bored with conventional narrative rock and roll lyrics.” In fact, the strongest set of lyrics consist of the nine truncated lines and forty-five words of “Breaking Glass”:
Baby, I’ve been
Breaking glass in your room again
Don’t look at the carpet
I drew something awful on it
You’re such a wonderful person
But you got problems
I’ll never touch you
These cocaine memories are delivered in a naughty boy tone that hints at the first signs of healing: a healthy sense of humor. The minimalism works well here, capturing the anti-social behavior of the addict who redefines the problem as the uptight attitude of the straight embracing a bourgeois orientation towards material possessions. I rather like the song and David’s playful vocal; its one-minute-and fifty-three seconds of recording time classifies it as a fragment along the lines of “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” (without an elaborate supporting suite). I’m okay with that—though I’m not a fan of Abbey Road, those two moments raise my spirits, as does this tiny flash of wit.
“What in the World” features a noisy, sloppy arrangement that I find quite irritating, but I find some solace in the lyrics and the theme of the real person emerging from a socially-induced façade. The parallels between the storyline and Bowie’s experience in the glamorous, drug-filled façade of Los Angeles are obvious, especially in the denouement:
To be real me, to the real me
Under the cool, under the cool and under having a ball
What you gonna say to the real me, to the real me
From all I’ve read on the subject, this could be Bowie talking to himself, wondering if he still had the capability of connecting with his “real me.”
I find no such solace in “Sound and Vision,” a song that sounds like an electronically-enhanced throwback to Young Americans with lyrics lame enough to suit a disco crowd. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is far superior, a healthy dose of self-reflection concerning the dead-end of his L. A. experience. The mood established by David’s introverted, I-can’t-believe-this-was-me vocal, the repeated figures of electronica and the swerving tones of Ricky Gardiner’s guitar capture both the maddening uncertainty associated with a loss of personal control and a sense of hope that one can change the drug-driven script. Based on a real-life event where David crashed his Mercedes into the car of a dealer who had allegedly ripped him off and then spent the rest of the evening driving around in circles in an underground garage, “Always Crashing in the Same Car” is a tale of that rock-bottom place the addict has to find before recovery is possible.
And when you hit rock-bottom, the loneliness is often the most unbearable part of the experience. David’s wish for a steady companion is simply and beautifully expressed in “Be My Wife,” a song that starts out as a freewheeling bash with its ragtime piano but turns into something richer and deeper once he enters with his slightly forlorn vocal. The tension between music and vocal tone is resolved as the song progresses, settling into a minor key pattern that emphasizes the sad state of affairs. This is the least-electronic song on the album, but I disagree with the critics who describe it as the most conventional—the tension between instrumentation and vocal lifts “Be My Wife” above the run-of-the mill.
We now move forward into instrumental-only territory (not counting the scraps of nonsense lyrics on two tracks) with “A New Career in a New Town,” a piece that works on a structural basis with the introductory mood of anxious uncertainty captured in a soundscape mingling a melancholy flute-like sound with synthesized counterpoint, followed by music that attempts to reflect the exciting possibilities of newness. The problem is in the execution of the second section, where the instruments sound harsh and buzzy and the enhanced drums are placed too far forward in the mix. “Warszawa” is more successful in capturing the cold, gray mood of communist Poland in the early ’70s with its ominous bass tone foundation eventually supporting a synthesized harmonic counterpoint expressing the sad dreariness of it all. A key change accompanies a textural shift at about the four-minute mark, where we hear the sound of the human voice enmeshed in deep bass tones, cueing Bowie’s “lyrics.” Those lyrics are not in Polish, but pseudo-Eastern-European-sounding syllables—more like a chant from the era in Polish history when the West Slavic peoples migrated into the era, around 500 A.D. The melody was influenced by a Polish song performed by the Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble that Bowie picked up during a visit to Warsaw in 1973, and though the lyrics to “Warszawa” may not be authentic, Bowie certainly captured the evocative essentials. The piece ends with a reprise of the second section, giving this mood piece holistic credibility.
“Art Decade” attempts to capture the mood of another place, in this case a street in West Berlin. The piece was originally slotted for the shit pile because the simple piano arrangement wasn’t working, but Brian Eno came in and added some layers, then Bowie added some more and voilà, “Art Decade” made the cut. Personally, I think they should have left this rather tedious reflection in the shit pile. “Weeping Wall” gives Berlin another go, a piece oddly based on “Scarborough Fair” that introduces the basic melody of that tiresome old chestnut on what sounds like an electronic kazoo. Absolutely dreadful.
Bowie and Eno saved the best for last with “Subterraneans,” a third piece on the Berlin experience, this time attempting to evoke the feelings of those who found themselves stuck in East Berlin after the erection of the Berlin Wall. The base composition was designed during the Station to Station period, but Bowie and Eno added numerous overlays and edits during the Low sessions. Though “Subterraneans” serves as the closer on Low, Philip Glass used it for the first movement of the Low Symphony (with Warszawa as the third and final movement). Though I strongly prefer the authentic sounds of flutes and strings courtesy of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, the Low version is easily the best-engineered instrumental of the bunch, strengthened immeasurably by the finest saxophone solo of Bowie’s career. The heavy bass tones and background synth “orchestra” successfully project the emotional power in the piece, and though I do prefer the Glass version, I can certainly appreciate what Bowie and Eno created.
Low may not be the greatest album of the decade or even the best in Bowie’s catalog, but it does have value as a story of artistic entrenchment. David Bowie chose to leave the hellscape of his life in L.A. and his shifting identities, leaving commercial considerations for another day to explore different ways of expressing himself through music. This act of reinvention would inform all of his later work, all the way through the life-closing experience of Blackstar. It’s too bad that Bowie fanatics have made such a big deal about Low, distracting listeners from the more authentic narrative of an artist in search of self and new pathways to creation.